Saturday, February 28, 2004

Strange Way To Run An Ethics Board
Crotalus horridus, (timber rattlesnake) ventral view

(Link found via Calpundit; other bloggers weigh in at Norwegianity, On the Third Hand, Cyborg Democracy, |span|; conservative blogs are oddly silent on the issue, at least those searchable via RSS feeds.  The apparently nonpartisan blog, The Longevity Meme, also has an article on the subject; also see Gina Smith's BIOTECH, for background.)

Bush Ejects Two From Bioethics Council
Changes Renew Criticism That the President Puts Politics Ahead of Science

By Rick Weiss
Saturday, February 28, 2004; Page A06

President Bush yesterday dismissed two members of his handpicked Council on Bioethics -- a scientist and a moral philosopher who had been among the more outspoken advocates for research on human embryo cells.  In their places he appointed three new members, including a doctor who has called for more religion in public life, a political scientist who has spoken out precisely against the research that the dismissed members supported, and another who has written about the immorality of abortion and the "threats of biotechnology."

The turnover immediately renewed a recent string of accusations by scientists and others that Bush is increasingly allowing politics to trump science as he seeks advice on ethically contentious issues.  [...] 

One of the dismissed members, Elizabeth Blackburn, is a renowned biologist at the University of California at San Francisco. She said she received a call yesterday morning from someone in the White House personnel office.

"He said the White House had decided to make some changes on the council. He wanted to express his gratitude and said I'd no longer be on the council," Blackburn said.

She said she had no warning and had not heard from the council's director, University of Chicago ethicist Leon Kass. She said she believed she was let go because her political views do not match those of the president and of Kass, with whom she has often been at odds at council meetings.

"I think this is Bush stacking the council with the compliant," Blackburn said. [emphasis mine]

The other dismissed member, William May, an emeritus professor of ethics at Southern Methodist University, is a highly respected scholar whose views on embryo research and other topics had also run counter to those of conservative council members. Efforts to reach him last night were unsuccessful.

Asked why Blackburn and May had been let go, White House spokeswoman Erin Healy said the two members' terms had expired in January, and they were on "holdover status." Asked whether, in fact, all the council members' terms had formally expired in January, she said they had.

Here are the White House's blurbs on Drs. Blackburn and May:

Elizabeth Blackburn, Ph.D.
Council Member

Elizabeth Blackburn, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, University California San Francisco.
Elizabeth Blackburn, Ph.D.
Professor Blackburn, a distinguished cell biologist whose research is on telomerase and chromosome telomere structure, holds a number of awards and prizes, including the California Scientist of the Year Award (1999); American Association for Cancer Research-Pezcoller Foundation International Award for Cancer Research (2001); the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation Alfred P. Sloan Award (2001); and the 26th Annual Bristol-Myers Squibb Award for Distinguished Achievement in Cancer Research (2003). She is an elected Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Sciences (1993), and was elected as a Member of the Institute of Medicine (2000). Dr. Blackburn is an elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1991); the Royal Society of London (1992); the American Academy of Microbiology (1993); and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (2000). She has also served as President of the American Society for Cell Biology (1998).

William May, Ph.D.William May, PhD

Council Member

William F. May, Ph.D. Cary M. Maguire Professor of Ethics Emeritus, Southern Methodist University. Professor May, a distinguished and widely respected medical ethicist, was until last June head of the Maguire Center of Ethics at SMU. He is also a founding fellow of the Hastings Center for Bioethics. His numerous books include Beleaguered Rulers: The Public Obligation of the Professional (2001) and The Physician's Covenant : Images of the Healer in Medical Ethics (1983); and The Patient's Ordeal (1991).

Now, let's think about this for a bit.  The White House spokesperson, Erin Healy, stated the two members' terms had expired in January, and they were on "holdover status."  This is a lie of omission.  She, and by extension, her boss George W. Bush, are lying about the Ethics Board.  Why even bother to have an ethics board?  They hire these folks at taxpayer expense, purportedly to provide counsel on ethics, when in fact that is not their purpose.   Although we can't be certain what the motive was for these two dismissals, Dr. Blackburn's statement, "I think this is Bush stacking the council with the compliant,"  is fairly telling.  Also, there is the timing of the dismissals.  Gina Smith's site refers to the fact that the Council had just released a report on stem cells.  Apparently, the report -- more than 400 pages -- contained no conclusions.  (Your tax dollars at work, again.) Unfortunately, the source (biomedcentral) for Smith's post is a website that is "under construction" at this time.  Google's cached version is available, however.  (Don't you just love Internet technology?)  It includes the following:

[...]council member Robert P. George, director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, labeled the report “descriptive not prescriptive.” He told The Scientist that for now, making recommendations is difficult given the “unbridgeable divisions within the council” with regard to issues such as determining the moral status of the embryo—disagreements, he suggested, that reflect divisions in the public at large.[...] [emphasis mine]

Underscoring the point that the whole exercise was a waste of money, the biomedcentral article includes the following:

Goldstein, who is chair of the Public Policy Committee at the American Society for Cell Biology, also criticized the science section of the report. “The administration has wasted its money by having a duplicate scientific review,” he said, suggesting that NIH and the National Academy of Sciences would have been better qualified to assemble such a synthesis.

Crotalus horridus, Timber rattlesnake, ventral view This indicates that the report was not really an ethics report.  It was a scientific review.  We already have agencies that do scientific reviews.  The Council for Bioethics is not needed for that purpose.  Although I cannot read minds, and thus cannot be certain of the reason for the two dismissals, there is clear and convincing evidence that the dismissals were politically motivated.  There is Dr. Blackburn's comment ("I think Bush is stacking the Council"), Dr. George's reference to "unbridgeable divisions" within the Council, the timing of the dismissals (right after the stem cell report), and the fact that the report does not end up with any conclusions.

I was upset before, when I learned about how the Administration misrepresents science (1 2).  But misrepresenting ethics has got to be worse: lower than a rattler's belly, as they say in Texas.
Crotalus horridus, (timber rattlesnake) ventral view