U.S. President George Bush named University of Chicago ethicist Leon Kass the chairman of his President’s Council on Bioethics in August. The events of Sept. 11 delayed the naming of the other 17 members, who were finally revealed in January. The list is controversial in some circles, because it is more conservative than previous presidential bioethics councils.

The members include such nationally known thinkers as Francis Fukuyama of Johns Hopkins University, author of The End of History and the Last Man, James Q. Wilson, a political scientist and author of The Moral Sense, and Charles Krauthammer, a nationally syndicated Washington Post columnist and psychiatrist. The council also includes respected scientists, including neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga of Dartmouth and leukemia researcher Janet Rowley of the University of Chicago.

Another distinguished member is theologian Gilbert Meilaender of Valparaiso University, an editor for the Journal of Religious Ethics and the Religious Studies Review and a member of the editorial board of First Things. “I felt honoured and burdened,” on being named to the council, he told The Interim.

Meilaender says Bush’s council will be different from some of the other half-dozen or so bioethics councils created since 1974. “It’s clear in the executive order creating this council that we don’t have to seek consensus. We don’t have to aim at finding some lowest common denominator view,” he explained. “The council should think through the range of arguments on an issue. It can be the educative body it’s supposed to be.”

The group had its first meeting in January. Its first assignment was to Discuss Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, “The Birthmark,” an 1843 short story about a scientist who seeks to remove a tiny flaw on his otherwise beautiful wife’s cheek. The treatment works – but kills the patient.

“The meeting went pretty well for a group of 18 people meeting for the first time to try to figure out how to talk about some very complicated issues,” Meilaender reported. He says the group will concentrate on questions of cloning for at least the next six months. (The U.S. Senate began debating the issue in March.) “After that, I don’t think anyone is in a position to say right now.”

C. Ben Mitchell, a senior fellow of the Centre for Bioethics and Human Dignity and a professor at Trinity International University, is impressed, on the whole, with the council’s members. “By any account, it’s certainly an intellectually high-powered group. It represents some of the best thinkers in our country,” he told The Interim. His one worry is that the group contains too many legal theorists, – people such as Yale’s Stephen Carter and Princeton’s Robert George. “I think there are huge moral questions that should inform the law, but the law shouldn’t dictate the answers to those moral questions.”

While many in the pro-life community applauded, the main complaint against the council has been that it is far too conservative. A number of council members, including Kass, George, Meilaender, Mary Ann Glendon, and Paul McHugh, are associated with the conservative religious magazine First Things.

“It depends on how you describe conservative,” Mitchell noted. “Stephen Carter disavows conservatism and describes himself as a liberal. He argues for abortion rights in some cases. Even Gil Meilaender, one of the theologians of the group, argues in some hard cases, like rape, incest, and deformity, for abortion to be permitted.” Robert George is one example of a strong conservative on the council but cannot be dismissed because of that. “What he writes is well-argued and one has to take his arguments on their merits.”

Mitchell suspects that the commission will make recommendations consistent with President Bush’s worldview. “He represents what the common person thinks,” he said. “His recommendation on stem cells, though I disagree with it, made a lot of sense to most people who heard it.”

Margaret Somerville, an ethicist at the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics, and Law, is also skeptical of the argument the council is too conservative. “There has been some concern in the bioethics world by some people that bioethicists on the whole have represented the more liberal end of the scale,” she told The Interim. Most previous bioethics commissions have also been liberal, reflecting the presidents who created them. “The acceptable middle has one end, liberals, represented in the most recent past, and the other end, more conservative, which is being represented now.”

Somerville suggests that besides cloning, the council will look at other new reproductive technologies, euthanasia, and artificial consciousness. She believes that the U.S. council’s recommendations will also have implications for Canada. “We always look to the U.S.,” she said. “These are shared problems among scientifically advanced Western democracies.”

Editor’s Note: For a review of The Clash of Orthodoxies, the most recent book of Robert P. George, a member of President Bush’s bioethics council, see “Law, religion, and morality in crisis?”