TCS Daily

Carmen Electra of the Executive Branch

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - March 1, 2004 12:00 AM

Back when this column was new, so was the President's Council on Bioethics, more popularly known as the Kass Council after its chair, Leon Kass. At that time, now more than two years ago, I offered some advice to the Council and to the Administration. Among the various items of advice was this one:

Don't get insular, either. The Council has already been criticized for its makeup, which is heavy on techno-critics and light on technological optimists. As one critic emailed me, "they're thoughtful people, they just think alike."

Indeed they do. And my ultimate conclusion on the Kass Council, as I noted some months later, was that it was a phony exercise, designed to provide a modest figleaf for decisions that had, in fact, already been made. The modesty of the figleaf was underscored by the stacked nature of the Council: Recommendations by groups of people who think alike aren't indicative of reflection, and thus carry none of the benefits associated with moral seriousness or expertise.

Nonetheless, like some Carmen Electra of the Executive Branch, the Council seems to be getting more stacked all the time. Here's how the Washington Post summarizes the latest events:

President Bush yesterday dismissed two members of his handpicked Council on Bioethics -- a scientist and a moral philosopher who had been among the more outspoken advocates for research on human embryo cells.

In their places he appointed three new members, including a doctor who has called for more religion in public life, a political scientist who has spoken out precisely against the research that the dismissed members supported, and another who has written about the immorality of abortion and the "threats of biotechnology."

That summary seems spot-on to me. This is at odds with the President's original instructions to the Council, which included this proviso:

The Council shall strive to develop a deep and comprehensive understanding of the issues that it considers. In pursuit of this goal, the Council shall be guided by the need to articulate fully the complex and often competing moral positions on any given issue, rather than by an overriding concern to find consensus. The Council may therefore choose to proceed by offering a variety of views on a particular issue, rather than attempt to reach a single consensus position.

It's difficult to see how this is possible when the Council -- already stacked in favor of social-conservative bio-Luddism -- is becoming even more so. As Phil Bowermaster points out:

When making policy on matters as important as stem cell research it's crucial for the President to hear all viewpoints -- unless he's already made up his mind. That's the problem here. Bush has made up his mind and isn't interested in hearing opposing views anymore. He wants justification for the policy he's decided on. He wants to be able to say to Congress "This bill I'm sponsoring is supported 100% by my Council on Bioethics."

But that strategy will backfire, because nobody will take the Council's recommendations seriously. The White House will be in the position of those fat bureaucrats at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, telling us that "top men" are looking carefully at the issues when, in fact, nothing of the sort is going on. Some critics are already calling for the Council to be abolished, and -- having called it "phony" long ago -- I'm inclined to agree.

Indeed, this problem seems so obvious to me that I have to wonder who's running the show at the White House, and how they can manage to be so clueless on this sort of thing. It's not simply dishonest. It's inept. And that's even more true if Bowermaster is right about this:

We are getting a glimpse of what Bush intends to do in his second term regarding therapeutic cloning and embryonic stem cell research. It's no longer sufficient that the research is not federally funded. Now that individual states are showing a willingness to pick up this slack, he is preparing to outlaw it nationally. Why else would he care so much about the composition of the Council on Bioethics?

Why, indeed? A ban on this sort of research might condemn millions to unnecessary early death. It's certainly the sort of thing that ought to be debated in an election year. And that is sure to be. Does Bush want to be portrayed as the minion of religious extremists who'd stifle science even at the cost of lifesaving medical technologies? If he doesn't, then he's going about things all wrong.


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