Nothing to See Here: Eric Cohen and Yuval Levin Look in Vain for Bioethics at the Obama Administration's Bioethics Commission

Article excerpt

Whatever happened to bioethics? The decade between the cloning of Dolly the sheep and the election of Barack Obama was rife with heated public arguments about embryo research, cloning, assisted reproduction, and other matters bioethical. President George W. Bush's first prime-time speech was about a new approach to public funding of embryonic stem-cell research. The first veto he issued, five years later, was of a bill to overturn that policy. State after state took up measures on one side or the other of the embryo question. And John Kerry's 2004 campaign to unseat Bush featured prominent appeals on the stem-cell issue from high-profile celebrities.

Since Obama's election, however, the bioethics battles have not been heard from much. The new president did overturn Bush's funding policy. Since last July, the National Institutes of Health has been funding work on newly created lines of embryonic stem cells, thus providing, for the first time, a taxpayer-funded incentive for the destruction of embryos. But the new policy was not accompanied by an argument or an elucidation of its moral premises, and it has sparked almost no debate.

In fact, in announcing the policy last March, Obama denied the existence of serious moral debate about embryo destruction, insisting it was a matter for science alone. Pledging that his administration, unlike his predecessor's, would "make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology," Obama signed an executive order that offered no more of a case for itself than the stark statement that "advances over the past decade in this promising scientific field have been encouraging, leading to broad agreement in the scientific community that the research should be supported by federal funds." Since then, the administration has made no effort to draw attention to the funding, the research, or the moral debate.

Perhaps the best illustration of this avoidance of the bioethics debates has been the slow and peculiar development of Obama's advisory commission on bioethics. Bush's version of the commission was a high-profile and much discussed group of physicians, researchers, social scientists, humanists, and lawyers--the President's Council on Bioethics (which both of us served as staff members). It was led first by the University of Chicago's Leon R. Kass and then by Georgetown's Edmund Pellegrino, prominent voices in American bioethics for decades who took leave from their other projects to manage the council's work full-time.

Kass imbued the group's work with his characteristically humanistic and philosophical approach to bioethical questions, seeking the deep human significance behind the heated debates of the day. And, under both chairmen, the council worked to keep key bioethical questions before the public. Members of the council were frequently at odds, and the reports they produced echoed their serious and informed disputes. The design, membership, and charge of the council made clear that Bush wanted to see the debates about bioethics amplified and elevated, not tucked away. The council, as Bush described it when he announced its creation, was to "give our nation a forum" in which to carry out those debates in a civil but unabashed way.

President Obama's approach has clearly been different. For one thing, his advisory group--called the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues--has been long in coming. Although he announced his new stem-cell funding policy in March 2009, Obama announced the creation of an advisory commission only in November, and he waited until this April to name all of its members.

The new commission, moreover, will be led by two university presidents--its chair, Amy Gutmann, of the University of Pennsylvania, and vice chair, James Wagner, of Emory--who will not be taking leave from their regular jobs and so will have very little time to devote to the commission's work. And although both were named when the commission was first announced five months ago, they have yet to choose their staff. …