After Kass

On October 1, Leon Kass stepped down as chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics. Kass was succeeded by one of the “founding fathers” of modern bioethics, Edmund Pellegrino, professor emeritus of medicine and medical ethics and adjunct professor of philosophy at Georgetown University.

Kass garnered his share of fans and critics as head of the council, and his departure hasn’t gone unnoticed by them. In contrast to the “topic of the week” mentality that characterizes most discussions in bioethics, Kass laudably pursued a broader educational function for the council. Many bioethicists, in their desire to achieve political consensus on divisive issues, focus primarily on procedural matters. Deeper questions—about human nature, the meanings of parenting as a social practice, etc.—are often bracketed as being beyond resolution, according to the canons of postmodernism and the predilections of many secularists. By contrast, Kass explicitly set a more ambitious goal, the pursuit of what he called a “richer vision” for bioethics.

That vision was addressed in the council’s seven reports over the past four years. In those documents, Kass’s council asked the “big questions” posed by cloning, stem-cell research, the uses of biotechnology in human reproduction, and, most recently, the challenges of an aging population. While not indifferent to practical questions, the reports’ authors were not...

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