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Obama and the President’s Council on Bioethics: An Insider’s View

On June 17, The New York Times reported that President Obama disbanded the President’s Council on Bioethics. No advanced warning. No allowance for the final meeting of the council, which was to take place only one week later. No more dialogue.

As a visiting Fellow under physician-philosopher and chair of the president’s council, Dr. Edmund Pellegrino, I was to accompany him to his final council meeting. The final meeting was to discuss the ethics of organ transplantation, health care and the common good, and the future of bioethics councils. Yet, due to executive order, there was no final meeting.

The President’s Council on Bioethics, established by George W. Bush, had its fair share of criticism – for rejecting science, basing decisions on feelings, and producing biased council publications, particularly during the tenure its founding director, Leon Kass. Many agreed that Pellegrino set a different tone.

Ethicist Baruch Brody told Science in 2005 that Pellegrino is “widely admired and respected – there isn’t an award that hasn’t been awarded to him, including from those in considerable disagreement with him.” Even those who disagree with Pellegrino still admire his commitment to insightful and purposeful dialogue.

It was expected that the new president would disband the council commissioned by his predecessor, and yet it was the manner in which he did this that took so many by surprise. In light of Obama’s post-partisan politics, many had hoped that his open and conciliatory posture in politics might make its way into the discourse of bioethics. Yet his actions contradicted his own professed commitments to sincere dialogue regarding matters of deep disagreement among the American public.

On May 17, just one month prior, the president delivered the commencement speech to the University of Notre Dame amid a firestorm of opposition to many of his positions on bioethics. President Obama carefully and respectfully responded to those who disagree with him.

There he urged the Notre Dame graduates to use “fair-minded words” when debating controversial topics and to extend a “presumption of good faith” to those who disagree with them. “Because when we do that,” he declared, “when we open our hearts and our minds to those who may not think like we do or believe what we do – that’s when we discover at least the possibility of common ground.”

Ironically, exactly one month later the president abruptly dissolved the council, leaving many confused – confused about the president’s commitment to “fair minded” disagreement on matters of bioethics and confused about the possibility of achieving the kind of civil, post-partisan discourse in bioethics.

There had been little correspondence between the new president and the council until recently, when 10 of the 18 council members published a statement here critiquing the president’s stance on embryonic stem cell research. Whether or not this statement played a role in silencing the council is unknown. Yet we must ask whether the president’s actions extend an open heart and an open mind to these council members.

Was this an extension of good faith in attempts to discover common ground? The inspirational words at Notre Dame on May 17 failed to resonate on the 17th of June.

The explanation the White House gave for its abrupt dismissal of the council is itself disheartening. Pellegrino’s council, termed “a philosophically leaning advisory group” by the White House press officer, would be replaced by a group offering “practical policy options.”

Practical policy is often understood as that which “works” or “is useful,” but it is important to remember that, in addition to advising the president on policy, the council was also mandated to provide a platform for the often arduous task of discussing bioethics in a pluralistic society. By silencing theoretical minded discussion, conversion to a strictly pragmatic mandate threatens to erode the open hearted, open minded Socratic dialogue that Pellegrino’s council epitomized.

Must bioethics reject moral philosophy and dialogue in an attempt to produce merely the “practical?” Or, as Pellegrino exhorts us to consider, “How much ‘ethics’ is left in the field of bioethics?”

It is my hope that there will continue to be room to dialogue on a national level about the big questions in the realm of bioethics today, discussion both on the philosophical true and good as well as its application to practical policy. And, for the sake of future generations, I hope bioethics and the discourse surrounding it are met with the tone set on May 17 rather than that of June 17.

Ryan M. Antiel is a Pellegrino Fellow at the Georgetown University Center for Clinical Bioethics and a third-year medical student at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

Published on: July 13, 2009
Published in: Bioethics

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