Washington Editor

WASHINGTON President Bush’s 18-member bioethics council on Thursday settled in for its first meeting to begin debating moral and ethical issues surrounding advancing science issues such as cloning and stem cell research.

As promised by Bush last summer, Leon Kass, a professor at the University of Chicago, chairs the committee made up of professors, scientists, theologians, lawyers and humanists, but absent of bioethicists.

In one of its first orders of business, panel members will wrestle with the ethical issues of human and therapeutic cloning. The panel’s charge is to advise the president, not to set policy.

The House last summer approved legislation (HR2505) authored by Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.) that bans both therapeutic and reproductive cloning. President Bush, who opposes all forms of cloning, reportedly supports the Weldon legislation. (See BioWorld Today, Aug. 6, 2001, and Nov. 27, 2001.)

Kass and the panel are scheduled this week to use a series of talk papers written by the President’s Council on Bioethics staff as a starting point for discussions on good and bad points of both human and therapeutic cloning. The panel expects to give Bush a consensus report on cloning this summer.

The advisory panel sprung from Bush’s Aug. 9 decision to allow the National Institutes of Health to help pay for research on 64 existing stem cell lines (now 72) that are located within 10 labs worldwide. That decision set off intensified discussions about whether it is ethical to extract stem cells from embryos for future study. (See BioWorld Today, Aug. 11, 2001.)

But before the debate could really get nasty, Sept. 11 took over the news.

While the terrorist attacks pushed stem cell research from the front pages, Kass said the events actually stimulated a new wave of morality in this country.

“The moral challenges the council faces are very different from the ones the nation faces as a result of Sept. 11,” he said. “In the case terrorism, it is easy to identify evil as evil, and the challenge is to figure out how best to combat it.”

However, in the field of bioethics, he said, “The evils we face, if they are evils, are intertwined with and are indeed often the flip sides of the goods we so keenly seek: cures for diseases, relief of suffering, preservation of life. Distinguishing good and bad, thus intermixed, is often extremely difficult.”

Charles Krauthammer, a panel member and national columnist with The Washington Post, said the bioethics debate in the public’s mind has been reduced to a debate about life. “The debate is about when life begins and the abortion debate is a subset of it. The concern about stem cells is not necessarily where they come from, but where they are going.

“The issue should be the problems, benefits and threats in an era of human manufacture,” Krauthammer said.

Stem cells are the master cells for human development and were first isolated in 1998. Scientists believe these cells could be critical in developing cures for diseases and conditions including juvenile diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cancer, heart disease and spinal cord injury.

In his address last summer, Bush told the American people that before making his decision on stem cell funding, he spoke with experts and advisers on both sides of the issue.

“One researcher told me,” Bush said at the time, “he believes this five-day-old cluster of cells is not an embryo, not an individual, but a pre-embryo. He argued that it has the potential for life, but it is not a life because it cannot develop on its own.

“An ethicist dismissed that as a callous attempt at rationalization. Make no mistake, he told me, that cluster of cells is the same way you and I, and all the rest of us, started our lives. One goes with a heavy heart if we use these, he said, because we are dealing with the seeds of the next generation,” Bush said.

Kass said Bush has asked the council to work on two projects, one long term and the other short term.

The long-term project will be an ongoing effort to help the public better understand bioethics and to provide guidance to the president and the nation regarding policy decisions. The short-term project addresses human cloning, the meaning of cloning human beings and the related scientific ethical issues.