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.

NEXT: The Rise of the 'Light Greens'

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  1. That’s the honest way to do it.

    Right — cuz if there’s one thing this administration is all about it’s doing things the honest way.

    On an unrelated note:
    Did anyone else see that the guy with the super bad TB that was jet-setting was actually misdiagnosed and in fact merely had a milder form of TB article here

    The globe-trotting American lawyer who caused an international health scare by traveling while infected with tuberculosis has a less severe form of the disease than previously diagnosed, a federal health official said Tuesday.


    But three later tests have all shown Speaker’s TB to be a milder form of the disease, multidrug-resistant TB, a federal health official said on condition of anonymity because a formal announcement was planned later Tuesday.

    Multidrug-resistant TB can be treated with some antibiotics that the more severe form resists.

  2. Being asked whom they voted for should have been the first tipoff not to accept the position.

  3. ‘You don’t need any of those pesky embryonic stem cells because everything is wonderful with adult stem cells.’

    This is such an odd line of reasoning that, even after hearing it for years, in various guises, I am still dumbfounded by it. How do you know, until you try?

    If you want to make the case that using embryonic stem cells is immoral, OK. We don’t, Nazis excepted, perform vivisection on humans after all, and our reasons for not doing so are not, primarily, that we think that that is an unproductive line of research.

  4. Ah, another case of people remembering differently. So, which one is Russert and which one is Libby?

  5. I think we are all going to die one day.

  6. dj: “I think we are all going to die one day.”

    You deserve a prize for this post. We could all chip in and buy you a chicken.

  7. Some people think they gonna die some day
    I got news: Ya never got ta go


    (bubba buh-bump! bubba buh-bump!)
    (bubba buh-bump! bubba buh-bump!)


  8. Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
    Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay

  9. I didn’t think there were still people naive enough to take politicians’ word for it when they tell investigators “I don’t remember” over and over again.

  10. Leon Kass: the Ellsworth Monkton Toohey of science.

  11. Oh, come on, guys–its the president’s bioethics council. It’s going to be political one way or the other, no matter who is in office. It’s just a way to collect scientists to back up the president’s position. If you expected balance, you’re looking in the wrong place. And you’d probably be foolish to look for it there no matter which party is in the White House. And the vetting process is as much to prepare the White House for the inevitable political questions that get raised as it is to figure out what people think about the issues. Anyone who contributes opinions in a public forum on behalf of the president would be vetted this way. The question about voting doesn’t signify one way or another.

    And I have doubts that Blackburn’s characterization of the stem cell discussion is really accurate. Disagree with Kass if you will, but he’s not an idiot. So let’s just accept that they are each perceiving things the way one would expect, and given the political nature of the thing we shouldn’t be surprised (even if we might hope for better).

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