The White House has shuffled membership of the Council on Bioethics, canning two members who favored sanctioning the cloning of human embryos for research. Critics of the action accuse the Bush Administration of trying to stack the committee, but council chair Leon Kass insists the changes are "in no way political" but rather designed to strengthen expertise in areas the bioethics group wishes to plunge into next.
On 27 February, the Administration announced the departure of two members whose views are generally favored by scientists--biologist Elizabeth Blackburn and ethicist William F. May--and the appointment of two social scientists and a brain surgeon. Blackburn and May were both in the minority in the most politically contentious issue to face the council: They urged that the cloning of human embryos should be allowed for research. The council instead recommended a moratorium.
Several scientific societies including the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology have denounced the personnel change. "The forces that opposed consensus have been eviscerated," says University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Glenn McGee. (He notes that Blackburn was the only cell biologist in the group and therefore the greatest authority on stem cells.) Kass points out there are still "strong differences" within the council, naming four remaining members who disagree with President Bush's stem cell research policies.
Blackburn, who told reporters she had no warning that she was getting the boot, has accused the White House of "stacking the council with the compliant." Kass says May already planned to step down when members' 2-year terms expired in January. (May couldn't be reached for confirmation.) Kass won't say what role he played either in the shuffle, but he insists no one was vetted for their political views. Kass says the council needed some fresh expertise because it "had decided to move into the area of brain and behavior and away from genetics and reproduction." It will also be looking at treatment of the elderly and at end-of-life care.
The new members are Benjamin Carson, a renowned pediatric neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland; Peter Augustine Lawler, a professor of government at Berry College in Mount Berry, Georgia; and Diana Schaub, political scientist at Loyola College in Baltimore.
The President's Council on Bioethics