We Don't Play Politics with Science

Even before the President's Council on Bioethics had its first meeting in January 2002, charges were flying that the council was stacked with political and religious conservatives, appointed to rubber-stamp the president's moral and political views. One newspaper story on the day of our first meeting even went so far as to compare us to the Taliban.

Today those charges are swirling again, in response to three new appointments the president has made to the council, as we begin our second term. The charges were malicious and false then, as they are now.

In a little over two years, the council has issued three major reports (on human cloning, on enhancement uses of biotechnology and on stem cell research), with a fourth due in April (on regulating biotechnologies touching the beginnings of human life). We have also issued an anthology of readings on "Being Human" to contribute to public understanding of the deeper issues of bioethics. While some have taken issue with this recommendation or that conclusion, these reports have been widely praised--in the Hastings Center Report, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times Magazine, among others--for their balance, thoughtfulness, accuracy, moral seriousness and respect for competing opinions. In the cloning report, we offered powerful arguments both for and against cloning for research. Despite large differences regarding the moral status of human embryos, we have issued a unanimous document on the current state of stem cell research. Our forthcoming report has found common ground between liberals and conservatives, pro-lifers and pro-choicers, for near-unanimous public policy recommendations.

This council is easily the most intellectually and ethically diverse of the bioethics commissions to date. We have worked with mutual respect while not papering over our differences. No one who has attended any of our meetings or read the transcripts can believe that we do anything but serious and careful work, without regard to ideology, partisan politics or religious beliefs. Many of the remaining members are on record as disagreeing with the president on stem cell research policy. The council was and remains diverse by design.

As the council enters its second two-year term, there have been a few changes in our membership. Council member William F. May, having recently entered retirement, indicated his interest in stepping down at the end of the two years he had agreed to serve. May has been a stellar member of the council, universally respected. To our great pleasure, he has happily agreed to serve as a senior consultant for the council's new work on aging and the care of the elderly. In addition, one distinguished scientist on the council--Elizabeth Blackburn, an expert in cell biology--has been replaced by another distinguished scientist-physician--Ben Carson, chair of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Medical Center. Although her important work kept her from attending many council meetings, Dr. Blackburn contributed a great deal of expertise and insight, and charges that her replacement is in any way connected to opinions she expressed are simply false--as any review of the council's meetings or work, or of the views of other remaining members, would reveal. Most fundamentally, this change reflects the changing focus of the council's work, as we move away from issues of reproduction and genetics to focus on issues of neuroscience, brain and behavior.

Dr. Carson (who had been approached more than two years ago to serve on the council but was then unable to serve) is a world-renowned physician, a keen booster of science and medical advance, and deeply devoted to the relief of human suffering. In our new areas of inquiry, we will be much aided by his expertise and his profound understanding of the needs of patients and the larger community.

Two additional members are joining the council, to replace Dr. May and Stephen Carter, a member who left in 2002. Peter Lawler, a distinguished political philosopher and student of American government, has written searchingly about the psychology of mood-altering drugs and the way the growing use of such drugs might affect the character of American society. Diana Schaub, a young political scientist and also a student of literature, has written insightfully about the attitudes of the young and the old, a perspective crucial to understanding the way society will confront its aging demographics.

Both are known among their colleagues for their openness to discourse and their devotion to public deliberation and democratic decision-making. Their personal views on the matters to come before the council in the coming term are completely unknown, but I am confident that they will come to them only as a result of genuine reflection and a full consideration of all the scientific and other evidence.

Our new members are all people of distinction, ethical seriousness and intellectual independence, with the sorts of competences we need for the new and different work ahead.

Unfortunately, these membership changes were met with unfounded and false charges of political "stacking" of the council. Such charges are as bogus today as they were when the council was formed. We shall continue to honor the diversities of our views, confident that the reports we write will contribute to public understanding and earn the respect of fair-minded readers.

Leon R. Kass is the Hertog Fellow at AEI and chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics.

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