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The current First Things (June/July 2010) has an important article by Eric Cohen and Yuval Levin—both of whom were staffers on the President’s Council on Bioethics under Leon Kass. They note that President Obama has profoundly downplayed bioethics in his presidency so far—other than rescinding the Bush ESCR policy (and I would add the unconscionable revocation of the Bush requirement that the Feds give priority to non embryonic methods of developing pluripotent stem cells).  Moreover, they point out that Obama was very slow in creating a replacement panel to the President’s Council, called the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.  Moreover, unlike Kass and his replacement Edmund Pelligrino, the leaders of the Presidential Commission will not take a hiatus from their full time day jobs as university presidents, meaning the Presidential Commission will not be able to be as rigorous in pursuing these issues as its predecessors under both Presidents Clinton and Bush.

I have noticed this as well, but had not connected the dots as to the why of the matter. Cohen and Levin do.  From their article, “Nothing to See Here” (no link):

The that the commission seems designed to keep bioethics out of the news...Its charter...repeatedly inisists that the commission should focus on specific and programmatic policy questions  The president stressed the same point in the statement the White House released at the time: “This new commission will develop its recommendatons through practical and policy-related analyses.” The idea, no doubt, was to distinguish the focus of this commission’s approach from the broader and deeper approach of the Bush council, whose won charter said its foremost task was “to undertake fundamental iquiry into the human and moral significance of developments in biomedical and behavioral science and technology” and whose work...was sometimes described as too ethereal.

And the point?  To head off public debate about the deeper issues that matter most (my perspective) in determining the morality of society:
If the primary question guiding the commission is not what but how, the range of topics it may examine is constrained—as so much of bioethics in recent decades has been—to utilitarian concerns and matters of procedure. As with the president’s implicit assertion that there is no debate to be had about embryo research, the idea is to treat the basic ethical questions as closed and to relegate the questions that remain to the judgment of experts.  These remaining questions involve, for instance, not whether we should pursue the destruction of nascent life for research but how; not what advances in biotechnology mean for our humanity but how they can be made available to all.

That understates the stakes. But what is already abundantly clear—contrary to his campaign rhetoric—is that the POTUS is not interested in democratic discourse and reaching across societal divides to reach consensus policies that unite rather than divide.  Rather, he is interested in imposing his views into public policy.

Cohen and Levin throw down a gauntlet:
Of course, the commission’s members may not let themselves be used in this way—as silencers of fundamental ethical and philosophical debates—and there is surely room to hope that they will contribute to public understanding of some of the most vexing and important questions of the coming years. But those who want to advance such understanding, and to persuade the public of the need to defend human dignity and human life in the age of biotechnology, need to do more than hope.  They need to think, and they need to act...

A first step, which will be launched in the coming months under the auspices of the Witherspoon Institute, is to create a shadow commission that convenes and rallies the best scientists and ethicists to think and to act. But a reinvigorated bioethics will require as well apolitical leader who sees the bioethics agenda as central to the defense of American civilization in the years ahead.  Otherwise, we will continue down a troubling path—seeking the power to make life better but lising the moral authority to distinguish better from worse.

Sound like a worthwhile and very important initiative to me.  I will report here as events unfold.

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