Bush Asks Bioethics Panel to Act ‘Conscience’
At the first meeting of the President's Council on Bioethics yesterday, President Bush called on the panel to be the "conscience of the country" with regard to biomedical issues such as human cloning and embryonic stem cell research, and he again reiterated his opposition to human cloning, the AP/Baltimore Sun reports. "I have spoken clearly on cloning. I just don't think it's right. On the other hand, there is going to be a lot of nuance and subtlety to the issue, I presume. And I think this is very important for you all to help the nation understand what this means," Bush told the 18-member panel of ethicists, doctors, lawyers, philosophers and a journalist (AP/Baltimore Sun, 1/18). He added that the council would help Americans "come to grips with how medicine and science interface" with the "dignity of life, and the notion that life is -- you know, that there is a Creator."
The panel yesterday took up the issue of human cloning, an issue expected to "burst back into the news" today when the National Academy of Sciences releases a report on the medical and scientific aspect of cloning (Stolberg, New York Times, 1/18). The presidential panel, which was first conceived in August when Bush announced that the government would allow limited federally funded embryonic stem cell research to proceed, is expected to address two ethical cloning questions -- whether cloning technology should be allowed to be used to produce humans, and whether researchers should be permitted to clone human embryos to obtain embryonic stem cells for medical research (AP/Baltimore Sun, 1/18). Most of the panelists appear to oppose reproductive cloning, with Gilbert Meilaender, a professor of Christian ethics at Valparaiso University, describing it as a "natural repulsion." However, the members appear divided on whether or not to permit cloning for research purposes. Scientists and patients' rights advocates say that therapeutic cloning could lead to medical advancements, including cures for degenerative diseases, but some religious and conservative leaders oppose it because it requires the destruction of human embryos, which they view as potential lives (New York Times, 1/18). Michael Sandel, a government professor at Harvard University, said that the debate over when life begins may need to be reframed with regard to cloning and stem cell research. Embryos "could fall somewhere between a human being worthy of respect and a 'thing'" to be used in research, he said, adding that it "may not be all or nothing" (AP/Baltimore Sun, 1/18). The panel's chair -- Dr. Leon Kass, a bioethicist on leave from the University of Chicago who is now affiliated with the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute --said that the panel will not rush to make a recommendation on cloning regulations, despite the fact that the Senate is scheduled to debate legislation banning the procedure this spring. The House has already approved a bill prohibiting cloning for reproductive and research purposes (New York Times, 1/18). "We are going to try and do a good job, rather than bend ourselves out of shape to influence the Senate debate," Kass said, adding that he expects the panel to have a recommendation by summer (AP/Baltimore Sun, 1/18).
Patients' rights advocates and some scientists have expressed concern that the panel, which includes 14 men and is mostly white, will not represent a wide enough spectrum of views. Patients' rights advocates are particularly upset that they do not have a representative on the council (New York Times, 1/18). "Dr. Kass has promised the council will transcend politics and uphold its mission to study the issues thoroughly and work with the president to present its findings. But it is imperative that the therapeutic needs of 100 million Americans living with diseases and life-threatening conditions, who could potentially benefit from embryonic stem cell research and somatic cell nuclear transfer, are considered in these discussions," Michael Manganiello, the president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, said in a statement (CAMR release, 1/17). Religious conservatives, on the other hand, are pleased with the panel's membership. Richard Doerflinger, an official with the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that unlike previous presidential ethics panels, Bush's council "appeared to be open to the church's position" against human cloning (Leonard, Boston Globe, 1/18). Arthur Caplan, a University of Pennsylvania bioethicist who is not on the council, called the group "distinguished," adding that the panel has "got a [conservative] spin, but it's not toppled over" (AP/Baltimore Sun, 1/18).