Leading bioethics thinker ponders whether Obama will consult pro-life ethicists

Prof. Robert P. George
Prof. Robert P. George


Robert P. George, a Princeton law professor and member of President Bush’s Council on Bioethics, has written an essay asking whether President Barack Obama will be open to including pro-life thinkers among his bioethics advisers.

President George W. Bush created the President’s Council on Bioethics through a November, 2001 Executive Order. Its mission is to “advise the President on bioethical issues that may emerge as a consequence of advances in biomedical science and technology.”

The Council may study issues “such as embryo and stem cell research, assisted reproduction, cloning, uses of knowledge and techniques derived from human genetics or the neurosciences, and end of life issues.”

In the essay “A Diverse Bioethics Council?” published Jan. 23 on the web site The Public Discourse, Robert P. George reported that in 2002 when President Bush announced his appointees to the President’s Council on Bioethics, liberal bioethicists claimed that the president had “stacked” the council with “religious conservatives” who shared his views on embryonic stem cell research and “therapeutic” cloning.

“More than a few media outlets reported this claim as if it were a fact. It was, however, a spectacular falsehood,” Prof. George claimed. He said that “nearly half” of the appointees “fundamentally disagreed” with the president on such key issues.

“The Bush council, chaired by Dr. Leon Kass, was the most intellectually and ideologically diverse bioethics advisory body ever constituted—far more diverse than its predecessor, the National Bioethics Advisory Commission under President Bill Clinton,” he argued.

Prof. George reported that six members favored the production of human embryos for biomedical research in which the embryos would be destroyed. At least three other members were “not in principle opposed” to “therapeutic” cloning, but supported a four-year moratorium in the hope that alternative technologies not involving cloning could be developed.

Still another member opposed the deliberate creation of embryos for destructive research, but supported revoking President Bush’s restrictions on the use of embryos “left unused” by in-vitro fertilization treatments.

George himself is a pro-life Catholic thinker who recently co-authored the book “Embryo: A Defense of Human Life.” There, he argued that human personhood begins at conception and should be respected from its beginning.

“Although President Bush got no credit for it,” George wrote, “he had created a council that represented the range of viewpoints held by reasonable and responsible Americans on the most urgent and divisive bioethics questions facing the country.”

“This enabled his council to produce reports that improved the quality of public debate by equipping citizens and policy makers with solid factual information vetted by experts representing different points of view on key ethical questions, and informing them of the best arguments available on competing sides of hot-button issues.”

Noting that it is likely President Obama will constitute a bioethics advisory council of his own, George asked: “When he does, will he favor the country with a council as diverse as his predecessor’s? … Will nearly half hold strong pro-life views that contradict the President’s own beliefs about the moral status of the human embryo and related questions? Will Obama be as open to differing perspectives and ideas as Bush was?”

George wondered whether, should President Obama’s council not be so open, those critics who complained about a Bush council “stacked” with “religious conservatives” will be consistent in their criticism.

Referring to accusations of pro-Obama media bias, he said reporting on the president’s choice of bioethics advisors will be “a straightforward and decisive test of the media’s objectivity.”

If President Obama, unlike President Bush, stacks his bioethics council with those who agree with him, Prof. George wondered whether the public will be told or whether the media will apply a double standard.

“If Obama stacks his council with social liberals, will the contrast with the Bush council be noted? Or will the media implicitly adopt the view that a council stacked with liberals isn’t really ‘stacked’?” George asked.

George advocated that future Republican and conservative presidents follow President Obama’s lead. An appointment of a diverse council, he argued, would ratify an “entirely noble way” of “using bioethics advisory councils to enhance the overall quality of deliberation and debate.”

A restricted range of voices on an Obama bioethics council, George claimed, would make bioethics councils “advance the president’s own preordained agenda on bioethics questions” and not “provide thoughtful argumentation enriched by the inclusion of perspectives that are critical of the president’s beliefs.”

“If President Obama pushes aside Bush’s openness to a council that will provide him with a diversity of ideas and opinions, he and his party should not be permitted to benefit from a double standard,” George’s essay in The Public Discourse concluded. “When the Republicans return to power, as sooner or later they will, this is one area in which they should follow Obama’s lead—in either direction.”