February 26, 2024

US bioethics council battered at both ends

Dr Leon Kass, chairman of the US President's Council on Bioethics After weathering three years of criticism for being a conservative, biased, unscientific influence on George W. Bush, the US President’s Council on Bioethics is now being thumped for lacking influence. Armed with records obtained under a Freedom of Information request, the Boston Globe found that the Oval Office has barely communicated with the Council since it was formed in 2001. In any case, it reports, the President’s mind about cloning and embryro research was probably made up before its long and gracefully written reports were sent to him. According to the Globe, the Council “served primarily to give an ideologically rigid president the veneer of open-mindedness”.

Nor did the Council’s four thick reports and anthology of literary texts dealing with issues like biotechnology, ageing, stem cells, cloning and IVF make a dint in public opinion. Bioethicist Arthur Caplan dismisses its achievements as “esoterica”. “They haven’t had anything to say about Americans lacking health insurance, research in the Third World, drug pricing,” he told the Globe.

Even more scathing was the judgement of bioethicist George J. Annas, of Boston University, and reproductive geneticist Sherman Elias, of Northwestern University, in a commentary in the leading journal Nature. The council had been responsible for making “public bioethics” so narrow and “embryocentric” that it has become “virtually irrelevant” to the rest of the world, they wrote. As a servant of the Bush administration, it had failed to address urgent bioethical issues which resulted from “an open-ended war on terror”. An independent, permanent bioethics commission is needed, they concluded, which could help develop a “global ethic”.

Unmentioned by its critics was the fact that the council has effectively been paralysed by irreconcilable differences amongst its members. When Bush set up the council, he chose members across the spectrum of opinion on the moral status of the embryo. As a result of his attempt to appear balanced, the council predictably split down the middle. It was unable to make recommendations which were in any way controversial, despite its “embryocentric” chairman, Dr Leon R. Kass, a doctor and philosopher from the University of Chicago.

To some extent Kass agrees with his critics. “Bioethics has not been terribly high on the radar screen of the administration since September 11, and no one can blame them,” he told the Globe. “They have by and large left us to set our own agenda.” He feels that hostility from scientists and bioethics colleagues has often been politically motivated. “I think the president appears to be a religious man… Most scientists hold a kind of Enlightenment view that religion is superstition and any man who’s seriously religious is by definition a fool.”