TCS Daily

Kass Blunders, Again

By Ramesh Ponnuru - March 2, 2004 12:00 AM

I am not sure that the Kass council on bioethics has done anything worthwhile -- anything, that is, to justify its existence. It seems to me that the entire point of appointing such a council, if the executive branch already basically knows its mind on the relevant issues, is to provide support for its positions. Kass has been famous -- or notorious to his critics -- for insisting on the "wisdom of repugnance" to the use of certain technologies. If the council had started from the administration's basic moral position, it could have articulated the reasons for that intuition while perhaps, in certain respects, correcting it. Leon Kass appeared to believe that instead he could win over a council composed of smart people with no particular commitments in common based on the sheer force of his arguments.

It didn't work. On the most politically contentious issue before the council, human cloning, the panel split 10 to 7. The minority came out for research cloning but against reproductive cloning. The majority came out for a moratorium on the former and a ban on the latter. The Bush administration's own position -- for a permanent ban on both -- was a minority position on the council and thus undermined by it.

So it comes as no surprise that Kass has managed to mismanage the situation once again. Two pro-research-cloning members of the commission are off, and three antis are on. Now if Kass wanted to tilt the balance in favor of his own (and my) anti-cloning position, that would certainly have been a defensible move. But why create the opportunity for the dismissed members to present themselves as martyrs? Why not just expand the size of the council and add philosophically congenial members? Or, if two members were to be dismissed, replace two pro-cloning members with two antis and one pro? Or dismiss one pro and one anti and replace with two antis? These latter steps would have been more gradualist, but also more politic.

The criticism from the pro-cloning side has been predictable given Kass's ham-handedness. TCS provided an example of it in the form of Glenn Reynolds's essay this week. Reynolds argues that the Kass council is composed of people who all "think alike," is "stacked," does not contain the "variety" of views that President Bush originally said he wanted, etc. Reynolds does not mention the fact that the council obviously was not stacked in favor of Bush's position since it didn't come out in favor of it.

Reynolds professes sadness that this commission, as stacked as it is, cannot come out with recommendations that anyone can take seriously. A show of hands, please, for all those who believe that Reynolds would have taken seriously an anti-cloning recommendation under any circumstances. Or that he would have caviled at a pro-cloning recommendation under any circumstances.

Finally, Reynolds expresses shock and dismay at the idea that a second-term Bush agenda would include a ban on therapeutic cloning. Actually, that's part of Bush's first-term agenda, too. He's been on record favoring such a ban for at least two years.

The author is senior editor at National Review. He last wrote for TCS about Free Trade at Low Tide.


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