Leon Kass, You Silly Ass!
Please stop denying you tilted the bioethics panel.
No chance. Blackburn and May both support therapeutic cloning. The third council member Kass replaced, Stephen Carter, quit the council in September 2002 after Chatterbox repeatedly pointed out that Carter was too busy promoting his blockbuster novel, The Emperor of Ocean Park, to participate in any way. Carter's disposition is uncertain (though based on what Carter said at the two meetings he attended, Chatterbox thinks he might have supported therapeutic cloning). If Kass wanted to be scrupulous in preserving the bioethics council's balance, he'd have sought out two individuals who tilt toward therapeutic cloning and one person whose views could go either way. Instead, he chose three members who tilt away from therapeutic cloning.
Kass professes not to know what his new appointees think. (Sound familiar?) But one of the new panel members, Diana Schaub, a political scientist at Maryland's Loyola College, last year wrote the following about therapeutic cloning in the neoconservative journal, First Things:
Cloning is an evil, and cloning for the purpose of research actually exacerbates the evil by countenancing the willful destruction of nascent human life. Moreover, it proposes doing this on a mass scale, as an institutionalized and routinized undertaking to extract medical benefits for those who have greater power. It is slavery plus abortion.
Schaub and Kass both participated in a panel discussion in October 2002 about the bioethics panel report, Human Cloning and Human Dignity, at the American Enterprise Institute. In her opening statement, Schaub said,
[I]f one were, with an open mind, to read the whole of the report, including the appendix of personal statements, one would be persuaded with the rightness of banning all human cloning, whether for the purpose of children or research.
A second new panel member, Peter Lawler, is a political scientist at Berry College. He told the Baltimore Sun that he doesn't oppose therapeutic cloning, but this is difficult to reconcile with his fierce opposition to abortion. See, for example, his following peroration (from the Nov. 25, 2002 Weekly Standard):
Unless we become clear as a nation that abortion is wrong, women will—I predict—eventually find themselves compelled to submit to therapeutic abortions of genetically defective babies and then to do whatever is required to enhance their children genetically. … We will not be able to protect the genuine reproductive freedom of women—their right to have and love their own babies—unless there is a pro-life consensus embodied in our law. Those who believe the effective regulation of biotechnological development can be morally neutral about abortion are simply wrong.
"I don't think this is the best bioethics has to offer," University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Arthur Caplan confided to Chatterbox regarding Schaub and Lawler. (Caplan last week circulated a letter protesting the removal of May and Blackburn.) "I don't even think this is the best the right wing has to offer."
Caplan feels better about the third new panel member, Benjamin Carson, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins. But Carson, who has made many passionate, highly public pronouncements about his Christian faith (he's a Seventh Day Adventist) opposes therapeutic cloning; his name is on a petition that takes an absolutist stance against all human cloning, even if it's for "so-called 'therapeutic' purposes." Still, Carson is sufficiently unafraid to tamper with God's plan to have become world-renowned as separator of conjoined twins, a distinction that won him a cameo in the Farrelly Brothers' recent conjoined-twins comedy, Stuck On You. (Given Kass' famous aversion to the public licking of ice cream cones, it's fun to imagine how he'd react to the Farrellys' gross-out humor.) It's conceivable that there's some give in Carson's views.
In his Post op-ed, Kass argued that the bioethics council is moving "away from issues of reproduction and genetics to focus on issues of neuroscience, brain and behavior." That, he said, is the main reason he got rid of Blackburn, who's a cell biologist. But Blackburn informed Chatterbox that an upcoming council meeting will include testimony from ... a neural stem-cell biologist! Moreover, developments with stem cells and cloning—Harvard is starting a privately funded stem-cell research center, and South Korean scientists recently announced they'd successfully cloned 30 embryos and grown them for a week—are moving so rapidly that the bioethics panel could easily find itself redirected by the White House back toward embryo science and politics. Even if that doesn't happen, the moral and philosophical divide about the possible enhancement of human faculties tends to mimic the divide over embryo-based research. In arguing that he isn't trying to tilt his panel's balance, Kass is doing something nobody in the ethics racket should ever do. He's telling a big, fat, utterly transparent lie.
Correction, March 9, 2004: An earlier version of this column asserted, erroneously, that panel member Alfonso Gómez-Lobo, a philosophy professor at Georgetown University, missed "almost twice as many meetings as Blackburn." In fact, Gómez-Lobo has an unusually good attendance record at the bioethics council, having missed only the first of the council's 15 meetings. Chatterbox's error arose from a faulty computer search of the meeting transcripts. (The accent mark in "Gómez" gummed up the works.)
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.