Earlier this week, members of the President’s Council on Bioethics were told by the White House that their services were no longer needed. President Obama’s decision was made and implemented in his typical style—gracious, pragmatic, and imprudent. According to the New York Times, the council was disbanded because it was designed by the Bush administration to be “a philosophically leaning advisory group” that favored discussion over developing a shared consensus. The new bioethics commission appointed by Obama will have a new mandate to offer “practical policy options.”
In other words, the Obama administration already knows where it stands on all those pesky moral issues like human cloning, chimeras, and euthanasia, and just needs a group to provide advice on how to implement its preferred policies. Whereas the previous councils wrestled with such questions as “What is the nature of human dignity?” the new one will most likely be addressing more practical policy options, such as “How much should we pay women to harvest their eggs for cloning?”
The previous councils appointed by President Bush were accused of being ideologically biased. And so they were. Most of the members appeared to have a bias in favor of dignity and against giving free reign to technological innovations that alter our identity as humans.* The new council, of course, will also be ideologically biased, though likely in a more narrow way that is in line with progressive bioethics. (To predict where the new council will stand you merely have to ask, “What would Art Caplan do?”)
To the electoral victor goes the electoral spoils, so Obama’s disbanding is neither surprising nor unprecedented. It is, however, lamentable, if for no other reason than that they will no longer be producing rich, nuanced works of philosophical reflection. Bioethics commissions have been around since the mid-1970s but under Leon Kass and later Edmund Pellegrino the council created a new literary genre of government documents: pythonic guides to policy.
Take, for example, their report Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness. For such a work of high literary and philosophical quality to come from a government body is nothing sort of miraculous. Even those critical of President Bush were able to recognize its uniqueness. As bioethicist Carl Eliot wrote in Slate in 2004,
The truly striking thing about Beyond Therapy is how just radically at odds it is with mainstream American culture, right and left alike. The report is skeptical of America’s faith in technology, worried about America’s radical individualism, alarmed at the transformation of medicine from a profession into a business, and deeply concerned about the role of the market in driving the demand for new medical technologies. Beyond Therapy may not please many bioethicists, but neither will it please the libertarian or the business-conservative wings of the Republican Party. When was the last time you heard a Republican complain, as the council does, that the pharmaceutical industry is expanding diagnostic categories as a way of selling drugs or express concern that it “can manufacture desire as readily as it can manufacture pills”? As much as it pains me to admit that anything worthwhile could come from a council appointed by the Bush administration, Beyond Therapy is a remarkable document: gracefully written, thoroughly researched, ideologically balanced, and philosophically astute. It will be a benchmark for all future work on the topic.
Such works are not produced under a mandate to create a shared consensus around practical policy options. That is why we can expect the Obama council to produce government reports that read like . . . well, like government reports. After all, if you want people to blindly follow your lead on policy the last thing you want them to do is to think deeply about the issues involved.
Though the Kass and Pellegrino councils exist no more, we can still hold out hope that they will carry on with their work. Perhaps they will form a council-in-exile that will continue to think and write about these issues. What they’ve produced is invaluable but much more is needed still. We need them to help prepare for a future age when the American people decide to let human dignity, rather than progressive-minded pragmatism, be our guide on matters of bioethics.
*You might call this the First Things bias since out of the twenty-seven council members, five have a close association with this journal. Four of our editorial board advisers—Jean Bethke Elshtain, Robert George, Mary Ann Glendon, Gilbert Meilaender— are current or former members of the council as was Peter Lawler, one of our bloggers. Another board member—Eric Cohen—was a senior consultant, while a contributing writer—Yuval Levin—was the council’s executive director from 2003 to 2005.