Bioethics, Bush Style
Siegal, Nina, The Progressive
In September, a day after Massachusetts-based biotech lab Advanced Cell Technology, Inc., announced that it had coaxed embryonic stem cells into retinal cells, the company's medical director, Dr. Robert Lanza, received a visit from a uniformed police officer.
Lanza didn't know what to think. The mood in his office was tense. A few weeks earlier, a pipe bomb had exploded at another regenerative stem cell facility just a few miles down the road. Ever since President Bush banned federal funding for research on new embryonic stem cell lines in 2001, Lanza had seen financial backers shrink away as religious activists gained ground in the media, attacking researchers doing his sort of work.
The officer, it turned out, had a fifteen-year-old son who was going blind because of an eye disease known as macular degeneration. He was hoping that Lanza's cells would help. Lanza, a University of Pennsylvania Medical School graduate, former Fulbright scholar, and a nominee for the MacArthur "genius" award, was confident they could. But the cells are currently in his freezer awaiting a change in the political landscape.
"There's a black cloud that's been hanging over this research," says Lanza. That cloud has been created by Bush and legitimized by Dr. Leon Kass, head of the President's Council on Bioethics, a panel of experts who advise the Administration on the ethical implications of biomedical innovation. Since Bush's panel was convened in August 2001, the council has politicized biotech research to an extent previously unimaginable, say top scientists and progressive bioethicists. They charge that the council is promulgating Bush's anti-scientific policy agenda, and making it all but impossible for scientists like Lanza to do their work.
Kass, a member of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago and a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, promised to promote open debate about the important scientific questions of our time when he became head of the council in 2001. But critics say he hasn't quite kept his word.
Although the panel originally included some experts who might have disagreed with Bush's agenda, two of them saw their terms unrenewed, replaced with three new members significantly further to the right. At the same time, the council's staffmembers, who gather testimony to write reports, are linked to neoconservative and religious right think tanks, journals, and organizations.
"Normally, commissions try to effect some avowedly neutral stance, to hear from people across the spectrum," says Arthur Caplan, chair of the Department of Medical Ethics and the director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. "This group is way tilted to the right, and it's making recommendations from a perspective that a majority of the American people don't hold."
Kass disputes the charge. "This council is the most intellectually and ethnically diverse bioethics body ever," he told The Progressive in an e-mail interview. (See page 27.)
The panel is suggesting a course that bears a striking resemblance to a conservative agenda: an indefinite ban on human cloning, a moratorium on therapeutic cloning, and restrictions on embryonic stem cell research until the federal government can establish "ethically sound policies for the entire field."
Bush articulated his philosophy most recently in his State of the Union address: "To build a culture of life, we must also ensure that scientific advances always serve human dignity, not take advantage of some lives for the benefit of others.... I will work with Congress to ensure that human embryos are not created for experimentation or grown for body parts, and that human life is never bought and sold as a commodity."
Leon Kass was born in Chicago in 1939 to Jewish immigrants and grew up in a secular Yiddish-speaking, socialist home. He received his bachelor of science and his medical degrees at the University Of Chicago and received his Ph. …