The Magazine

Kass Warfare

The president's bioethics council enters the cloning fray.

Feb 4, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 20 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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THE PRESIDENT'S COUNCIL ON Bioethics began its first public session on January 17, in a dreary ballroom of the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel, a pre-postmodern pile of orange stucco set astride an expressway off-ramp in southwest Washington, D.C. Leon Kass, the University of Chicago bioethicist selected by President Bush to be the council's chairman, opened the session with a brief assessment of the country's change in mood since September 11.

"In numerous if subtle ways," Kass said, "one feels a palpable increase in America's moral seriousness, . . . a fresh breeze of sensible moral judgment, clearing away the fog of unthinking and easy-going relativism. . . .

"It has been a long time," he continued, "since the climate and mood of the country was this hospitable for serious moral reflection."

Kass is blessed with a somber baritone that carries an unmistakable authority quite apart from his well-deserved reputation as a thinker. And as I sat in the ballroom audience I might have been moved to agree with him, almost, had someone not slipped me a story from that morning's Washington Post.

It was what the trade calls a "walk-up," a story alerting readers to the council's debut and offering them a sense of the subject's "complexity." The reporter drew deep from the wellsprings of philosophy, sociology, geopolitics--all that stuff.

"The council," wrote the reporter, "will be navigating a scientific and ethical landscape significantly more complex than the one that existed [a few months ago]. In November, researchers announced that they had made the first human embryo clones, giving immediacy to warnings by religious conservatives [my italics] and others that science is no longer serving the nation's moral will. At the same time, the United States was fighting a war to free a faraway nation from the grip of religious conservatives . . ."

The story gave a good sense of how easy it is for Washington reporters to get bogged down in complexity--Taliban abroad, Taliban at home, who can tell which is which?--but it also served as a standing rebuke to Kass's optimism. Moral seriousness? Tell it to the Post, professor.

And it's not just the Post, of course. Bioethics--falling at the point where the oldest questions of philosophy intersect with the most recent advances of biological research--has brought all of political Washington out of its depth. Politicians and bureaucrats who came to town with no grander goal than snatching a few more nonrecourse rural electrification loans at accelerated submarket depreciation levels for the gang back home--not to mention the staffers who help them do that and the reporters who write about them when they do--are suddenly being asked, thanks to cloning and stem-cell research and the galloping progress of genetics, to wrestle with definitions of personhood, the boundaries of human aspiration, and the purpose of life. None of these was in the job description.

Kass and his council are supposed to help. The executive order authorizing the council, signed in the wake of Bush's televised stem-cell research speech to the nation last August, gives it two overriding tasks. The first is pragmatic and Washington-like. In light of the House of Representatives' unanimous vote last summer to ban all human cloning, and in anticipation of the Senate's coming consideration of the House ban, the council is to examine the public policy implications of recent advances in genetic science. Over the past twenty years at least a half dozen federal commissions have been impaneled for similar purposes; in all cases their recommendations have been written up, published, admired, and forgotten.

The council's second charge, however, is unique: "to undertake fundamental inquiry into the human and moral significance" of the same issues--to move beyond the narrow domain of public policy and make these issues the subject, as Kass says, of serious moral reflection.

This makes the council a body without precedent in Washington's history, our first National Endowment for Rumination. Conferring with Kass, the White House selected members from most of the thinking professions: four law professors, four research scientists, three philosophers, a sociologist, two political scientists, a theologian, a psychiatrist, and even a newspaper columnist, albeit one with psychiatric training, a Pulitzer Prize, and a medical degree (Charles Krauthammer). The panel will meet publicly six to eight times a year, for two days at a stretch. The January sessions fairly flew by, particularly judged against the pace of Commerce committee hearings. They began on a suitably odd note, with a discussion of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Birthmark," a short story written in 1846.