Obama disbands bioethics council

The US President’s Council on Bioethics has been disbanded. Members were told last week that their services were no longer needed and that a planned meeting should be cancelled. A White House press officer told the New York Times that the Administration needs an advisory group which offers "practical policy options" and that the Bush-appointed council had been "a philosophically leaning advisory group".

The move was hardly unexpected. Apart from wanting to distance himself from the previous president, President Obama knows that fixing America’s ailing health system will be a huge challenge. He probably wants bioethics advisors who will buttress his economic and political strategies rather than debate apparently remote ethical questions.

Dr Alta Charo, a progressive ethicist at the University of Wisconsin who worked on Obama’s transition team, told the New York Times that much of the Bush council’s work "seemed more like a public debating society" and that a new commission should focus on helping the government form ethically defensible policy. This would let "the president react judiciously to rapid and often startling changes in the scientific landscape." David Prentice, of the Family Research Council, agreed, but his more concise job description was "a rubber stamp".

Bush’s bioethics council was first headed by Leon Kass of the University of Chicago and, since 2005, by Edmund Pellegrino of Georgetown University. Both opposed embryonic stem cell research which became the litmus test for the politics of bioethics during the Bush years. The council itself was fairly evenly balanced between "progressives" and "conservatives" on nearly every issue. What distinguished it was its moral seriousness. Surprisingly, President Bush allowed it to define issues and solutions without delivering politically supportive outcomes.

In March 10 of the 18-member council also took the politically suicidal step of questioning his policy on embryonic stem cell research. Dr Pellegrino, though not a signatory, added a footnote: "Ethically, I cannot support any policy permitting deliberate production and/or destruction of a human fetus or embryo for any purpose, scientific or therapeutic." This candour no doubt hastened the demise of the old council.

For the flavour of bioethics under Obama, consult the Center for American Progress, a Democrat think-tank and Obama brains trust. One of its senior fellows, Jonathan Moreno, of the University of Pennsylvania, was in charge of reviewing the bioethics council on Obama’s transition team. He could play a major role in whatever body replaces it. ~ New York Times, June 17

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