Monday, June 22, 2009

Leon Kass and the Demise of the Council on Bioethics

Last week, President Obama abolished the President's Council on Bioethics, which had been established by the Bush Administration in 2001 under the chairmanship of Leon Kass. Peter Lawler has written a statement on his termination as one of the members of the Council.

My reaction to this is mixed. On the one hand, I will miss the high intellectual level of discussion fostered by the Council both through its meetings and through its reports. I agree with Lawler that Kass directed the Council in such a way as to promote a Socratic discussion of the deep philosophical questions raised by biotechnology, and it is rare for any government agency to do anything like this. By contrast, President Obama seems to have no interest in such philosophical debate.

On the other hand, I have always been disturbed by Kass's unreasonable scorn for modern science and by his dishonesty in his management of the Bioethics Council. As I have often noted on this blog, Kass's deep fear of modern science as impious and immoral distorts his view of everything associated with modern science and technology.

Kass's dishonesty was evident in 2004 when he pressured the White House to dismiss Elizabeth Blackburn from the Council because of her firm disagreement with Kass. Along with the voluntary resignations of William May and Stephen Carter, this created three vacancies. Kass successfully recommended three replacements--Benjamin Carson, Peter Lawler, and Diana Schaub. Many people at the time noted that all three of these people were in general agreement with Kass, and so it was clear that Kass was being careful to insure that the majority of the Council would be on his side.

I was particularly shocked by Schaub's appointment. Shortly before her appointment, I had met her at Hillsdale College where we were participating in a week-long lecture series on biotechnology. I was disappointed by the shallowness of her lecture, which suggested that she knew nothing at all about the subject. Apparently, Kass appointed her because she was a friend of his, and she agreed with him.

And yet, in response to his critics, Kass wrote an article for the Washington Post arguing that he knew nothing about the views of these three people, and that there was no political bias in his appointments. He suggested that he selected these three people only because they were obviously the most qualified people for the positions. Even some of Kass's friends were embarrassed by the blatant dishonesty in his statement.

Some of my posts on Kass can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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