March 2, 2004

RAMESH PONNURU HAS RESPONDED to my TechCentralStation column from yesterday on the stacked Kass Council. It turns out that we don’t disagree all that much on some important issues:

I am not sure that the Kass council on bioethics has done anything worthwhile — anything, that is, to justify its existence.

I agree. He also says that Leon Kass has been gulty of “ham-handedness” in his handling of the appointments I complain about. (I provisionally agree; see below). But he says it doesn’t matter, because — even though the Council was stacked — the Bush Administration won a less than complete victory.

Um, okay. Here’s what I know, and how it’s shaped my assessment of the Council. When Kass was first contacted by the White House, he was asked to bring someone who disagreed with him. Instead, as Virginia Postrel noted, “he did quite the opposite. He brought along someone whose views, both on the issue at hand and on medical progress more generally, mirror his own.”

That was a setup; an odd behavior for an ethicist. And, with the Council, both at the time and since, people I trust have felt that Kass was doing exactly what Ponnuru says he should have done, but claims he didn’t:

It seems to me that the entire point of appointing such a council, if the executive branch already basically knows its mind on the relevant issues, is to provide support for its positions.

That wasn’t what Bush said the Council was about, but Kass has acted in ways that made it look as if Ponnuru’s philosophy was driving things, even if not to an outcome that was entirely to Ponnuru’s satisfaction. (Ham-handed, indeed.) Now two people generally less sympathetic to Kass’s views have left, and have been replaced by people who, go figure, seem to be more in agreement with Kass, moving the already-unbalanced Council farther in that direction. As I said before, they’re not bad people, they’re just not bringing ideological breadth to the Council; in fact, they seem to be part of a narrowing and consolidation.

If the Council is, in fact, a vehicle whose sole purpose is to dream up justifications for policies already arrived at, then none of this matters — it just means that those justifications won’t gain any additional force by virtue of the Council’s name, or its makeup, or its deliberative process. And, you know, that’s what I’ve been pointing out.

UPDATE: This statement by Natasha Vita-More in U.S. News isn’t really true, but it’s certainly catchy: “The council is against cloning but it’s full of nothing but clones.” Things aren’t actually that bad, but it does seem as if Kass is aiming at an intellectual monoculture.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Leon Kass has written an oped in the Washington Post in which he denies that there’s any commission-stacking going on, and says that the Bioethics Council is remarkably diverse. It’s notable, though, that he focuses on the credentials of the new appointments — which no one challenges — rather than offering any specifics on viewpoints, which are the real issue. (And are we supposed to take this statement at face value? ” Their personal views on the matters to come before the council in the coming term are completely unknown.”)

I hope, of course, that Ponnuru is right, and that the problem is Kass’s heavyhandedness, rather than outright bias. I still think, as many do, that the Council was stacked, and that the new appointments make that problem worse. I’d be happy to be proved wrong, of course.

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