TCS Daily

Phony Kass Council

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - May 1, 2002 12:00 AM

A few months back, I wrote a column here with some advice for Leon Kass' Presidential Council on Bioethics. Little did I realize that the whole enterprise was a waste of my time, and theirs.

But that seems to be the case. Though Leon Kass' council was announced with considerable fanfare as an entity that would advise the president on important ethical issues involving cloning, and although it contained a number of important people, the chief concern among many observers was that it would be stacked with anti-cloning, anti-biotechnology members who shared the views of its chair, Dr. Kass.

Little did the critics realize that it didn't matter - because the president was going to announce his views before the council had a chance to make any concrete recommendations anyway. But that is exactly what has happened: President Bush has announced his support for legislation that would criminalize cloning - even therapeutic cloning - without waiting for advice from the Council on Bioethics.

This leaves the council in an odd position. If it endorses the president's position after the fact, its views will be seen as irrelevant, and perhaps political: not honest advice, but mere public-relations on behalf of a decision already made. On the other hand, if it issues a report criticizing the president's position, it is likely to be marginalized and ignored by an administration that has plainly made up its mind on the issue.

Either way, members of the council have reason to be unhappy. Some may believe that Kass used his chairmanship to bypass the rest of the council and present his views to President Bush without engaging in the debate that he promised. Others may simply feel that the council was window-dressing, and that their time was wasted, and their reputations simply hijacked, for political reasons. It's certainly hard to imagine a scenario in which council members should be happy.

Some members of the council have already gone public with their unhappiness. Michael S. Gazzaniga, a Dartmouth professor who clearly feels he has been had, wrote in The New York Times last week:

"When President Bush convened his advisory panel on bioethics in January, he told those of us serving on it to engage in that age-old technique of intellectual exploration called debate. 'That's what I want,' he said. 'You haven't heard a debate until you have heard Colin Powell and Don Rumsfeld go at it.'

"So it was a surprise when, on April 10, the president announced his decision to ban cloning of all kinds. His opinions appeared fully formed even though our panel has yet to prepare a final report and will be voting on the crucial point of biomedical cloning -- which produces cells to be used in researching and treating illnesses. While it is true that the president's position is one held by some of the members of the panel, not all agree."

Well, wags may joke, while serving on the council Gazzaniga probably never heard Rumsfeld and Powell "go at it," so I suppose it's no surprise that he never heard a debate. But Gazzaniga's disappointment is real, and it bodes poorly for the Bush administration in the future.

One needn't follow outside advice, of course, but it's bad manners to ask for it and then ignore it before it is given. Service on White House advisory committees is time-consuming, and not especially career-enhancing for academics engaged in active scholarship, who are judged by what they produce, not by what meetings they attend.

It will be far harder for the Bush administration to put together useful advisory committees on other topics, after the experience of the Kass Council. And that is likely to have consequences that go far beyond the political maneuvering over cloning.

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