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FIRST-PERSON: High-integrity bioethics council & hopes for a truly human future

DEERFIELD, Ill. (BP)–The announcement of the President’s Council on Bioethics was a long time in coming. No one imagined on Aug. 9, 2001, when the president announced that Leon Kass would chair such a council that it would have taken this long. But then Sept. 11 occurred and retarded movement on a number of fronts while we defended our national security.

Interestingly, the makeup of the council was a closely guarded secret. The ability to keep secrets may have been uncharacteristic of some presidencies, but apparently not the Bush presidency. No one talked about this out of school. Not until the day before their first meeting did most of us have any reliable information about who would be on the council, and for good reason. As soon as the president’s picks were made known, the media machine went to work either demonizing or canonizing the members of the council.

Some have characterized the council as being stacked with “conservatives.” Such a characterization strains the meaning of the term. For some, a conservative is anyone who is to the right of themselves. On the issues that will come before this council, the members could hardly be classified as constituting a conservative majority. For instance, both Stephen Carter and Gilbert Meilaender are both on record as favoring abortion under certain circumstances. Columnist Charles Krauthammer just last year defended embryonic stem cell research. Based on their written work, Rebecca Dresser and Janet Rowley would be the most surprised to learn they were conservatives.

If people expected a radically different council from the Bush administration, they must be living in some fairy tale world. After all, this is the president who managed to make nearly everyone mad with his position on the federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research.

We will know soon enough whether and how conservative this council’s recommendations will be. I suspect we will all be very surprised.

What can we expect from the President’s Council on Bioethics? Judging from its membership, we can expect a rather robust ventilation of the pressing issues before us in bioethics, including human cloning, assisted suicide and euthanasia, and the emerging biotechnologies that offer both hope and threats to the future of humanity as we know it. We can expect the council to work hard to tease out the fullest implications of any policy recommendation. One may observe that there are some formidable legal minds on the council. We can expect all views to be taken seriously. One of the features of this group is that their integrity is unassailable. We can expect rigorous reflection. This council cannot be charged with being filled with reactionaries. We can expect that its recommendations will wrangle someone sometime and perhaps everyone at least once. The issues under its purview are too momentous not to cause controversy. Of one thing we can be certain. Leon Kass and company will work hard to set their recommendations about bioethical issues within the context of a truly human future.

Rather than spending reams of paper second-guessing a decision that is a fait accompli, we should wait for policy recommendations from the council. After all, the proof is in the pudding.
C. Ben Mitchell, Ph.D., is consultant on biomedical and life issues for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and associate professor of bioethics and contemporary culture at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill.

    About the Author

  • C. Ben Mitchell

    C. Ben Mitchell is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., as well as research fellow with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

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