The ruckus over changes in the composition of the President's Council on Bioethics has its roots in a White House meeting that occurred on July 9, 2001. It was during this meeting that President Bush began to formulate his policy on stem-cell research, which allows federal funding for research involving embryonic stem cell lines developed before August 2001, but none on stem-cell lines developed since then. (Bush claimed his decision would leave scientists with around 60 viable embryonic stem-cell lines to use in federally funded research. But there were never anywhere near that many. As of today, only 15 such embryonic stem-cell lines are available.)
The July 2001 meeting was a presentation by Leon Kass, the University of Chicago bioethicist who would become chairman of the bioethics council, and Daniel Callahan of the Hastings Center for Bioethics. According to an account by Katharine Q. Seelye and Frank Bruni in the New York Times,
Mr. Bush had asked Dr. Kass to bring along someone who had a different viewpoint from his own. He thought Dr. Callahan would have a different view, but as it turned out he too disliked the idea of destroying embryos and had a position similar to Dr. Kass. This apparently made a big impression on Mr. Bush.
Callahan was a Democrat and former editor of the liberal magazine Commonweal, but it stretches credulity to suggest Kass had no inkling that Callahan, a longtime friend and colleague, would have views on stem cells that were similar to his own. Callahan told journalist Chris Mooney that he hadn't previously written on the subject or discussed it with Kass. But Samuel Gorovitz, a medical ethicist and former dean of arts and sciences at Syracuse, told Mooney that "everybody who knows the field would have expected" Callahan to hold views about stem-cell research that were similar to Kass' own.
Ultimately, of course, it was Bush who deserved blame for failing to get a real debate going. Surely at Harvard Business School he'd been taught that if you want to hear a vigorous exchange of differing views, you don't let the guy arguing one side pick the guy arguing the opposite side. Nonetheless, Kass was asked by his commander-in-chief to present a true debate. Even if Kass honestly didn't know that Callahan would agree with him, it was negligent of him not to find out.
The story of the Great Non-Debate goes a long way toward explaining why journalists are unwilling to cut Kass much slack now that his intellectual honesty is being called into question once again. On Feb. 28 the Washington Post's Rick Weiss reported that President Bush had "dismissed two members of his handpicked Council on Bioethics—a scientist and a moral philosopher who had been among the more outspoken advocates for research on human embryo cells." That was a little misleading. William May, an emeritus ethics professor at Southern Methodist University, was indeed dismissed, but he issued a written statement saying he'd never really planned to sit on the panel for more than two years (he's 76) and that the experience had been a "great pleasure." It mischaracterizes May to call him an "outspoken advocate" for embryo research. May did end up opposing Kass on therapeutic cloning, but he's a sotto voce moderate whose ultimate disposition could not have been easily predicted.
But while May isn't easily pigeonholed as the victim of an ideological purge, a second council member almost certainly lost her appointment because of her views. Elizabeth Blackburn, a biochemist at the University of California San Francisco, is angry about her dismissal and eager to express that anger publicly. Kass, she told Chatterbox, has "a nausea for diversity."
Kass defended Blackburn's dismissal in an op-ed in the March 3 Washington Post that emphasized his panel's "moral seriousness." (As Chatterbox has explained before, "morally serious" is a phrase used almost exclusively by neoconservatives, usually to praise other neoconservatives.) Kass hinted that Blackburn had a poor attendance record ("her important work kept her from attending many council meetings"). Blackburn did indeed miss about half the meetings *. But Blackburn says that she "spent a great deal of time" working on the written reports the panel put out. Indeed, it was likely not disengagement from the panel's work but her engagement—in the form of e-mails she sent Kass quarrelling with wording here or there—that ultimately got her canned. Blackburn said she'd "get drafts and I'd see the science that was getting misrepresented in biased fashion." But when she complained to Kass, she found "I was really pushing against a force that did not want to hear or change the way the reports were being written."
Blackburn voiced some of these complaints in a March 5 essay in PLoS Biology, an online magazine published by the Public Library of Science. (PLoS is a nonprofit, co-founded by former National Institutes of Health director Harold Varmus, that's committed to providing scientific studies on the Web cost-free.) The essay was co-authored by a current member of the bioethics council, Janet Rowley, a hematologist at the University of Chicago. Kass partisans can argue that Rowley's continued presence on the panel shows that Kass doesn't perform political purges. But Kass detractors can answer that Rowley's co-authorship of the piece, and particularly her timing, show that Blackburn was no lone malcontent.
Let us pose a thought experiment. (Bioethicists are very big on thought experiments.) Imagine that Blackburn was not canned for her political views, but rather was killed by a bolt of lightning while taking a stroll through Golden Gate Park. Could a sensible person then yield to Kass' insistence that it's "malicious and false" to say he's manipulating his panel's balance?