Monday, July 13, 2009

A New Direction for Bioethics?

In the past, I have mentioned my appreciation for the latest couple of incarnations of the President’s Council on Bioethics. If you read any of their reports over the last 10 years or so, it is clear they were a group of thinkers from across the ideological spectrum, and many of them I would consider world-class thinkers on these issues. One worry some watchers had with the new administration was that the Council would be disbanded and something a little less diverse put in its place.

As it turns out, at least the first part of that worry has come to pass. Colleen Carroll Campbell at the Ethics and Public Policy Center reports on the latest change and why it happened.

Last month, President Barack Obama quietly disbanded the President's Council on Bioethics, a deliberative body whose changing cast of erudite and ideologically diverse members had spent the past eight years thinking through today's toughest moral questions. Members received only one day's notice of the council's dissolution, forcing them to cancel a planned meeting and leave unfinished several major reports that were due to be released soon.

The stated reasons for disbanding the Council were interesting to say the least.

According to White House press officer Reid Cherlin, the council was "a philosophically leaning advisory group" and Obama wants a new bioethics commission that focuses less on discussion and more on forming consensus around "practical policy options." As University of Wisconsin law professor and Obama ally Alta Charo explained, the old council "seemed more like a public debating society," whereas Obama's new one will help him form what the Times described as "ethically defensible public policy."

Campbell shares my concerns about the possible new direction of a new Council. It is my view that these issues require intense and (sometimes) protracted philosophical discussion before reasonable public policy is put in place. So to disband an organization due to its philosophical nature that by its very nature is a philosophical endeavor seems a little disingenuous to me.

Campbell is also concerned that if a new Council is erected around public policies, it will be nothing but a rubber-stamp group of pundits for whatever policies are promoted by the administration.

Obama's desire to see his policies backed by expert "consensus" more likely will be realized with a new commission composed of like-minded political liberals steeped in utilitarianism than with the brainy, diverse and unpredictable crew that populated the now-defunct council. Ensuring uniformity of thought among one's ethical advisers may make the president's job easier, but it will do little to benefit the diverse nation that he serves.

We shall see.

No comments: