WASHINGTON - President Bush's decision against reappointing two outspoken members of his advisory council on bioethics has prompted a negative reaction from individuals within the science community who believe diverse views should be represented on the hand-picked council.
The two members not reappointed are Elizabeth Blackburn, a cell biologist and professor at the University of California at San Francisco, and William May, an ethics professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. In response, Arthur Caplan, a well-known bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania at Philadelphia, inked a letter to President Bush and mailed it off with supporting signatures from 180 bioethicists across the country.
Caplan told BioWorld Today the purpose of the letter was twofold; on one hand he wanted to protest the dismissal of Blackburn and May, but on the other hand he wanted to complain about the new members - three little-known professors. The newest members are Benjamin Carson, director of pediatric neurosurgery and a professor at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore; Peter Lawler, Dana professor and chair of the department of government and international studies at Berry College in Mount Berry, Ga.; and Diana Schaub, associate professor and chair of the department of political science at Loyola College in Chicago.
Blackburn and May reportedly were advocates for stem cell research.
Indeed, in one of its noteworthy actions in July 2002, the president's Council on Bioethics voted 10-7 in favor of a four-year moratorium on therapeutic cloning. (See BioWorld Today, July 12, 2002.)
Representatives of the council, as well as Blackburn, could not be reached for comment.
Meanwhile, the brief letter to the president, signed by what Caplan believes is 10 percent of the U.S. bioethics community, said, "The creation of sound public policy with respect to developments in medicine and the life sciences requires a council that has a diverse set of views and positions. By dismissing those two individuals and appointing new members whose views are likely to closely reflect those of the majority of the council and its chair, the credibility of the council is severely compromised."
President Bush announced his intention to form the group Aug. 9, 2001, when he released a plan to allow the federal government to fund research on 64 existing stem cell lines. The 18-member panel replaced a similar commission established by former President Bill Clinton. (See BioWorld Today, Aug. 13, 2001.)
On forming the council, the Bush press office released a statement saying, "The council's paramount objective will be to develop a deep understanding of the issues that it considers and to advise the president of the complex and often competing moral positions associated with biomedical innovation."
In response, Caplan said, "The president can get advice from wherever he wants, but what is the point if everyone has the same view as you? I think they will have a hard time maintaining credibility. They can affix their seal of approval to anything the administration wants to do, but I think it is going to be less plausible because their standing is now damaged."
Indeed, M.C. Sullivan, executive vice president of the Midwest Bioethics Center in Kansas City, Mo., told BioWorld Today, "Given the agenda that comes before this council, it needs to have very diverse representation in terms of political views, in terms of perspective, in terms of background and in terms of credentials."
Furthermore, she said, "I think [the feeling from] the folks who originated this letter, is that there will cease to be a wide spectrum of opinion presented on certain topics."
While Sullivan agrees with the spirit of the letter, she didn't sign because she was out of town when the letter was published on www.bioethics.net. However, Myra Christopher, president and CEO of Midwest Bioethics Center, signed.
Caplan viewed Bush's decision to form the panel in August 2001 as bizarre.
"They were asked to study stem cell research and cloning after the president had already made his policy - that's not exactly getting advice, that's getting applause, which is a different function," he said.
Caplan said this is the first time a presidential bioethics panel has stirred such critique. Eric Meslin, an Indiana University professor and chairman of a bioethics panel under Clinton, also signed the letter.
The next meeting of the panel is scheduled for April 1-2 in Crystal City, Va. To view the agenda, visit the council's website at www.bioethics.gov.