Tuesday, May 20, 2008

National Bioethics Commissions and Partisan Politics

No doubt most academics working in bioethics recall with some disappointment (quite a few of us might well be inclined to choose stronger words) the reign of Leo Kass as chairman of US President Bush’s National Council on Bioethics. Dr Kass managed to discredit the Council within a few years because of his partisan political use of the taxpayer funded advisory body. Many breathed a sigh of relief when one of the elder statesmen (and women) of US bioethics, Edmund Pellegrino, was appointed to replace Dr Kass. However, the partisan political manipulation of the supposed National Council on Bioethics seems to continue under Dr Pellegrino’s leadership. A new book produced by the Council gives testimony to this. Human Dignity and Bioethics aims to defend the fundamentally religious notion against its secular critics. This almost certainly would be fair game if Georgetown University Press had published such a book, but it is far from clear that such a volume is called for from a taxpayer funded, supposedly national bioethics commission. The views expressed in the volume do represent arguably those of a minority of scholars within bioethics. The Bush administration has consistently shown itself to be anti-science, be it in its manipulation and censorship of scientific data on global warming or its activities aimed at preventing the utilization of tax monies for therapeutic cloning research. It was worrisome when the US President decided to appoint another Christian bioethicist to head the National Council on Bioethics. Unlike Dr Kass, however, Dr Pellegrino can look back on a long and very distinguished record in bioethics. It is unfortunate, that he has chosen, much like his predecessor, to use the national commission for partisan political purposes yet again. One of the questions this raises – not for the first time – is that of the proper role of national bioethics commissions. There can be no doubt, however, whatever one’s answer to this question is, that John Rawls was correct when he argued that national commissions in pluralistic societies should not take substantive positions on ethical rights and wrongs. Arguably the proper function of such commissions is to inform public debate and government, but not to provide a biased view toward one position or another. Dr Pellegrino and his fellow council members seem to beg to differ. However, moving away for a moment from the US situation, and thinking about Iran, makes more obvious the professional concerns one should have with Dr Pellegrino and the current US national bioethics commission. Think how the bioethics community would respond if Mr Ahmedinejad constituted an Iranian bioethics commission. He would carefully choose a fellow conservative Muslim scholar. That conservative Muslim scholar and his fellow national bioethics commissioners would subsequently produce many booklets pronouncing on controversial issues in bioethics. Not a single one of the publications ever produced by the Iranian national bioethics commission would reflect in any meaningful way the bioethics discussion either in his country or elsewhere in the world, but the commission would certainly succeed in pleasing Mr Ahmedinejad. No doubt most professional bioethicists would find it all rather farcical. The US National Council on Bioethics under its two most recent leaders has well succeeded in reducing what has once been an influential voice in bioethics to pretty much that, a partisan political loud speaker that is more or less ignored by bioethicists and ridiculed in mainstream mass media. The reason is that the obvious abuse of tax monies and public institutions by partisan political operators has not gone unnoticed.

An interesting exchange of views at Stanford University exemplifies professional concerns with partisan bioethics politics. Dr Pellegrino went to give a talk at the university, reportedly to defend the content of the book, and to argue that dignity not utility should govern bioethics. This is a reasonable position to hold, and many continental European bioethicists will agree with Pellegrino, but equally very many bioethicists (the writer of this Editorial included) would disagree. In response to Pellegrino Stanford Law Professor Hank Greely argued that ,” I don’t see why the human species as a whole is inherently entitled to dignity. If it turns out we encounter non-human persons, either biological, mechanical or computational, earthly or alien, I think dignity should apply to them as well. Furthermore, the idea that the species as a whole has some essence that shouldn’t be violated strikes me as way too abstract.”

The take-home message here is not that Pellegrino is ‘wrong’ and Greely is ‘right’, but that it is difficult to accept that a national bioethics commission should take or propagate a substantive position on such issues. I urge Dr Pellegrino to reconsider how he continues the work of the US national bioethics commission. There is still time to restore its prestige to what it once has been – as it happens Human Dignity and Bioethics is not the right way to go about this.

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