By Peter J. Smith
The New York Times reported that Reid Cherlin, a White House press officer, told the paper that President Barack Obama saw them as "a philosophically leaning advisory group" designed by the previous Bush administration, and he wanted to appoint a new bioethics commission which instead "offers practical policy options."
Dr. Alta Charo, an ethicist at the University of Wisconsin, told the Times that a new bioethics commission should form an ethically defensible public policy for the government instead of being what she said “seemed more like a public debating society.”
The presidential council’s mandate was set to expire in September. The group still had one last meeting and some reports to finish, including one on organ markets, before they were abruptly dissolved with one day’s notice.
The move has prompted speculation that the advisory committee’s public dissent from the President’s executive order to fund new lines of embryonic stem-cells and begin cloning human embryos for scientific research may have precipitated their dismissal.
Earlier in March, 10 out of 18 members of the council had issued a public letter to President Obama expressing their dismay, calling the decision to devote taxpayer dollars to such embryo-destroying research “a step backward,” because it did not respect the moral and ethical reservations that still exist among the American public.
Obama’s executive order overturned restrictions put in place by the Bush Administration, and instructed the National Institute of Health to develop new guidelines and put them in place by July 7.
Dr. David Prentice, a Senior Fellow for Life Sciences at the Family Research Council noted in an article on the FRC blog that Obama likely dismissed them before the expiration of their work since, “It would be embarrassing to have another round of criticism from an existing ‘President’s Council.’”
President Bush had created the President's Council on Bioethics in November 2001 as an advisory board on bio-ethical issues after he decided to allow federal funding for human embryonic stem-cell research, but limited the research to 21 stem-cell lines already in existence. That council replaced an earlier advisory bioethics committee to President Clinton, which had expired by then.
"We have to ask why the President has disbanded this effective and well-regarded council,” protested Daniel McConchie, Vice President of Government Affairs for the Americans United for Life (AUL). “Is this a move toward a council that is more of a rubber stamp of his administration's priorities, rather than a group that actively debates current issues with all perspectives having a seat at the table?"
Dr. Peter Lawler, a member of the terminated bio-ethics council, states that President Bush had convened a council not for the sake of giving his policies an imprimatur, but had given them “the additional mandate of public education, of developing a national dialogue on controversial bioethical issues.”
“The truth is that the Kass Council was full of experts who disagreed on what the science says about who we are,” writes Dr. Peter Lawler, a member of the disbanded council, in a reflection written for the Weekly Standard.
Lawler points out that the council’s experts, such as Robert George of Princeton, leading neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, Francis Fukuyama, all had profoundly differing views on the status of human embryos.
“I want to emphasize that this was a scientific dispute on the moral implications of what the studies show conducted at the highest level,” wrote Lawler. “Socratic dialogue illuminated the disagreement and allowed those involved to remain friends in common pursuit of the truth, but no expert consensus emerged.
“No Council member was ideological in the sense of having anything but the highest respect for and full openness to what we can learn from science. And if expert means being a genuine scientific authority, they were all clearly among our nation's most formidable experts,” he said.
“There's no substitute, in a democracy, for thinking together about who we are before deciding what to do, and it's not ‘anti-science’ to sometimes conclude that science alone doesn't resolve every dilemma we face about human freedom and dignity.”
A view of the reports by the US Bioethics Council and previous commissions can be obtained here