2 appointees defend place on bioethics panel

Bush critics say politics, not science, ruled choice

March 02, 2004|By David Kohn and Julie Bell | David Kohn and Julie Bell,SUN STAFF

Two new appointees to the president's bioethics council defended their selection yesterday, saying they will not be conservative "rubber stamps" for the president's views, as some critics have contended.

"I have a great interest as a citizen in these questions, and I think I have sufficient intelligence to understand the science that's involved," said Diana J. Schaub, a Loyola College political scientist and opponent of therapeutic cloning who was named to the panel Friday.

The appointments of Schaub, with Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Benjamin S. Carson and Peter A. Lawler, a government professor at Berry College in Mount Berry, Ga., have drawn criticism from scientists who say the president is stacking the council with those who agree with his views on cloning and other controversial biomedical issues.

Calling the charges of bias "utter baloney," Lawler said yesterday that, while he is a conservative, his views are more moderate than some critics believe.

Carson, a pediatric neurosurgeon widely known for his work separating conjoined twins, declined to be interviewed but issued a statement saying he was honored to be chosen.

The three will replace two members whose terms were not renewed: Elizabeth Blackburn, a prominent cell biologist at the University of California at San Francisco, and William May, a retired ethics professor at Southern Methodist University. The two frequently disagreed with more conservative council members, including the chairman, Dr. Leon Kass.

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic presidential front-runner, added the appointments to his campaign issues: "A scientific panel ought to be chosen on the basis of science and on the basis of reputation, not politics," he said.

The 18-member President's Council on Bioethics was formed in 2001 to advise the president on ethical issues involving biomedical science and technology. It already has issued a report on cloning and another on whether biotechnology should be used for reasons other than a physical ailment, such as instilling happiness.

Although some of the council's conclusions have been more conservative than many scientists and patients' advocates prefer, they have not always reflected Bush's views.

A majority of the panel, for example, recommended in July 2002 that there be a four-year moratorium on human cloning for biomedical research to allow public debate. Bush supports an outright ban.

The changes in the council will remove voices that have not agreed with the administration in the past.

Kass, the council chairman, said the 76-year-old May had "expressed a desire not to continue on the council" and would serve as a consultant.

But May said yesterday that it wasn't his choice to leave the council. Although he and the chairman often disagreed, May said, the two had a good relationship.

Remaining council members continue to serve under holdover provisions, though their two-year terms also expired in January.

The other dismissed member, Elizabeth Blackburn, said bias clearly played a role in the decision to remove her: "Holding science hostage to ideology, that's what it looks like to me."

Those who follow the council say Blackburn clashed frequently with more conservative members, particularly Kass, a University of Chicago ethics professor who supports a moratorium on cloning human embryos for research.

"Dr. Blackburn wasn't shy about letting Dr. Kass know how she felt," said Elizabeth Marincola, executive director for the American Society for Cell Biology, which favors increased research into stem cells.

Yesterday Kass defended the council's makeup as "heterogenous" and denied that May and Blackburn were dumped for disagreeing with him or the president - or that the new members were expected to toe the line.

Noting that the council has largely finished its work on genetics, cloning and reproductive biology, Kass described Carson as a replacement for Blackburn and said the Baltimore surgeon would be a valuable resource as the council begins work on neuroscience and behavior.

Kass said he expects that the new appointees won't always side with him, something he became aware of the first time he heard Lawler give a speech.

"I slammed him," Lawler said, explaining that he disagrees with what he described as Kass' Brave New World fears about biotechnology.

Of his own views, Lawler said he is not opposed to therapeutic cloning, is suspicious of reproductive cloning and is more pro-life than pro-choice. On the end-of-life issues the council might be about to discuss, he said, "I'm not a euthanasia guy. I'm not a Dr. Kevorkian guy. I'm not a `keep alive at all costs' guy."

Schaub opposes both abortion and cloning human embryos for therapeutic reasons. But she noted the council has already issued its report on cloning. "I think what I have is a grounding in moral and political philosophy," Schaub said.

New appointees to the President's Council on Bioethics

Benjamin S. Carson Sr.

Age: 53

Title: Chief of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital

Specialty: Has conducted many high-profile operations, including procedures to separate conjoined twins. A devout Seventh-day Adventist, the author of three inspirational books and founder of a college scholarship program

Peter A. Lawler

Age: 52

Title: Dana Professor of Government at Berry College in Mount Berry, Ga.

Specialty: Has lectured widely about biomedical science, editor of the quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and author of the books Postmodernism Rightly Understood and Aliens in America

Diana J. Schaub

Age: 44

Position: Associate professor and chairwoman of the Loyola College political science department

About her: A historian of political philosophy, she wrote last year in The Public Interest about the moral dangers of permitting cloning for research

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