Jul 26, 2009

Bioethics and the End of Discussion

Posted by in categories: biotech/medical, ethics


President Obama disbanded the President’s Council on Bioethics after it questioned his policy on embryonic stem cell research. White House press officer Reid Cherlin said that this was because the Council favored discussion over developing a shared consensus. This column lists a number of problems with Obama’s decision, and with his position on the most controversial bioethical issue of our time.

Bioethics and the End of Discussion

In early June, President Obama disbanded the President’s Council on Bioethics. According to White House press officer Reid Cherlin, this was because the Council was designed by the Bush administration to be “a philosophically leaning advisory group” that favored discussion over developing a shared consensus.

Shared consensus? Like the shared consensus about the Mexico City policy, government funding of Embryonic Stem Cell Research for new lines, or taxpayer funded abortions? All this despite the fact that 51% of Americans consider themselves pro-life? By allowing publicly-funded Embryonic Stem Cell Research only on existing lines, President Bush made a decision that nobody was happy with, but at least it was an honest compromise, and given the principle of second effect, an ethically acceptable one.

President Obama will appoint a new bioethics commission, one with a new mandate and that “offers practical policy options,” Mr. Cherlin said.

Practical policy options? Like the ones likely to be given by Obama’s new authoritative committee to expediently promote the license to kill the most innocent and vulnerable? But that is only the start. As the baby boomers bankrupt Social Security, there will be a strong temptation to expand Obama’s mandate to include the aging “useless mouths”. Oregon and the Netherlands have already shown the way—after all, a suicide pill is much cheaper than palliative care, and it’s much more cost-effective to kill patients rather than care for them. (

Evan Rosa details many problems with Obama’s decision to disband the Council (, but there are additional disturbing implications:

First, democracies are absolutely dependent on discussion. Dictators have always suppressed free discussion on “sensitive” subjects because it is the nature of evil to fear criticism. This has been true here in the United States, too—in the years leading up to the Civil War, Southern senators and representatives tried to squelch all discussion on slavery. Maybe their consciences bothered them.

Second, no matter how well-meaning the participants may be, consensus between metaphysically opposed parties is impossible in some matters (such as the humanity of a baby a few months before he or she is born, the existence of God, consequentialist vs. deontological reasoning, etc.). The only way to get “consensus” in such situations is by exercising the monopoly of force owned by the government.

Third, stopping government-sponsored discussion on bioethics sets a dangerous precedent for the ethics surrounding nanotechnology. There are numerous ethical issues that nanotechnology is raising, and will continue to raise, that desperately require significant amounts of detailed discussion and deep thinking.

Tyrants begin by marginalizing anyone who disagrees with them, calling them hate-mongering obstructionists (or worse). In addition, they will use governmental power to subdue any who dare oppose their policies.

The details of the dismissal of the Council clearly shows this tendency, though the Council members are not acting very subdued. As one of them supposedly put it, “Instead of meeting at seminars, now we’ll be meeting on Facebook.”

On March 9, Obama removed restrictions on federal funding for research on embryonic stem cell lines derived by means that destroy human embryos.

On March 25, ten out of the eighteen members of the Council questioned Obama’s policy (

In the second week of June, Obama fired them all.

Could it be that Obama doesn’t want discussion? We can see what happens if someone gives him advice that he doesn’t want.

Oprah Winfrey’s favorite physician Dr. Mehmet Oz, told her and Michael Fox that “the stem cell debate is dead” because “the problem with embryonic stem cells is that [they are]… very hard to control, and they can become cancerous” ( Besides, induced pluripotent cells can become embryonic, thereby negating the very difficult necessity of cloning.

So “harvesting” embryonic stem cells is not only ethically problematic (i.e. wrong), but it is also scientifically untenable. Obama supports it anyway.

Maybe he could fire Oprah.

Tihamer Toth-Fejel, MS
General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems
Michigan Research and Development Center


Comments — comments are now closed.

  1. This is certainly a very charged set of political issues, but I must question how it intersects with the Lifeboat Foundation’s mandate.

  2. Joe A. Brown says:

    The reality is that the president has always named his own advisors. President Bush replaced the members of the Clinton Bioethics Council shortly after becoming inauguration. At that time there was a great deal of discourse about President Bush stacking the council to reflect his views. For more information see the following link:.

    In the real world, the elected president no matter who is, is entitled to name and rely upon his own team of advisors.