Honoring the President’s Council on Bioethics

by The Center for Bioethics and Culture

In one of my recent articles, I suggested that we live amidst rampant moral confusion. And a long history of human ideas and events has escorted us to this point. As we continue to develop new technology, new medical procedures, and a slew of new ideas about these, there is no denying the corresponding ethical questions. But these ethical questions are not new: Is X morally right? Is it virtuous to do Y? Does Z promote human flourishing? Humanity has long pondered these questions.

We have always turned to our tribe’s wise men – our leaders, our gatekeepers – for the answers, and this is fitting. We seek the instruction of wisdom, justice, judgment and equity. Those who have wondered, asked, studied, experienced, and now know, can offer us insight about how to live excellently (read: virtuously) in the face of the complexities of technological advance and competing ideologies.

For the past seven years, we’ve turned to the President’s Council on Bioethics for just such clarity and insight about ethics and virtue. The Council was set up by executive order in November of 2001, with a charge to “be the conscience of the country.” I’d like to call attention to and gratefully applaud their contributions to the people of America during such morally confusing times. They have been an example of genuine moral inquiry and clarity, backed by scientific credibility. And the Council still holds a very special place in our minds and hearts at the CBC. Two of our six Paul Ramsey Award winners have served on the President’s Council for Bioethics: Edmund D. Pellegrino, M.D. (chairman of the Council from 2005 to 2009) and Gilbert C. Meilaender, Ph.D.

Other American ethical advisory groups have existed since 1974, but the most recent Council has set a challenging precedent with its diverse composition of perspectives, robust research methods, and thorough reports, which have faithfully and critically served not only the President, but also the American public.

The Council’s charter was last renewed on September 30, 2007, and with a clause establishing a two-year term for the group, that would have guaranteed operations until September 30 of this year — a full three months away. But earlier this month, the New York Times reported the early termination of the Council by the Obama administration. All it took was a letter with 24 hours’ notice (apparently given around June 10, 2009). No opportunity to reconvene for a meeting already planned for this month; no further work expended on the Council’s current reports-in-progress.

While it was expected that Obama would not renew the group’s funding for another two years, what is troubling about this early dissolution are the murky waters of White House commentary that surround it. The only hints of justification for the termination are accusations that the Council acted as “a philosophically leaning advisory group that favored discussion over developing a shared consensus,” and that “President Obama will appoint a new bioethics commission, one with a new mandate and that offers practical policy options.”

My gut reactions — which have remained as I’ve thought about it this week — were, Exactly why is it improper or ill fitting that a Council dedicated to bioethics be “philosophically leaning”? Second, How might a different bioethics commission that offers mere “practical policy options” not also lean toward philosophy?

The disbanded Council was created with a charge to “advise the President on bioethical issues that may emerge as a consequence of advances in biomedical science and technology…striv[ing] to develop a deep and comprehensive understanding of the issues that it considers.” I quote their stated mission from the original executive order:

  1. To undertake fundamental inquiry into the human and moral significance of developments in biomedical and behavioral science and technology;
  2. To explore specific ethical and policy questions related to these developments;
  3. To provide a forum for a national discussion of bioethical issues;
  4. To facilitate a greater understanding of bioethical issues; and
  5. To explore possibilities for useful international collaboration on bioethical issues.

Based on their 36 meetings’ worth of discussion, their 10 book-length reports, and countless background materials they have made public, the Council met their calling with true excellence. Here we saw not an idle, bureaucratic, political machine, but a meeting of minds with a goal of training the public in virtue. And those minds differed greatly on some issues. Robert George, who served as a member of the Council from its founding, lauds the great diversity that the Council established. Never intended to be a mere “rubber stamp” for political cover, the Council existed as a bi-partisan effort to effectively criticize the technological, biological and medical advances posed to Americans and the politics that surrounded them. They drew on bright expertise from various fields, all of which would be required of a bioethics council to operate soundly. They were doctors, bioresearchers, philosophers, theologians, lawyers, political scientists… Notice the balance: the hard-sciences, medicine, and the humanities were all represented.

And all of these credentials – diversity, academic excellence, guiding the public along narrow and convoluted ethical paths – cause me to reflect with skepticism on the reasons the Council was shut down. It sounds like the Obama administration is interested in answers without the due process of investigation. How can an ethics council of truly diverse opinion and perspective merely “offer practical policy options” without the “philosophically leaning…discussion”? I’m convinced that it simply cannot offer true, virtuous advice (let alone lead others in this way) without the complete consideration of the issues involved; that’s just what it is to “advise”!i And that means literary and philosophical meditations on Being Human, side-by-side with the scientific detail and facts of Monitoring Stem Cell Research.

Leon Kass, M.D., Ph.D., who served as Council chairman from 2001 to 2005 writes:

To enlarge our vision and deepen our understanding, we need to focus…on those aspects of “being human” on which technologies impinge and which they may serve or threaten. For bioethical dilemmas, though generated by novel developments in biomedical science and technology, are not themselves scientific or technological matters. They are human dilemmas…confronted by human beings…embedded in networks of meaning and relation, and informed by varying opinions and beliefs about…how we are to live. ii

As humans, we’re born with the innate capacity to become excellent, loving, moral individuals. But virtue is a learned thing. And it requires the multi-faceted training that our just-disbanded President’s Council on Bioethics so effectively offered. I know I join many of you in thanking the members of this Council for their example, their guidance, and the invaluable lessons in virtue they’ve provided for this country and the world.

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i Consider this parallel example: You can tell anyone how to operate a plane; but we only want thoughtful, well-trained pilots doing the flying. Similarly, you can tell anyone how to make a policy decision regarding biotechnology or medical advance, but it takes thoughtful, in-depth training to make a virtuous leader. And creating virtuous citizens has always been one of society’s greatest concerns.

ii Kass, Leon, Being Human: Core Readings in the Humanities, The President’s Council on Bioethics, Washington, D.C., December 2003.

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Evan Rosa is a CBC Staff Writer. Follow his personal blog at Cultural Velocity. He and his wife Lani will be pursuing degrees in Philosophy of Religion and Ethics at Talbot School of Theology this Fall.

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