A Diverse Bioethics Council?

President Bush created a council that represented the range of viewpoints held by reasonable and responsible Americans on the most urgent and divisive bioethics questions facing the country. Will President Obama do the same?

In 2002, when George W. Bush announced the names of his appointees to the President’s Council on Bioethics, there were liberal bioethicists who complained that the President had “stacked” the council with “religious conservatives” who shared his views on questions of embryonic stem cell research and “therapeutic cloning.” More than a few media outlets reported this claim as if it were a fact. It was, however, a spectacular falsehood. Nearly half of the eighteen members of the council fundamentally disagreed with the President on the key issues. Several had supported Vice President Gore over Bush in the election. The Bush council, chaired by Dr. Leon Kass, was the most intellectually and ideologically diverse bioethics advisory body ever constituted—far more diverse than its predecessor, the National Bioethics Advisory Commission under President Bill Clinton.

The Bush council included six members (Michael Sandel, Janet Rowley, William F. May, James Q. Wilson, Michael Gazzaniga, and Elizabeth Blackburn) who favored the production of human embryos for biomedical research in which they would be destroyed in the effort to obtain pluripotent stem cells. At least three additional members (Paul McHugh, Rebecca Dresser, and Francis Fukuyama) were not in principle opposed to “therapeutic cloning,” though they were willing to support a four year moratorium on the practice in the hope alternatives not involving cloning could be developed. At least one additional member (Charles Krauthammer), though opposed to the deliberate creation by cloning of embryos for research in which they would be destroyed, supported the revocation of President Bush’s funding restrictions on the use of embryos that had been produced by in vitro fertilization for reproductive purposes, but were left unused in cryopreservation units in assisted reproduction facilities.

Although President Bush got no credit for it, he had created a council that represented the range of viewpoints held by reasonable and responsible Americans on the most urgent and divisive bioethics questions facing the country. This enabled his council to produce reports that improved the quality of public debate by equipping citizens and policy makers with solid factual information vetted by experts representing different points of view on key ethical questions, and informing them of the best arguments available on competing sides of hot-button issues.

It is likely that President Obama will soon constitute a bioethics advisory council of his own. When he does, will he favor the country with a council as diverse as his predecessor’s? Will as many as a third of its members have been McCain supporters? Will nearly half hold strong pro-life views that contradict the President’s own beliefs about the moral status of the human embryo and related questions? Will Obama be as open to differing perspectives and ideas as Bush was?

If not, what will the bioethicists and others who originally complained about Bush allegedly “stacking” his council with like-minded people say? What will we hear from writers and commentators in the media who reported that Bush had stacked the Council with religious conservatives?

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. There is nothing inherently dishonorable about constituting a council this way, but when liberals (wrongly) thought it was what Bush had done, they cried foul.

In the all-too-likely event that the media adopts a double standard, there isn’t much that anybody can do about it. Conservative pundits will merely enjoy the cold comfort of saying “I told you so.” But if President Obama pushes aside Bush’s openness to a council that will provide him with a diversity of ideas and opinions, he and his party should not be permitted to benefit from a double standard. When the Republicans return to power, as sooner or later they will, this is one area in which they should follow Obama’s lead—in either direction.

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