Professor of Government Michael J. Sandel and Learned Hand Professor of Law Mary Ann Glendon joined 15 other leading scholars in the fields of ethics, medicine and biological sciences in Washington, D.C. Jan. 18-19 for the first meeting of the President’s Council on Bioethics.
The council, whose members were officially announced Jan. 16, will consider various issues in bioethics, such as those related to embryo and stem cell research, assisted reproduction, cloning, end-of-life issues and the uses of knowledge and techniques derived from human genetics and the neurosciences.
Sandel, a leading scholar in contemporary political philosophy and the history of political thought, said he considers bioethics to be one of the most important issue of our time.
“No issue is more difficult, or more important, than how we contend with the opportunities and the moral challenges presented by science and biotechnology in the new century,” Sandel wrote in an e-mail.
Members said the council’s first task is to address the issue of human cloning, as the Senate prepares to debate the issue in March.
The council will report to Bush, and may issue opinions and recommendations. Leon R. Kass, who heads the council, said members would testify in upcoming Senate hearings on human cloning if called upon to do so.
Bush previously announced his support for a comprehensive ban on human cloning.
Kass, a professor at the University of Chicago and fellow at the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute, said he envisions the council addressing issues such as human cloning from a more philosophical and intellectual—rather than political—perspective.
“These new developments [in biotechnology] touch the very deepest core of what it means to be a human being. I want to emphasize that in discussing the hot-button issues we want to put these matters in the context of human goods that are precious to defend,” Kass said.
Kass said he has had differences with Sandel over some issues coming before the council, but considers Sandel “a very thoughtful, very principled individual.”
“Despite some of the criticism, it is the most intellectually diverse body that has ever worked on these issues,” Kass said.
Such a diverse council was made possible in part because Kass valued intellectual diversity over the probability of consensus in recommending people to be council members. Kass was first appointed to the council in August, and he and some other individuals made recommendations to Bush for other council nominees.
“I deliberately asked that we not be bound by the need for consensus so the panel would not have to be stacked one way or the other,” Kass said.
The complexities of the bioethical issues surrounding cloning were a focus of the council’s first meeting.
“One of the hard questions that arises concerns the distinction between reproductive cloning (to make babies) and therapeutic cloning (for medical research or to remedy disease). Some people oppose both, while others see a moral distinction between them,” Sandel wrote in an e-mail.
Sandel’s work on the council may shape part of the curriculum of his popular Core class, Moral Reasoning 22, “Justice.”
“Whatever my participation on the council may contribute, it may give me an idea for a good bioethics issue to use in ‘Justice’ (Moral Reasoning 22) next fall,” Sandel wrote.
Prof. Glendon could not be reached for comment.
—Staff writer Stephanie M. Skier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.