Tallying the New Bioethics Council

Has Leon Kass stacked the deck?


Last week President Bush appointed his new 18-member Council on Bioethics, charging them to "consider a range of bioethical matters connected with specific biomedical and technological activities, such as embryo and stem-cell research, assisted reproduction, cloning, uses of knowledge and techniques derived from human genetics or the neurosciences, and end-of-life issues. The Council may also study broader ethical and social issues, such as the protection of human subjects in research and the appropriate uses of biomedical technologies." The new Council is headed by University of Chicago bioethicist Leon Kass, who selected its other 17 members.

Let's stipulate that the Council is composed of very distinguished thinkers and researchers. However, examining Kass' roster, it becomes apparent that he has chosen many cronies that share his dour fears about the direction of medical progress.

Most of the members of the council are communitarians. They generally believe that modern American society focuses far too much on individual autonomy at the expense of social responsibility. They want to reshape American society around a set of core values and often hope for a larger role for religion in public policy and public discourse. A surprising number of the council members, including Kass, are closely associated with the neoconservative religious magazine First Things.

By examining the public records and comments of Kass' crew, it isn't hard to make educated guesses as to how they will come down on the three major controversies they will be contemplating: embryonic stem-cell research, therapeutic cloning (creating embryos using a patient's own cells to derive immune-compatible tissues for transplants), and reproductive cloning (making a full, living clone).

Let's start with the boss. Leon Kass is a physician and philosopher with a decidedly anti-modernist bent. A disciple of University of Chicago anti-modernist philosopher Leo Strauss, Kass has long believed that the Enlightenment was something of a mistake. In his view, its focus on individual rights and individual conscience undermines the traditional bases for morality.

With regard to embryonic stem cells and cloning, both therapeutic and reproductive, Kass has made it very clear that he finds the prospect "repugnant" and has testified before congressional committees that he favors criminalizing all human cloning research. So we have a certain three "no" votes against human embryonic stem-cell research, therapeutic cloning, and reproductive cloning.

What about the other Council members?

Robert P. George is a law professor at Princeton University and has been called "one of the country's most influential Catholic moralists." As my debate with him and Patrick Lee last year showed, he is fiercely against any type of research on human embryos. As a Catholic moralist he also opposes the creation of embryos for in vitro fertilization. George and Kass are both part of the First Things claque participating in its Ramsey Colloquium, established by that magazine as a counter-forum for conservatives to discuss bioethics. Both signed the Ramsey Colloquium's 1995 statement, "The Inhuman Use of Human Beings," which opposes all embryo research. At the first Council meeting, George flat-out declared, "Once we have a human embryo we have a new human being who is a subject of rights and protection." Again, three "no" votes.

Alfonso Gomez-Lobo is a metaphysician at Georgetown University whose newest book, Morality and the Human Goods, is a defense of traditional natural rights philosophy. Gomez-Lobo shares Kass' affection for the ancient philosophers. According to the publisher, the book deals with issues including abortion and euthanasia and "makes arguments consistent with Catholic teaching but is not based on theological considerations." In which case, I guess that would be another three "no" votes.

Mary Ann Glendon is a Harvard law professor. She is on the editorial board of First Things and along with Kass is a co-signer of the Ramsey Colloquium's denunciation of embryo research. Glendon also headed the Vatican's delegation to the U.N.'s Beijing Conference on Women. There she declared, "The Holy See in no way endorses contraception or the use of condoms, either as a family planning measure or in HIV/AIDS prevention programs." She has described embryo research as "morally repugnant." Another three "no" votes.

William B. Hurlbut is a physician and theologian who teaches medical ethics at Stanford University. "Even as our mastery over nature has escalated dramatically, our faith in the religious and philosophical groundings of our ethical traditions has been steadily eroded," worried Hurlbut at a conference on altruism in 1999. Perhaps we can discern his attitudes toward research on embryos by considering his statement at the Trinity Institute's "Who Are We?" conference: "Even in the womb of our mother, we begin a relational process that provides the pattern for full personhood. This primary grounding of communication and trust based on a shared, evolutionary biology and bridged by empathy becomes the foundation for language, culture, and moral awareness. Within this relational reality, we locate both our personal biography and the communion of love that reflects and reveals the spiritual source and significance of human life." Probably three more "no" votes.

Charles Krauthammer is a neoconservative psychiatrist and nationally syndicated columnist. As such he has a clear paper record of his views on cloning and embryo research. Krauthammer came out in favor of the House of Representative's effort to criminalize all human cloning research, both therapeutic and reproductive. He does say that he supports stem-cell research using embryos that are discarded from fertility clinics. So that's two "no" votes and one "yes" for stem-cell research.

William F. May is a theologian and emeritus professor of ethics at Southern Methodist University. May is a former president of the American Academy of Religion and a founding fellow of the first bioethical think tank, The Hastings Center. May is a deeply committed Christian who shares Kass' opposition to physician-assisted suicide. Probably three "no" votes.

Paul McHugh is a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University. He was a leader in the national campaign to debunk the fad for uncovering "repressed" memories, sometimes referred to as "false memory syndrome." A Roman Catholic, McHugh is a frequent contributor to First Things. He too opposes physician-assisted suicide. Contemplating his Catholicism, it's easy to conclude he's probably three more "no" votes.

Gilbert Meilaender is a theologian and professor of Christian ethics at Valparaiso University. He is on the editorial board of First Things, and participated in the Ramsey Colloquium, although he did not sign the group's statement on embryo research. However, he did sign "The America We Seek: A Statement of Pro-Life Principle and Concern" and wrote "Begetting and Cloning" in opposition to reproductive cloning, both of which appeared in First Things. A clear three "no" votes.

Francis Fukuyama is a professor of international economy at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies and author of the upcoming Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. Fukuyama, in testimony before a congressional committee, has already come out in favor of criminalizing all research on human cloning, both therapeutic and reproductive. However, this past August, he declared in The Wall Street Journal that he was in favor of research using stem cells derived from non-cloned human embryos. So two "no" votes on cloning, and one "yes" on stem cells.

Elizabeth Blackburn, a biochemist from the University of California San Francisco, is a truly distinguished researcher. Blackburn's breakthrough research on telomeres, the caps at the ends of chromosomes that keep them from unraveling, is providing profound insights on aging and cancer. No doubt Blackburn's stellar research record was important, but what else might recommend her to Kass? Kass has long been dubious of medical research that promises to extend human life indefinitely. In a recent essay denouncing medical research that seeks to extend human life as morally corrupt in First Things, Kass writes, "The finitude of human life is a blessing for every individual whether he knows it or not." It turns out that Blackburn, whose work on telomeres could lead to treatments that might forestall aging, has also worried about extending human longevity. "Do people want to live longer, really and truly?" Blackburn asked in the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 1999. She called for a public discussion on the direction of aging research. Still, I'll guess two "yes" votes for stem cells and therapeutic cloning, and one "no" on reproductive cloning.

Stephen Carter is a Yale law professor famous for wanting to open more space for the expression of traditional religious values in public policy. It is clear from two of his books, The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion and God's Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics, that Carter is sympathetic to Kass' worries about how modern society and liberal governance undermine traditional values. One would reasonably expect Carter to bring his strong religious values to the Council's deliberations on cloning and embryonic stem cells. I'll guess two "yes" votes for stem cells and therapeutic cloning, and one "no" for reproductive cloning.

Rebecca Dresser is a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis and a member of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM)'s Ethics Committee. This past August, in response to President Bush's decision to allow limited research on human embryonic stem cells, Dresser showed herself somewhat of a kindred spirit to Kass. She warned, "There is a widely held faith that research will rescue us from the burdens of being human–from the illnesses, suffering and death that go along with our status as biological organisms." Dresser continued, "By all means, let research on all kinds of stem cells proceed, but scientists and advocates need to be honest about the unknowns. They need to be forthcoming about the fact that stem-cell research is in the very early stages and any actual benefits to patients are a long way off." Evidently, she favors embryonic stem-cell research. As a member of ASRM's Ethics Committee she helped formulate that organization's official opposition to attempting reproductive cloning at this time. So two "yes" votes for stem cells and therapeutic cloning, and one "no" for reproductive cloning.

Daniel Foster is chairman of internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School and a world-famous diabetes researcher. One of the strongest patient advocacy groups in favor of embryonic stem-cell research is the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. So at the first meeting of the new Bioethics Council, Foster challenged the Kassian view and suggested that once safety concerns had been addressed, even reproductive cloning might one day be acceptable. Two "yes" votes on therapeutic cloning and stem cells, and maybe even a "yes" on reproductive cloning if he's convinced safety issues have been dealt with adequately.

Michael Gazzaniga is a brilliant neuroscientist at Dartmouth College. Gazzaniga apparently thinks that any mind/brain dualism is bunk. Kass was probably attracted to Gazzaniga because he shares his belief that there is an essential human nature shared by all human beings. "There isn't 10 cents worth of difference between the Kalahari bushman and the Oxford don," according to Gazzaniga. "The cultural patina is different to be sure but the basic drives and mental capacities are more similar than different." At the first Council meeting Gazzaniga compared using human embryonic stem cells to organ transplants. So apparently he doesn't fear that biotech might be leading us down a slippery slope where human nature might be transformed. I'm guessing two "yes" votes for human embryonic stem-cell research and therapeutic cloning and perhaps even a "yes" for reproductive cloning once it's safe.

Janet D. Rowley is a brilliant leukemia researcher and a professor of medicine at the University of Chicago. Her only connection with Kass appears to be that they both teach at Chicago. Very hard to predict, but probably two "yes" votes for stem cells and therapeutic cloning, but a "no" on reproductive cloning.

Michael Sandel is a Harvard University professor of government and dedicated communitarian. He once argued that communitarians would favor banning pornographic bookstores and regulating industrial plant closings in the name of community protection. At the first meeting of the Bioethics Council, Sandel suggested that embryos may fall somewhere between a human being worthy of respect and a "thing" open to use by others. "It may not be all or nothing," he said. So two "yes" votes for stem-cell research and therapeutic cloning, and a "no" on reproductive cloning.

James Q. Wilson is a brilliant neoconservative political scientist who has changed his mind on the issue of reproductive human cloning. Wilson once favored reproductive cloning, but later said that his views were now closer to those of Kass. With regard to his possible views on embryo research, Wilson has noted, "The moral debate over abortion centers on the point in the development of the fertilized ovum when it has acquired those characteristics that entitle it to moral respect." Wilson, who gives qualified assent to permitting abortions, has apparently not yet decided what those characteristics might be. Thus, two "yes" votes for stem-cell research and therapeutic cloning, but one "no" for reproductive cloning.

If the President's Council on Bioethics were to make its decisions by voting (which it will not) what's the tally? With only two possible qualified votes for reproductive cloning, the Council will essentially agree with the new report issued by the National Academy of Sciences to ban reproductive cloning until it can be shown to be safe (although most undoubtedly would want to ban it even if it meets that standard, notoriously hard to meet in this age of the precautionary principle).

The Council will likely oppose therapeutic cloning, by a vote of 10 against and 8 in favor.

Finally, the Council will be evenly split 9 to 9 on whether to approve of human embryonic stem-cell research on moral grounds.

Given what we can glean from their public records, we can assume that the Council is not likely to come out in favor of unfettered medical research in the area of stem cells, therapeutic cloning, and reproductive cloning. Given that fact, researchers had better worry a lot about what the Council is likely to recommend to the president.

As emeritus University of Virginia bioethicist John Fletcher has pointed out, "All of the (federal bioethics) commissions in the past have made recommendations that have had their effects in federal regulations. So they are a source eventually of regulations." Regulations like outright bans on certain biomedical practices, and even criminalizing mere research.