June 19, 2009
The President's Council on Bioethics is no more. With a one-day notice, the members were told in a letter from the President that their services were no longer required. Pack up, get out. Forget the fact that they had a couple of interesting reports coming out soon, one more meeting, and that the Council's tenure would expire come this September.
Peter Lawler, member of the now-defunct Council, notes that he is reassured when the letter states that "President Obama recognizes the value of having a commission composed of experts on bioethical issues to provide objective and non-ideological advice to his Administration." Maybe it's because the President wants to change to bioethics. Maybe it's because he's smarting a bit because, when he issued his new executive order opening the door to more human embryo research and cloning, 10 of the 18 current Council members criticized his new policy. But a more likely reason is that he needs a philosophical, well-stacked bioethics rubber stamp.
The National Institutes of Health, as directed by the President, is crafting new guidelines for federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research. After a short period soliciting comments on their proposed guidelines, they are scheduled to release the final guidelines no later than July 7. It would be embarrassing to have another round of criticism from an existing "President's Council." Better to show them the door.
The proposed guidelines on human embryonic stem cell research are more limited than what the President proposed. NIH draws the line at using "excess" embryos from fertility clinics, though they note that the guidelines can be changed whenever they want. But President Obama called for much more, including cloning of embryos for experiments. A number of scientists have chafed and whined at the proposed NIH limits on embryo creation and destruction.
Dr. Alta Charo, an ethicist at the University of Wisconsin and member of the Obama transition team, said that a new commission should focus on helping the government form ethically defensible policy.
Translation: rubber stamp.
Look for a new commission soon with members that will be ideologically in line with the White House, Charo to be a member, and the new commission swiftly to consider (and to agree with the President) the issue of stem cells, cloning, and embryo experiments.
The now-former President's Council on Bioethics was constituted in 2001, and chaired first by Leon Kass and then Ed Pellegrino. It's mandate was "Advising the President on ethical issues related to advances in biomedical science and technology." Pellegrino is quoted on the current site: "To advance human good and avoid harm, biotechnology must be used within ethical constraints. It is the task of bioethics to help society develop those constraints and bioethics, therefore, must be of concern to all of us." You might want to take a look at their accomplishments before their website is erased.