When President George W. Bush appointed the 17 members of his new Council of Bioethics Jan. 16, one of those he turned to was Stephen Carter LAW ’79. The Yale law professor will serve on the committee as it advises Bush on stem cell research, human cloning, and other issues involving the ethical implications of biotechnology.
The council, composed of prominent scholars in fields ranging from medicine to political economy, is tasked, according to a White House press release, with deliberating on “bioethical matters connected with specific biomedical and technological activities.” The council will ultimately report its deliberations to the President and perhaps make policy recommendations.
Carter, the sole Yale professor on the new panel and the author of a number of books on the role of religion in American politics, would not comment on his appointment. But colleagues on the council said they admire him as a gifted scholar and a man with a wide range of intellectual interests. Fellow council member Robert George, professor of politics at Princeton, is among those who praised Carter’s qualifications.
“[He is a] deeply thoughtful scholar who has had a remarkable ability to impress people across the political spectrum and influence for the better people with widely varying viewpoints,” George said.
Michael Sandel, professor of government at Harvard and also a council member, professed admiration for Carter as well.
“[Carter] is well-known for his thoughtful approach to questions at the intersection of law, religion, and politics,” Sandel said.
University Secretary Linda Lorimer said Carter was a good choice for the council.
“I am delighted that President Bush is turning to one of Yale’s distinguished faculty who has been so thoughtful on matters related to ethics and religion and their interesection with legal matters,” she said.
George said the council will focus on stem cell research, cloning for reproductive purposes, and cloning to create embryos used in biomedical research. Stem cells — cells capable of developing into multiple types of body tissue and having great therapeutic potential — are currently harvested from embryos in a manner that results in the embryos’ destruction. In August 2001, Bush announced that federally-funded researchers would only be allowed to use stem cell lines already in existence.
The council’s other major area of concern is human cloning. Sandel emphasized that cloning will be among the council’s first priorities because of its central position in the current political debate. Sandel pointed out that the U.S. Senate is currently discussing legislation to regulate or prohibit human cloning, and the council can therefore play a central role in shaping the political discourse.
Sean Tipton, spokesman for the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, questioned whether the panel will be able to exert any serious influence on the ongoing cloning debate in the Senate. The council has just begun its deliberations, Tipton said, and is unlikely to produce a final report before May at the earliest, while the Senate is aiming to pass cloning legislation by March.
While members of Congress and the National Academy of Sciences are fairly unanimous in their opposition to cloning for reproductive purposes, the issue of cloning to produce embryos for scientific study is more controversial, as are other forms of “destructive embryonic research.”
While the Council is charged with advising Bush on the complex moral questions associated with biomedical technologies, some activists fear the council will merely reinforce the positions already set out by the President. Activist organizations such as the ASRM are troubled by what they see as a conservative bias in the council’s membership, and fear that the body will merely create barriers to new developments that could have valuable therapeutic potential.
George and Sandel dismissed fears that the council is biased or will only reinforce President Bush’s existing positions on biotechnology issues.
“This council is remarkably representative of the nation as a whole and the policy world,” George said.
But Tipton noted that, in addition to the council’s conservative bent, none of its members is a patient advocate. Indeed, with the exception of journalist Charles Krauthammer, all of the council members are academics. While praising the high intellectual caliber of the council’s membership, Tipton questioned whether a panel comprised almost solely of professors can truly understand the feelings of people whose loved ones could benefit from controversial therapies.