End of Discussion: Why Obama Should Have Kept the Bioethics Council

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I have taught ethics in the religion departments of several very different colleges and universities for quite a few years, and there are moments when I wish that I had instead specialized in something quite different--perhaps texts and artifacts that come from the world of the ancient Near East. Had I done that, when I walked into the classroom day after day the students would know that I was the expert and they were not. They would almost surely lack the skills that would entitle them to an opinion about how an ancient Akkadian text ought to be translated. It's unlikely that they would be able to identify archaeological artifacts or say much about the kind of civilization in which such artifacts would have been found.

But decades ago the die was cast, and I have been teaching ethics. Now, to be sure, in certain ways I have some expertise that students recognize. But that expertise does little more than help all of us get clear on what we're thinking about. When we take the next step and ask what we ought to think about what we're thinking about, the students do not recognize me as an expert, and they should not. Nor am I their father, to whom they might have obligations of obedience. Nor am I any elected representative of theirs, authorized to make decisions on their behalf. We're all just human beings--doing our best to think about what being human means and what it requires of us. And my own view is that the kind of bioethics most helpful to our public life is rather like that.

Not everyone agrees. On June 10 President Obama notified members of the President's Council on Bioethics by letter that their work on the council would end on June 11. It was an abrupt but not altogether unexpected conclusion to the work of the Council, on which I served for seven years. More interesting, and more worth pondering, was the reason given by a White House press officer--at least as reported by Nicholas Wade in a June 17 New York Times article. "The Council was disbanded because it was designed by the Bush administration to be 'a philosophically leaning advisory group' that favored discussion over developing a shared consensus." By contrast, President Obama intends, Wade reported, to appoint a new bioethics body whose mandate will call for "practical policy options."

I am not certain what is meant by a "philosophically leaning advisory group," but it is true that the executive order establishing the President's Council on Bioethics had specifically relieved it of any obligation to seek consensus. One positive result of such a structure is that it frees a commission to be intellectually diverse, to have among its members a wide range of views on controversial issues--and that the President's Council surely had, far more so than any of its predecessor bodies. By contrast, taking as one's primary aim a search for "practical policy options" almost always leads to lowest-common-denominator proposals, from which the deepest and most important issues have been filtered out.

Here I have neither the intention nor the need to defend the work of the President's Council. It will, I think, stand the test of time reasonably well. But it is worth reflecting on the usefulness of the kind of bioethical reflection--"philosophically leaning" or not--that the Council tried to do; for, in my view, it is the approach to bioethics that best serves a pluralistic political community such as ours.

There is a certain tendency to think that bioethics has become politically engaged only in recent years--perhaps as a product of the so-called culture wars. I doubt that is the right way to describe what has happened, though there is no doubt that the formation of a series of national bioethics commissions--beginning in the mid-1970s--has given bioethics a role not just in the hospital or the academy but also in the public square. This is probably unavoidable, and 1 therefore see little reason to bemoan it. The important question becomes how best to structure the work of such public bodies. …