In spite of promises to listen to many viewpoints in an open and
honest dialogue over tough issues, President Obama wants none of it on
bioethical issues. So, though the services of the
longstanding President’s Council on Bioethics are certainly needed in this ‘brave new world’, they are not welcomed.

Within the recesses of the US Department of Health and
Human Services, the President’s Council on Bioethics quietly went about
its work, as it had done, under various titles and different mandates,
for over 30 years. However, during the week of June 8, 2009, council
members received letters from President Obama letting them know their
services were no longer required. The present council will be shutting
its doors.

Not related to HHS, but only housed there for administrative
reasons, the present council was established by President George W.
Bush’s executive order in November 2001…

With a new president in office now, the present bioethics council’s
term was set to expire on September 30, 2009. The abrupt early
disbanding of the council led to the cancelation of a meeting planned
for late June, which was to include, among other things, reflections
from council members on “The Future of National Bioethics Commissions.”

According to a White House deputy press spokesman, President Obama
will appoint a new bioethics commission, one with a “new mandate” which
“offers practical policy options.”

After letters were sent out disbanding the membership of
the present council, President Obama’s press office stated that the
membership chosen by President Bush was considered to be “a
philosophically leaning advisory group.”

That’s a misrepresentation.

According to the Times, White House press officer
Cherlin said the Bush council “favored discussion over developing a
shared consensus.”

Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton
and a member of Bush’s council, agrees with this assessment, saying
that from its inception, Bush asked that the council offer a variety of
views on any given issue rather than try to reach consensus in their
deliberations.

Isn’t Obama always insisting on dialogue? Discussion is bi-partisan,
fair and reasoned. It’s open to opposing views, rather than
rubber-stambing an ideology.

George suggested that during the Bush presidency, the
media and others believed the council membership favored Bush’s
conservative religious leanings. But George denied that theory, saying
that the council chaired by Leon Kass “was the most intellectually and
ideologically diverse bioethics advisory body ever constituted.”

Writing in January 2009 for the Witherspoon Institute on its
website, Public Discourse, George explained that the notion that the
makeup of the council was heavily weighted toward “religious
conservatives” under President Bush was a false assumption. In fact,
almost half of the 18 members disagreed with many of the president’s
stances on key issues; several members had voted for Al Gore in the
previous presidential election.

Furthermore, on the issue of embryonic stem-cell research alone, six
of the members supported the creation and destruction of human embryos
for research purposes, one was in favor of revoking Bush’s funding
restrictions on using frozen embryos from fertilization clinics for
research, and three other members were unopposed to “therapeutic
cloning,” George wrote.

Members of that council had great respect for each other’s views and ability to engage the debates fairly and honorably.

Both chairmen (Dr. Leon Kass and Dr. Edmund
Pelligrino) are well-respected among their peers, even those who
disagree philosophically with them. According to fellow bioethicist Tom
L. Beauchamp—who is a liberal by his own admission—Pelligrino is
“scrupulously fair in attempting to understand and react to an
opponent’s positions. He will meet the issues head-on, and he deserves
the same respect from the bioethics community that I have always seen
him accord to others.” 

Dr. Kass’ approach to the council’s deliberations was demonstrated
in a teleconference in May 2005 with members of the media, in which he
discussed the council’s considerations of the controversy over
alternative sources of human pluripotent stem cells.

He stated that even though there was a split recommendation on the
ethics of doing cloning for biomedical research, the council agreed
that all parties in the debate “have concerns vital to defend, vital
not only to themselves but to all of us” and that no one “can afford to
be callous to the needs of suffering humanity, or cavalier about the
treatment of nascent human life, or indifferent to the social effects
of adopting one course of action rather than another,” he emphasized.

As members of a national bioethics body, Kass explained, “we are
mindful of the need to understand and respect the strongly held ethical
views of our fellow citizens even when we do not share them.” He stated
that they would be receptive “to any creative, scientific, or technical
suggestions that might find a way around this ethical dilemma and
ethical impasse we face, [enabling] scientists to proceed with their
research in ways that neither raise ethical questions nor violate the
ethical principles of many Americans.”

This is the council Obama decided to shut down.

Lawler fears that in Obama’s concept of the President’s
Council, “there’s no need for such moral and political discussion,
because the experts know the non-ideological and objective answers to
the questions that face us in our high-tech and increasingly biotech
world.” In this world, he said, “personal opinion is trumped by what
the ‘studies show,’ while public opinion should be guided toward a
consensus based on those studies.”

Back in January, Princeton Professor Robert George, one of the esteemed members of the now-disbanded council, wrote  in Public Discourse
– prophetically as it turns out – about the uncertain future of an
Obama bioethics advisory commission. And how the public would even know
how it’s conducting such critical matters as ethic and science.

During the recent campaign, many conservative pundits
complained that the media was in the tank for Obama. It looks like we
will now get a straightforward and decisive test of the media’s
objectivity. Writers such as Rick Weiss of the Washington Post were
wrong about Bush. He did not stack his bioethics council with people
who agreed with him. What if Obama does just that, though? Will the
public be told? Or will the media apply a double standard? If Obama
stacks his council with social liberals, will the contrast with the
Bush council be noted? Or will the media implicitly adopt the view that
a council stacked with liberals isn’t really “stacked”?

Regardless of what the media does, future Republican and
conservative presidents should be guided by Obama’s decision. If he
follows Bush’s lead and appoints a diverse council, they should do the
same. His decision would ratify a certain way—entirely noble—of using
bioethics advisory councils to enhance the overall quality of
deliberation and debate. If, however, Obama repudiates Bush’s openness
to permitting a range of voices on the council, including a fair
representation of dissenters from his own views, then future Republican
and conservative presidents should not allow themselves to be played as
fools. Obama will have established different terms for conducting the
debate—terms according to which the role of bioethics councils is to
advance the president’s own preordained agenda on bioethics questions,
not to provide thoughtful argumentation enriched by the inclusion of
perspectives that are critical of the president’s beliefs.

Two concluding thoughts. One, as George states in the next sentence, ‘when liberals thought that’s what Bush had done, they cried foul.’ They likely will not do so if Obama actually
does it. And two….Obama has so far shown little tolerance for
“perspectives that are critical of the president’s beliefs”, now that
he is president.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....