The bioethics council falls to earth.

Science, technology, and life.
Dec. 4 2004 7:34 AM

Govern This

The bioethics council falls to earth.

Thursday's final session of the President's Council on Bioethics features a presentation by council member Francis Fukuyama. He's best known for two books, The End of History and the Last Man and Our Posthuman Future, which attempt to summarize, respectively, everything that has happened and everything that will happen. You'd think his session would be world-historical big-think, but no. Fukuyama wants to spend these 90 minutes doing what big-thinkers hate most: grinding the council's beautiful ideas into the bloodless, bureaucratic prose of the Federal Register. He wants to talk policy.

I forgot this about Fukuyama: Before he was a philosopher, he was a wonk. He believes in—shudder—doing things. He thinks the sex of intellectual exchange really is for the procreation of policy. This afternoon's talk revolves around two of his favorite words. His topic is "Governance of Human Biotechnology." His project is "The Human Biotechnology Governance Project." In case government isn't a sufficiently reviled term, Fukuyama throws in another: regulation, which he refers to, twice, as "the R word."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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He needn't be so sheepish. There's little danger of an uprising against American regulation of human biotechnology. That's because there is no American regulation of human biotechnology. You can clone a human embryo, implant it in a womb, and see how far it grows. You can produce as many IVF embryos as you want and use genetic tests to weed out any you don't like for any reason. If you've got the skill and tools to fuse two embryos or to make an embryo that's half-human and half-something else, nobody's stopping you. Hence Fukuyama's plea to do something. His Web site reflects the awkwardness of the situation: Its URL is www.biotechgov.org. Not www.biotech.gov because there is no biotech dot-gov. There's only a dot-org imagining itself as a dot-gov.

What should a biotech dot-gov look like? Fukuyama dispatches several options. Congress? Too stupid. (Fukuyama is too diplomatic to put it this way. His exact words are, "Congress does not have time or knowledge to legislate on most issues.") California's regenerative medicine institute? An industry-rigged travesty, he says—"like turning over the henhouse to the foxes." Nongovernmental organizations? Too opaque or phony. Even the council to whom Fukuyama is speaking gets a failing grade. "Toothless," he points out.

So what's Fukuyama's answer? A new federal agency. Its mandate? Regulate the stuff we can tolerate, and ban the stuff we can't. How does it decide which is which? That's up to the public, says Fukuyama. He envisions "guided" deliberation through town halls and the Internet. The agency won't just poll people; it will steer a "deliberative" process aimed at "shaping of preferences" and ultimately "consensus."

This sounds to me like a vague do-gooder fantasy begging to be hijacked by zealots. In no time, Fukuyama's colleagues pounce on it. James Q. Wilson, the famous social scientist, cracks that the endless deliberations "might exhaust this country's limited capacity for consultation." Leon Kass, the council's chairman, all but labels the proposal a goner, noting that everyone will be afraid of their enemies being appointed to run the agency. Alfonso Gomez-Lobo, one of the council's conservatives, is aghast at the prospect of an American biotech ministry run by the same morally deaf liberals he sees in the British biotech ministry.

Fukuyama scrambles to narrow the target. He says the agency would ban things everyone finds revolting, such as fused embryos and part-human hybrids. But these are the most speculative problems. The immediate ones are things like the genetic selection and implantation of an embryo for the purpose of transplanting the resulting infant's tissue to a sibling. (This has already happened.) Should such things be banned? Not by Congress, says Fukuyama. The question is too subtle, he says. He'd leave it up to his agency.

The more he defers to the agency, the more the others pile on. Another conservative, Gilbert Meilaender, asks whether the agency, having been set up to regulate these biotech practices, would exclude appointees who think such practice should be banned rather than regulated. Kass worries that the agency will just poll the public and "blow with the wind." Fukuyama, trying to satisfy both concerns, ties himself in knots. The agency's commissioners will be open to all points of view, he says, but will temper that with their own judgment.

As if to simulate the politicization of the agency, the council breaks down into jockeying. Wilson proposes to take Fukuyama's idea to Congress and elicit "50 pages" of bans and regulations on biological research and assisted reproduction. Michael Gazzaniga, one of the liberals in the group, wants Fukuyama to admit that his proposal would prompt two of the council's wavering members to support research cloning, which would put a majority of the council behind that idea. Robert George, one of the conservatives, replies that one wavering member who is absent wouldn't shift her vote based on the proposal.

Who needs a federal bioethics commission riven by politics and vote-counting when we've already got one? By the end, Fukuyama has joined the melee—"This is a proposal to create an agency which would legitimate stem-cell research," he says—and council member Paul McHugh is asking him, "What do you want to get people's dukes up for?" Wilson coaches Fukuyama on how to sneak his agenda through the agency later, then gives up. "I don't know why we're having to sit around and talk practical politics in Washington," he jokes. Everyone laughs. It's the only thing they've agreed on all day.