Keep Kass

Ian Murray is calling for Leon Kass to resign as Chairman of the President’s Council of Bioethics. He does so based on a report in the Washington Post that Kass is working to promote a bioethics agenda that will ban some of the biotechnological practices he considers most egregious, in particular the cloning of babies and human embryos for research. Murray objects that

by hitching his star to a particular set of policies he has breached the trust set in him by the President, whose executive order creating the council asked it to “explore specific ethical and policy questions related to these developments; [and] to provide a forum for a national discussion of bioethical issues.” At the very least, by sheer virtue of his position, his favored policies are more likely to get a hearing than those of other well-qualified bioethicists who do not have the authority of such an office. Such a prospect would seriously undermine in the principle of “procedural justice” — the right of all sides of a political argument to be heard without fear or favor.

I find little merit in Murray’s position. The heads of various presidential councils are not expected to be agnostic about the issues their council deals with. Certainly, no one could have expected Kass to be agnostic, since he had taken strong positions on bioethics for years. It is true that the council Kass heads deals with scientific issues and that its mandate called for “exploration” and “national discussion.” However, there is no evidence that, under Kass, the council has not met this mandate. Nor is there evidence that all sides have not fairly been heard. In fact, James Q. Wilson, who has served on the council since its creation, states that all arguments have been heard and that he has “never encountered a more fair-minded chairman than Kass nor a Council composed of so many truly gifted (though philosophically divided) Council members.”
What about the Post’s report that Kass is now working with like-minded individuals to promote certain positions? I see no problem here, either. After four years of meetings and discussion, it doesn’t seem inappropriate for Kass to be trying to figure out how to get Congress to act against the practices he has concluded are most egregious.

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