Obama Scraps Bioethics Council

Several months before their mandate was scheduled to expire, members of the President’s Council on Bioethics were abruptly asked by the White House to cancel a planned meeting, and they were informed that their services are no longer needed. Although the Council’s charter would have automatically expired in September of this year, the Council officially no longer exists as of June 11, 2009.

According to White House press officer Reid Cherlin, President Obama disbanded the Council because he saw it as "a philosophically leaning advisory group". At some undesignated time in the future, Obama intends to appoint a new commission on bioethics that will "offer practical policy options", according to Mr. Cherlin. Currently, however, the Obama administration now finds itself in the rare historic position of being without any advisory bioethics council at all.

Although it was known, and expected, that President Obama would have to create his own, new commission on bioethics when the charter of the current President’s Council on Bioethics would expire in September of this year, it was unexpected that Obama would actually abolish the Council prematurely. The fact that he has done so a full three months before the designated completion of the Council’s charter is in some ways a surprise to many, though in other ways not a surprise at all.

The U.S. President’s Council on Bioethics was formed by President George W. Bush in November of 2001, and its members have not hesitated to criticize what they view as Obama’s mistakes in stem cell policy thus far. In March of this year, for example, over half the members of the Council issued a formal letter of objection to Obama in which they sharply criticized the heavy bias of his new stem cell policy, which many scientists and doctors besides those who were members of the Council find to be without valid scientific basis. Needless to say, such criticism has not enamored the Council to President Obama nor to his supporters of embryonic stem cell research, all of whom have responded in return with their own personal criticisms of the Council and its members. One such critic, Dr. Alta Charo of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is herself known to be heavily biased in favor of embryonic stem cell research, in which she is heavily invested with her own personal work, at the exclusion of anything having to do with adult stem cells. Nevertheless, she is often quoted as an "authority" on the topics of stem cells and bioethics, and is expected to be among those appointed by President Obama to his new commission on bioethics, whenever exactly that might be.

There are many bioethicists, however, such as Dr. Ruth Faden of Johns Hopkins University, who point out that "all presidential commissions are structured in the context of a particular administration." With this fact in mind, and given his record thus far, Obama’s new commission is expected to be heavily unbalanced in favor of embryonic stem cell research, with little or no recognition of the successes that have already been achieved with adult stem cell therapies. Nor is Obama’s new commission, whenever exactly it might be formed, expected to acknowledge the fact that adult stem cell therapies, which already exist, could be made available in the U.S. to patients now, today, were it not for the FDA’s insistence that endogenous, autologous adult stem cells must be categorized as "drugs" and therefore regulated according to the same outdated and lethargic FDA laws to which pharmaceutical medications are subject. Scientists and doctors who are actually attempting to help patients by treating real diseases and injuries with adult stem cell therapies understand that this FDA stance is a major legal obstacle that continues to prevent adult stem cell therapies from being made available to patients within the United States, and it is this FDA law which is driving adult stem cell clinics out of the U.S. to any and every other country in the world. Such a topic is never even addressed, however, by President Obama nor his cabinet nor by embryonic stem cell researchers in the U.S. who are concerned primarily with being guaranteed their own share of NIH funding – despite the fact that even the "father of embryonic stem cell science", Dr. James Thomson, has said that embryonic stem cells will probably not be scientifically viable as clinical therapies for at least another decade, at the earliest, due to the many medical problems that are inherent in embryonic stem cells, not the least of which is the fact that embryonic stem cells are required, by definition of pluripotency, to cause teratomas (tumors). To blame the lack of availability of stem cell therapies in the U.S. on a previous administration is to ignore entirely the new and very serious problems which currently exist under the current administration. And meanwhile, as the seriously flawed FDA ruling on endogenous, autologous adult stem cells continues to drive adult stem cell therapies overseas – while precious taxpayer dollars are funnelled almost exclusively into embryonic stem cell research even though such research is not expected to produce even one clinical therapy before another decade has elapsed – exactly how many patients who are in desperate need of a clinical stem cell therapy today, not in ten years from now, will die?

As early as January of this year, Dr. Robert P. George, a professor of jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, wrote the following in an article entitled, "A Diverse Bioethics Council?", which was printed in the Public Discourse, a publication of Princeton University’s Witherspoon Institute:

"In 2002, when George W. Bush announced the names of his appointees to the President’s Council on Bioethics, there were liberal bioethicists who complained that the President had ‘stacked’ the council with ‘religious conservatives’ who shared his views on questions of 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. Nearly half of the eighteen members of the council fundamentally disagreed with the President on key issues. Several had supported Vice President Gore over Bush in the election. 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. … Although President Bush got no credit for it, 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. It is likely that President Obama will soon constitute a bioethics advisory council of his own. When he does, will he favor the country with a council as diverse as his predecessor’s? Will as many as a third of its members have been McCain supporters? 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? If not, what will the bioethicists and others who originally complained about Bush allegedly ‘stacking’ his council with like-minded people say? What will we hear from writers and commentators in the media who reported that Bush had stacked the Council with religious conservatives?"

Time will tell.

Among those whom President Obama considers to be too "philosophical" is Edmund D. Pellegrino, M.D., the most recent Chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics as well as Professor Emeritus of Medicine and Medical Ethics at Georgetown University and a former director of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University, who has coauthored 24 books and more than 550 published articles while simultaneously continuing to see and treat his own patients over the years. In addition to the numerous other committees on which he serves, in 2004 Dr. Pellegrino was also appointed to the International Bioethics Committee at the United Nations. Perhaps the United Nations is also too philosophical and should also be abolished.

On the website of The President’s Council on Bioethics, www.bioethics.gov, the dates of the Council’s existence are displayed, November 28, 2001 – June 11, 2009, followed by the notice, "This site is now being archived."

(Please see the related news article on this website, entitled, "Members of The President’s Council on Bioethics Object to Obama’s Stem Cell Policy", dated March 26, 2009).

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