Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Two Brief Notes on the Obama Bioethics Commission

President Obama recently announced the members of his new bioethics commission. We noted a few months ago that the new commission seems likely to focus on a few low-key policy questions, given the focus of its charter and the fact that both its chairman and vice chairman are busy university presidents. Nothing about its announced membership suggests otherwise. It is nice to see Daniel Sulmasy, an occasional New Atlantis contributor, among the appointees, and we look forward to seeing what this new commission decides to discuss and what approach it takes.

There are two minor points about the new commission that perhaps deserve comment. The first is that the new bioethics commission, like the bioethics council that President Bush appointed, has not drawn its members from the mainstream of professional bioethicists. Please notice the names that are absent from the commission — prominent mainstream bioethicists like George Annas, Tom Beauchamp, Dan Brock, Arthur Caplan, Alexander Capron, Alta Charo, James Childress, Ruth Faden, Hank Greely, Patricia King, Ruth Macklin, David Magnus, Glenn McGee, Jonathan Moreno, Thomas Murray, Erik Parens, Robert Veatch, LeRoy Walters, Susan Wolf, and Paul Root Wolpe.

Perhaps some of these bioethicists were invited onto the commission and declined. Perhaps some will participate in its work in other capacities, as staffers or consultants. But it is striking that, with the arguable exception of Anita Allen, the commission will have no members from the bioethics mainstream, and certainly none of its most prominent figures. There has already been some embittered complaining about this cold shoulder on one of the big bioethics blogs:

The most obvious question one must ask when reading the membership list of the commission is, “Where are the bioethicists?”

An excellent question. Professional bioethicists would do well ask themselves why two administrations have now declined to bring aboard the biggest names in mainstream bioethics.

One other minor point is worth mentioning because of what it reveals about politics and the press. Back in 2002, just before the first meeting of the Bush bioethics council, the Washington Post ran an article — not an opinion piece, mind you; a news article — that gratuitously drew a comparison between the Bush council and the Taliban. The article was called “Bush Unveils Bioethics Council”:

In November, researchers announced that they had made the first human embryo clones, giving immediacy to warnings by religious conservatives and others that science is no longer serving the nation’s moral will. At the same time, the United States was fighting a war to free a faraway nation from the grip of religious conservatives who were denounced for imposing their moral code on others.

In the pages of one of the nation’s leading newspapers, this is an indefensible smear — but it would even be an embarrassing analogy if it came from a partisan press-release office. As it happens, the reporter who wrote that article, Rick Weiss, is now working in just such a capacity. Weiss left journalism to join the liberal Center for American Progress and then the Obama administration. Now his name appears atop a White House press release/blog post called “President Announces Choices for New Bioethics Commission.” So eight years ago he was sliming the Bush administration’s bioethics council from within the world of journalism, and today he helps announce the Obama administration’s bioethics commission from within that administration. Draw your own conclusions.

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