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June 26, 2009

The President’s Council on Bioethics has been disbanded. The White House has told the members last week that their services are no longer required.

Appointed in November, 2001 by the Bush Administration, the Council has provided valuable input on some of the most difficult ethical issues in our modern culture. New technologies, both at the beginning and end of life, have challenged our understandings of what it means to be human, and what are the limits of medical science.

The Council was first chaired by Leon Kass of the University of Chicago, followed by Edmund Pelligrino of Georgetown University in 2005. Daniel McConchie (VP for Govt. Affairs with AUL) recently said: “This was the most balanced bioethics council in history, with two leaders . . . who went out of their way to ensure the council was reflective of all the major perspectives on the issues.”

The Obama Administration claims that the President’s Council was “a philosophically leaning advisory group” that tended to focus on extended discussion rather than consensus. Others were even more critical, calling it “more like a public debating society” than an advisory agency.

I have found the President’s Council Web site to be an excellent source of balanced articles on a wide range of subjects (the site is being archived, for which I am thankful). The Council’s outgoing Chair has said this:

To advance human good and avoid harm, biotechnology must be used within ethical constraints. It is the task of bioethics to help society develop those constraints and bioethics, therefore, must be of concern to all of us. (Dr. Edmond Pelligrino)

Granted, each presidential administration has the right to set its own priorities. President Obama has said that he will soon name a new commission that will focus more on “practical policy options.” I suppose that means that this body will be less focused on theory and more on tangible steps. Hmmm.

It has sometimes been said, not without justification, that university and hospital ethics committees are in place to rubber-stamp (and defend to the public) decisions that have already been made, rather than give true, independent ethical guidance. Could this also be said of the new Council under the Obama White House?

Perhaps the former “public debating society” will be replaced by a society where there is no debate at all. Stay tuned.

NY Times Article

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