Something that might have been overlooked with all the other big news going on last week: President Obama quietly disbanded the President’s Council on Bioethics. This group, formed after President Bush’s 2001 executive order on embryonic stem cell research, advised the president on policies regarding stem-cell and other bioethical issues, and drew criticism from the left for being too restrictionist.
One of the Council’s members, Peter Augustine Lawler of Berry College (no relation to me), offered some reflections on his dismissal in the Weekly Standard on Friday. He notes a few barbs at Bush’s attitude toward bioethics — one of the few areas where Bush actually did well — and counters by demonstrating both the Council’s diverse makeup and its quality of discourse. Because of this diversity, Lawler writes,
I want to emphasize that this [the Council’s work] was a scientific dispute on the moral implications of what the studies show conducted at the highest level. Socratic dialogue illuminated the disagreement and allowed those involved to remain friends in common pursuit of the truth, but no expert consensus emerged. No Council member was ideological in the sense of having anything but the highest respect for and full openness to what we can learn from science. And if expert means being a genuine scientific authority, they were all clearly among our nation’s most formidable experts.
When even experts disagree, people are stuck with thinking for themselves. And there’s a moral basis for compromise.
Lawler fears that Obama plans to replace the Council with a group of “experts” who will have neither the expertise of the outgoing Council nor their intellectual honesty.
The experts, we have to remember, very often hide their own personal opinions and ideological agendas behind their impersonal claims to merely be following what the studies say. We can learn from them, but as long as they fall short of perfect objectivity based on perfect wisdom, we shouldn’t trust them. These days, the people, above all, should distrust meddlesome, schoolmarmish judges and bureaucrats (and presidents who enable them) who want to deprive them of the capacity of thinking for themselves.
Indeed, reading between the lines of the NY Times report on Obama’s decision to dismantle the Council, it seems as though, sadly, he intends to replace it with a PR organ and nothing more.
The council was disbanded because it was designed by the Bush administration to be “a philosophically leaning advisory group” that favored discussion over developing a shared consensus, said Reid Cherlin, a White House press officer.
President Obama will appoint a new bioethics commission, one with a new mandate and that “offers practical policy options,” Mr. Cherlin said.
So the President believes that problems in bioethics require no philosophical consideration, but instead quick and practically developed shared consensus? Obviously the only way to arrive at a shared consensus on these tricky issues is to make sure beforehand that everyone there is ready to tell you what you need to hear to pass the laws that are politically expedient. The article ends:
Dr. Alta Charo, an ethicist at the University of Wisconsin, said 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.
A commission of this kind, Dr. Charo said, “lets the president react judiciously to rapid and often startling changes in the scientific landscape.”
I.e., instead of considering very weighty problems with the serious thought they deserve, the commission should quickly turn around recommendations that allow the president to continue judiciously advancing his agenda.
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