Sunday, March 07, 2004

Bioethics Council Update

Leon Kass'  Rejoinder
Council Membership Changes Still Are Questionable

Previously, I commented (see archive)  on the recent widespread criticism of the changes in the membership of the President's Council on Bioethics.  Since then, more information has become available, and more discussion has taken place.  Since this is an important matter, I have pulled together the most pertinent new information that I could find.  There are two reasons that this is important.  First, Bioethics is an important consideration in many of the most active areas of research in modern times.  (See the IRB Forum  including their open letter to Bush regarding the Council changes, Bioethics News, and Bioethics.com  for background.)   Second, the change in the membership of the Council is another instance of a systematic pattern of behavior by the Bush administration that casts an ideological veil over the government's use of scientific information. 

 Instapundit  has a link to Virginia Postrel's  commentary on Leon Kass' editorial  in the WaPo.  She links to a thoughtful  piece  in The Reason, by Ronald Bailey , who took the time to do some research on the backgrounds of the new Council members.  He points out what appear to be valid reasons to question the motivations behind the changes in the Council membership.  Additional commentary  is posted on The Carpetbagger Report.  Dr. Kass' editorial does not lay to rest the concern that has been raised about playing politics with science, which is what he set out to do.  My reasons for saying this follow the excerpts from his editorial. 

For the record, I commend Dr. Kass  for responding to public criticism.  The fact that he chose to respond in a forum such as WaPo indicates that he is taking the matter seriously.  Leon R. Kass, M.D., Ph.D., is the Addie Clark Harding Professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the College at the University of Chicago (on leave of absence) and Hertog Fellow in Social Thought at the American Enterprise Institute.

We Don't Play Politics With Science

By Leon Kass
Wednesday, March 3, 2004; Page A27

Even before the President's Council on Bioethics had its first meeting in January 2002, charges were flying that the council was stacked with political and religious conservatives, appointed to rubber-stamp the president's moral and political views. One newspaper story on the day of our first meeting even went so far as to compare us to the Taliban. [...]

Today those charges are swirling again, in response to three new appointments the president has made to the council, as we begin our second term. The charges were malicious and false then, as they are now.[...]

This council is easily the most intellectually and ethically diverse of the bioethics commissions to date. We have worked with mutual respect while not papering over our differences. No one who has attended any of our meetings or read the transcripts can believe that we do anything but serious and careful work, without regard to ideology, partisan politics or religious beliefs. Many of the remaining members are on record as disagreeing with the president on stem cell research policy. The council was and remains diverse by design.[...]

Their personal views on the matters to come before the council in the coming term are completely unknown, but I am confident that they will come to them only as a result of genuine reflection and a full consideration of all the scientific and other evidence. 

Our new members are all people of distinction, ethical seriousness and intellectual independence, with the sorts of competences we need for the new and different work ahead.

Unfortunately, these membership changes were met with unfounded and false charges of political "stacking" of the council. Such charges are as bogus today as they were when the council was formed. We shall continue to honor the diversities of our views, confident that the reports we write will contribute to public understanding and earn the respect of fair-minded readers.

I wish Dr. Kass provided a reference to the newspaper story that compared the Council to the Taliban.  That does seem to be an unfair comparison; I wanted to see it in context, so I ran a Netscape search on "Leon Kass" Taliban.  I did not find any newspaper articles; but, serendipitously, I did find an article in The Crisis (a Catholic magazine) entitled The Puzzle of Leon Kass  By Dana Wilkie, dated June 1, 2002.  Ms. Wilkie wrote the article after attending the Council's second meeting. 

The Crisis can hardly be considered to be a liberal news outlet, and the article is not an ideological condemnation of Dr. Kass.  Even so, Ms. Wilkie provides some information on his background that I find to be alarming:

Clearly, Kass’s writings and speeches establish him as a conservative in the classic sense. The man in the chairman's seat that February afternoon is as much noted for his writings on the Bible, Aristotle, and social mores as he is for his thoughts on the ethical questions that accompany advances in medical technology. Some even say Kass’s views cast him on the fringe of medical, scientific, and social consensus: He has questioned the use of cadavers for medical research and teaching, drugs designed to alter brain chemistry, and medicine’s efforts to prolong life. Kass has spoken against affirmative action and complained that women in their 20s are putting off having children as they build careers. He has written that the concept of safe, promiscuous sex is delusional, because even if contraception can prevent venereal disease and unwanted pregnancies, promiscuity remains dangerous spiritually and culturally: "Sexuality itself means mortality—equally for both man and woman," Kass has written. "Whether we know it or not, when we are sexually [promiscuous], we are voting with our genitalia for our own demise. ‘Safe sex’ is the self-delusion of shallow souls." He has also criticized society’s turn toward feminism, gay rights, divorce, single parenthood, sex outside marriage, and children born outside marriage.

(Again, I wish there were references.  I would like to see the context of the statement, "Sexuality itself means mortality—equally for both man and woman."  Obviously, both men and women are equally mortal, so what was his point?  It is true that sexuality leads to birth, which leads to death; again, what is his point?)

Ronald Bailey's article in The Reason addresses some points made by Dr. Kass.  Mr. Bailey takes issue with Dr. Kass' statement that the new Council members' "personal views on the matters to come before the council in the coming term are completely unknown."  He points out that the new members have published articles on the issues.  He cites some of what they have published.  Some of these citations indicate strong ideological positions that are congruent with those of the Bush administration.  He also points out that Kass attended a conference in which one of the new members spoke about human cloning.  These revelations cast doubt on the veracity of Kass' statement that the personal views are completely unknown. 

The article on The Carpetbagger site points out that Dr. Kass's editorial is mostly a recitation of the virtues of the new members.  This does nothing to refute the contention that the changes in the council membership were politically motivated:

Of course, no one has questioned the scholarship of the new members, rather, many scientists and public officials have charged the White House with playing politics with the entire commission. Kass seems to be intentionally missing the point.

To expand on this, I don't think anyone questions the qualifications of the new members.  Each individual does have something to contribute.  The problem has to do with the overall composition of the Council.  Dr. Kass claims that the composition "is the most intellectually and ethically diverse of the bioethics commissions to date."  This is questionable, but even if true, it is not reassuring.  Even if the current composition is the most diverse to date, is the diversity suitable to the public duty of the Council?  Or is it more suitable to the private purpose of our President?  I suppose the answer is implicit in the name of the organization: The President's Council on Bioethics.  Clearly, it is the President's  council, not the American People's council.  Yet it is the American People who are paying them.