Science & Technology

Leon Kass Learns to Spin

Sage of bioethics wants you to think he knows nothing


In today's Washington Post, Leon Kass, chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, pens an op/ed entitled "We Don't Play Politics With Science," wherein he tries to explain the appointment of three new members to the council and justify the sacking of two members who disagreed with him and the President and.

First, Kass claims that bioethicist William May asked to leave, so that's fine. But did May ask to go or was he pushed? In December, May dared to criticize President Bush's flawed Medicare prescription benefit plan, which might well have put him on a White House hit list. And then, using that peculiarly oblique form of speech known as "spin," Kass simply praises University of California San Francisco researcher Elizabeth Blackburn and then moves quickly on with absolutely no explanation for why she was fired.

Kass then properly cites the genuine accomplishments of the three new, more conservative appointees; but then, disingenuously, he writes "Their personal views on the matters to come before the council are completely unknown…" Say what?

While Kass may affect ignorance of their views on embryonic stem cells, cloning and so forth, the pro-life Family Research Council has no doubts whatsoever. "Good News on the Pro-Life Front" declares a headline on the Council's website. The subsequent article states:

Last week President Bush dismissed two members of his Council on Bioethics that had strongly supported conducting research on human embryo cells, and replaced them with three new members that fall more in line with the President's pro-life views. The new appointees are Benjamin Carson, director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University; Diana Schaub, chairman of Loyola College's political science department; and Peter Lawler, professor of government at Berry College.

Is it plausible that Kass was unaware of Loyola College political scientist Diana Schaub's review of the Bioethics Council's own report on cloning that compared cloning to slavery in the conservative religious journal, First Things? After all, First Things is a journal to which Kass and many others of the conservative members of the Bioethics Council have contributed numerous articles. In addition, Kass and Schaub are members of the publication committee for Irving Kristol's journal, The Public Interest—perhaps that joint membership would give Kass a clue as to her views on various bioethical topics? Maybe Leon Kass heard Professor Schaub's views from her very own lips when they both participated in a panel discussion on cloning at the American Enterprise Institute on October 29, 2002? On that occasion Kass surely must have heard Schaub say: "Cloning is an evil; and cloning for the purpose of research actually exacerbates the evil by countenancing the willful destruction of nascent human life. Moreover, it proposes doing this on a mass scale, as an institutionalized and routinized undertaking to extract medical benefits for those who have greater power. It is slavery plus abortion." Such a forceful statement must have caught Kass' attention.

And what about a subsequent AEI panel discussion of the Council's new report, Beyond Therapy, in which they both participated just last December? There, Schaub declared, "One can reject performance-enhancing drugs and devices in the name of true human excellence. One can decline feel-good pills in the name of true human happiness. One can refuse to select and design or de-select and re-design one's children in the name of true human love. To make the case against ageless bodies, however—to say no thanks to the prolongation of one's life—one has to make an argument for human mortality."

Is Kass also really in the dark about the "personal views" of new Council member Peter Lawler? Lawler, who is a political scientist at Berry College, participated in the same AEI panel discussion on Beyond Therapy last December with Kass and Schaub. At the AEI conference Lawler commended that report's discussion of psychopharmacological advances by saying: "So this report is strongest when it is clearest that our pharmacological attempts at mood control will be yet another failed escapist solution to the problem of our obsessive individualism." It seems implausible that Kass would be unaware of Lawler's review of Beyond Therapy at National Review Online. (Readers of this column might be amused by Lawler's strained commentary, "The Libertarian Threat to Human Liberty".")

Kass and Lawler were both participants in the LeFrak Forum Symposium on Science, Reason and Democracy at Michigan State University in 2003. Even if Kass didn't look up Lawler's remarks, his general point of view might be discerned by the LeFrak Forum's stated goal of introducing "thinkers from the classical liberal, libertarian, and conservative traditions and other dissenters from reigning academic orthodoxies." (Note: Curiously no libertarians were listed for the 2002-2003 series.) I do suppose it's quite possible that Kass missed Lawler's fulsome footnote praising Kass' opposition to biotechnological progress in an article in Modern Age: "For the latest and particularly eloquent and comprehensive statement concerning the danger to human liberty and dignity of the contemporary interdependence of biological rhetoric and biotechnology, see Leon R. Kass, 'The Moral Meaning of Genetic Technology,' Commentary, Vol. 108 (September 1999)." But still…?

And what about the views of Johns Hopkins University pediatric neurosurgeon Benjamin Carson? Are they as opaque as those of Schuab and Lawler to Kass? Carson is a truly gifted clinician, not a member of the chattering classes, so he leaves less of a paper trail than Schaub and Lawler. Carson, who describes himself as a committed Christian, is a member of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. When asked on a website celebrating his achievements, "What has your work as a brain surgeon taught you about God and faith?" Carson responded: "I see a brilliant and logical God. With every patient and every surgery, I am struck by the miracle of life and the miracles possible within it." Perhaps as Dr. Carson serves on the Bioethics Council he will agree with other believers that the healing power offered by biotechnological progress is a gift from God to ease the sufferings of humanity, rather than an evil to be resisted. We shall see.

In the end Kass may have left himself a bit of wiggle room by saying that the Council is moving "away from issues of reproduction and genetics to focus on issues of neuroscience, brain and behavior." Why council members like Harvard Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon, Valparaiso University Professor of Christian Ethics Gilbert Meilander, and Princeton Professor of Jurisprudence Robert George are more qualified to deliberate on those issues than Blackburn and May are is not at all clear. Of course, it is probably just a coincidence that that all three are frequent contributors to First Things?

Kass simply cannot with a straight face make the claim, as he does in Washington Post, that the "personal views" of Schaub and Lawler are "completely unknown" to him. It's a shame that the White House has somehow persuaded a man as smart and principled as Leon Kass to deny in public what he must in fact know to be so.