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Reflections on My Termination

Obama dismisses members of the President's Council on Bioethics.

3:30 PM, Jun 19, 2009 • By PETER AUGUSTINE LAWLER
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So I received a basically gracious note from the White House that I would no longer be a member of the President's Council on Bioethics at the end of the next business day.

Now, it would have been nice to have more notice. The Council had another meeting planned and a couple of major reports just about finished. There had been some assurance previously that we didn't have to rush to finish our work. But these things happen, and it seems unlikely that there was any deliberate attempt to suppress anything we were about to say. Certainly it's not surprising--and surely good news for the taxpayers--that the president terminates advisory councils and commissions he believes will be of no use to him.

I was assured that "President Obama recognizes the value of having a commission of experts in bioethical issues to provide objective and non-ideological bioethics advice to his Administration." It's hard to deny that three shots were being taken here at the Bush Council. It was non-expert, unobjective, and ideological. I couldn't help but think that I, in particular, was being called an amateur faith-based ideologue, as I was by various Democrats and techno-libertarians during the election of 2004 when I was appointed, although it's doubtful that the man who signed the letter actually knows much of anything about me in particular.

There's actually a fourth shot, I think. For Obama, a valuable Council does nothing but offer advice to the administration. The Bush Council was actually given the additional mandate of public education, of developing a national dialogue on controversial bioethical issues. It's with that Socratic second mandate in mind that President Bush chose for his first chairman a man trained in medicine, natural science, and the wisdom about being human embodied in the Great Books from Plato through Shakespeare to Genesis--Leon Kass. For Obama, it would appear, there's no need for such moral and political discussion or such "humanistic" guidance because the experts know the nonideological and objective answer to the key questions that face us in our high-tech and increasingly biotech world. Personal opinion is trumped by what the "studies show," and public opinion should be guided toward a consensus based on those studies.

On the issues of destroying embryos for medical research and abortion, for example, the president has made it clear that science has spoken authoritatively, and a consensus has developed. Those who disagree are to be personally respected, but there's no reason for their discredited, religious, ideological views to have any public influence.

The truth is that the Kass Council was full of experts who disagreed on what the science says about who we are. Robert George of Princeton spoke eloquently and profoundly about how the latest studies from the science of embryology proved that the embryo was a fully human being, no different in kind from, say, a teenager. An embryo is a who or not merely a what and already has everything it takes to be a unique and irreplaceable being with dignity, to be one of the men and women who are given equal protection by our Constitution. Other Council members--such perhaps as our nation's leading neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga--basically claimed that being human was all about having a brain and heart. So it's no brain, no heart, no problem when it comes to destroying embryonic beings in pursuit of medical progress. Still others, such as famous expert on everything Francis Fukuyama, thought that the evidence placed the embryo somewhere in between an animal completely undeserving of respect and a fully human being with rights and dignity. Kass himself claimed that we couldn't be certain, on the basis of science alone, about the human status of the embryo, but there was enough evidence to give that being the benefit of the doubt.

I want to emphasize that this was a scientific dispute on the moral implications of what the studies show conducted at the highest level. Socratic dialogue illuminated the disagreement and allowed those involved to remain friends in common pursuit of the truth, but no expert consensus emerged. No Council member was ideological in the sense of having anything but the highest respect for and full openness to what we can learn from science. And if expert means being a genuine scientific authority, they were all clearly among our nation's most formidable experts.

When even experts disagree, people are stuck with thinking for themselves. And there's a moral basis for compromise. The Council, in fact, recommended a compromise on the issue of destroying embryos for research.

For many of the bioethical issues that face us, there's no obvious, objective solution--meaning one that emerges from experts without real moral and political deliberation. That doesn't mean that the contending parties involved should be narrowly ideological or blindly fundamentalist. It's their duty to be and in fact they often really are guided by what we can really know through science. But as Socrates himself constantly reminded us, for the most reasonable of men and women the key questions often remain more obvious than their answers. There's no substitute, in a democracy, for thinking together about who we are before deciding what to do, and it's not "anti-science" to sometimes conclude that science alone doesn't resolve every dilemma we face about human freedom and dignity.

One reason among many it's disquieting to see the president so complacent about Roe v. Wade is that the real goal of the Court in that decision was to shut down public discussion over who and what the fetus or unborn child is. The president said at Notre Dame that both science and the equality of women have closed the issue for all practical purposes. But surely everyone knows that there are good reasons both moral and scientific for why Americans disagree and are disquieted about the status of the relevant being, and even for why the young are more pro-life than their parents. There's plenty of need for more national dialogue before we can reasonably view this fundamental issue as resolved. There also needs to be room for legislative compromise--for the consent of the morally conflicted governed--that the Court has quite arbitrarily denied us.

The rule of experts might be fine if they were philosopher-kings who had united in themselves not only technological power but perfect wisdom. But of course, it's much more clear that the human power over nature and human nature is growing faster than is our wisdom to use it well for authentically human purposes. The experts, we have to remember, very often hide their own personal opinions and ideological agendas behind their impersonal claims to merely be following what the studies say. We can learn from them, but as long as they fall short of perfect objectivity based on perfect wisdom, we shouldn't trust them. These days, the people, above all, should distrust meddlesome, schoolmarmish judges and bureaucrats (and presidents who enable them) who want to deprive them of the capacity of thinking for themselves.

Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana professor and chair of the department of government and international studies at Berry College.