June 4, 2010


Silence about bioethical issues

Have you noticed that we haven’t heard much lately from the federal government about the ethics of biotechnology?

Bioethics was much in the news during President George W. Bush’s administration, especially regarding government funding of embryonic stem-cell research. He opposed such funding, and his first veto was of a bill that would have overthrown his policy.

But all is quiet now under President Barack Obama’s administration. He apparently decided that he won the controversies over bioethics when he won the presidency. In March 2009, he reversed the Bush policy. Since last July, the National Institutes of Health has been funding work on newly created lines of embryonic stem cells.

That means that those of us who believe that those embryos are human beings are being forced to pay for their destruction.

In making his decision, the president didn’t bother trying to justify the morality of killing human embryos, a necessary step when studying them. He said simply that his administration would “make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology,” and that there was “broad agreement in the scientific community that the research should be supported by federal funds.” Of course, scientists wanted their hands on federal funds.

All that happened shortly after Obama became president well over a year ago. Have you heard anything more about it since then?

Eric Cohen and Yuval Levin were staff members of the President’s Council on Bioethics while George W. Bush was president. They wrote an article in the June/July issue of First Things, a magazine published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, in which they said that the Obama administration is trying hard to avoid debates over bioethics issues. The Obama administration wants us to believe that there are no important ethical issues when it comes to biotechnology, Cohen and Levin say.

That is definitely not the view of the Catholic Church. Indeed, in his book The Future Church: How Ten Trends Are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church, John L. Allen Jr. includes “the biotech revolution” as one of those 10 trends. It will be an important issue throughout this century, Allen believes.

Obama does have a council similar to Bush’s Council on Bioethics. Obama’s is called the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. However, he didn’t establish that commission until last November so it had no opportunity to advise the president before he announced his new policy about embryonic stem-cell funding in March 2009. And it wasn’t until April 2010 that he named all the members of the commission.

As far as we can tell, the commission has only one pro-life member, Franciscan Brother Daniel Sulmasy. He is one of only

two professional bioethicists among the 12 members of the commission, the other being Christine Grady, an ethicist at the National Institutes of Health’s Clinical Center.

The chair of the committee is Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, and the vice chair is James Wagner, president of Emory University. They are heading the commission on a part-time basis, in contrast to the leaders of Bush’s Council on Bioethics. Its first head was Leon Kass of the University of Chicago, and he was succeeded by Edmund Pellegrino, a former president of The Catholic University of America, who then was a prominent ethicist at Georgetown University. Both Kass and Pellegrino took leaves of absence from their other projects to manage the council’s work full time.

There is apparently no need for Gutmann and Wagner to do that because, according to Cohen and Levin, “The commission seems designed to keep bioethics out of the news,” and “to keep it from taking up the most basic questions underlying our approach to science and technology.”

Bioethics must concern much more than embryo stem-cell experimentation, of course. As Allen said in his book The Future Church, “Few matters are as anguished, and as politically explosive as the questions of when human life begins and ends, and to what extent human life ought to be manipulated at its most basic levels. The 21st century will witness endless upheaval over these points, and the Church, as a microcosm of society, will inevitably reflect those tensions.”

We must not pretend that science alone has all the answers.

—John F. Fink

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