Bioethics Blast from the Past: Update on the Firing of Biologist Elizabeth Blackburn


In 2004, the President's Council on Bioethics replaced several members. Then PBC chairman, Leon Kass denied charges that he had eliminated members of the council who disagreed with his views. In the case of University of California-San Francisco biologist Elizabeth Blackburn, Kass, in a Washington Post op/ed specifically denied this accusation:

Dr. Blackburn contributed a great deal of expertise and insight, and charges that her replacement is in any way connected to opinions she expressed are simply false—as any review of the council's meetings or work, or of the views of other remaining members, would reveal.

In an interview in today's New York Times, Prof. Blackburn has a somewhat different recall:

Q. How did you get appointed to President Bush's Council on Bioethics?

A. I received a call in the autumn of 2001 from Leon Kass, the chairman. He asked if I'd serve. I think he'd already called a lot of people who'd turned him down.

This was not too many days after 9/11. In that moment, I wanted to help the country, but didn't know how. I thought, 'I certainly know cell biology, and that's what I can be useful for.' So I accepted. But I had to be vetted by the White House office of personnel first. One question I was asked was, 'Who did you vote for?'

Q. Once on it, did you feel the council had a preset political agenda?

A. Oh, yes. Especially about stem cells. Basically it was, 'You don't need any of those pesky embryonic stem cells because everything is wonderful with adult stem cells.' When one would ask, 'What's the evidence?' you'd hear, 'Somebody wrote a review article about adult stem cells.' And I'd say, 'That is not the same as primary data. Anyone with a word processor can write a review article.'

There was a lot of that, and I was always saying, 'Let's look at the science.' My persistence didn't endear me to Leon Kass, I felt. One day, I was asked to call the White House personnel office where an official said, 'Thank you. Thank you for serving.' I asked him, 'Why are you thanking me?' 'You will no longer be on the council.' I was one of two members who hadn't been reappointed for a second two-year term.

Q. Did the experience anger you?

A. It disappointed. Particularly this closed view on embryonic cells. To make a division between them and adult stem cells is foolish because they are all on a continuum. To understand how any of these work means researchers have to look at and compare them to each other. Why blind yourself to this fact?

My take on the controversy at the time, "Leon Kass Learns to Spin" is here. By the way, PBC members serve at the pleasure of the president and can be fired at any time. What is not OK is to gin up Alberto Gonzalesque excuses–job performance–for getting rid of people who disagree with you. The president (and minions like Kass) can just tell appointees that they don't like what they're saying and that they need to go. That's the honest way to do it.