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Do Panels Dispense Advice or Rationales?

• December 10, 2009 • 12:00 PM

The partisanization of just about everything in D.C. leaves a scientific advisory panel on bioethics moored in ideological shoals.

Back during the Thanksgiving recess, while most of us were otherwise occupied with Black Friday plans, holiday menus and party crashers, President Obama quietly signed into existence Executive Order No. 13521.

The order creates a new Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, replacing the Bush-era council Obama disbanded over the summer. The administration simultaneously announced the top two scholars on the commission – University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann and Emory University President James Wagner — with the remaining 11 members yet to be determined.

In the few weeks since, interest groups have begun wrangling over the remaining makeup of the group and the kind of work it will do, thrusting a once-apolitical scientific advisory body deeper into the realm of culture wars.

The previous commission, appointed by Bush, was criticized for leaning in the same ideological direction as its creator and for producing more philosophical discussion than practical policy advice. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker skewered its culminating 2008 report — the 577-page “Human Dignity and Bioethics” — for having more Christian-themed essays than actual bioethics expertise.

“How did the United States, the world’s scientific powerhouse,” Pinker wrote in the The New Republic, “reach a point at which it grapples with the ethical challenges of twenty-first-century biomedicine using Bible stories, Catholic doctrine, and woolly rabbinical allegory?”

Like-minded critics were vindicated this fall when one of the council’s early dissenting scientists, Elizabeth Blackburn, was awarded a Nobel Prize in medicine.

Obama in June disbanded the Bush council several months before its mandate was set to expire, and pro-lifers suspicious of that move are already on the offensive about what he’ll do next.

“Does anyone think that even one person on this commission will strongly represent the majority of Americans’ pro-life views?” the head of Human Life International told the Catholic News Agency this week.

While the new narrative about presidential bioethics councils seems to have devolved into a one-dimensional battle between science and religion, the group historically isn’t ideological. The first commission, created in 1974, had none of the tensions we today associate with partisan politics, said Ruth Faden, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. The same was largely true of commissions throughout the ’70s and ’80s.

Clinton’s commission in the ’90s was the first thought to be committed to a kind of progressive view of bioethics. And Bush’s council, Faden said, was the first where the question of ideology became central to the public discussion about the council.

Whether a council gets bogged down in culture wars, Faden said, depends on both the background tone of political theater and the specific issues that come before it. Enter, in other words, embryonic stem cell research.

That’s not to say everything Obama’s new council should tackle is as divisive.

“There’s a way to make everything a matter of ideology,” Faden said. “But in fact, there is an awful lot of important conversation and analysis and recommendations that can be made around the question of scientific integrity, how to protect and promote it, that will not touch any ideological, progressive/conservative buttons.”

That’s true, too, of some other conundrums in nanotechnology, or the brain sciences. And to approach them all, Faden said this council will require a varied roster of wise, policy-oriented experts on medicine, philosophy, law, ethics — and yes, “people who understand the different ways the public comes to appreciate and value what’s at stake.”

While it may seem as if scientific advances have only created more problematic ethical challenges, Faden said the field itself hasn’t grown more complex.

“In some respect,” she said, “the political environment in which these problems need to be examined and advanced has become more complicated.”

Add the increase in public interest, 24-hour media coverage and the rapid response of e-mail — something that didn’t exist in 1974 — and presidential bioethics commissions may have a hard time returning to those less-scrutinized days.

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Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

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