Moving Beyond the Culture Wars

WHY A BIOETHICS COUNCIL NEEDS DIVERSITY

Writing in the August 14 issue of Commonweal (“End of Discussion”), the Christian ethicist Gilbert Meilaender eulogized President George W. Bush's Council on Bioethics, which President Barack Obama dissolved in June.

Meilaender argued that the Bush council, on which he served, got two important things right. First, it addressed the proper questions—the big questions about the purpose of human existence and the nature of human dignity. Second, it brought the right voices to the table; Meilaender maintained that members of the Bush council held diverse views, and that this enabled the council to address those big questions in and for our pluralistic society.

My own assessment of the council is mixed. Its membership, largely drawn from academia, was undeniably distinguished. It produced a number of important reports on topics ranging from human cloning to the ethics of screening newborns for genetic diseases. But the council's diversity was a pugnacious diversity, mostly pitting secular liberals against religious conservatives. Its composition reflected, in short, the “culture war” mindset of Bush himself.

Meilaender worries that a council focused on “practical policy options,” as the White House has signaled Obama's will be, “almost always leads to lowest-common-denominator proposals, from which the deepest and most important issues have been filtered out.” I don't see why that has to be the case, particularly if the group is not composed only or primarily of academics like the Clinton and Bush councils, but also includes a wide range of practitioners. Many hospital administrators, clinical bioethicists, insurance executives, and health-care lawyers have had to figure out how to get things done in a pluralistic society without sacrificing—or requiring others to sacrifice—deeply held moral or religious principles.

Sometimes practical problems can be the mother of advances in ethical reflection. A good example is the recent struggle of Catholic health-care institutions to preserve both their existence and their integrity in an era of increased corporate integration and collaboration. This challenging environment has spurred new thinking about the traditional notion of what constitutes “cooperation with evil.” Developed more than two centuries ago by Catholic moralists to analyze an individual's complicity with the wrongdoing of another, the concept of “cooperation with evil” has now been creatively and analogically—and practically—extended to illuminate and evaluate institutional complicity.

What sort of diversity is desirable for an advisory body on bioethics? In my view, the purposes assigned to the council by the executive order creating it should determine the necessary scope of diversity. For example, the bioethics commission appointed by President Bill Clinton focused on questions of law and public policy; it should therefore have included diverse views on the role of law in a pluralistic society. But it didn't—instead, the Clinton commission assumed the validity of a liberal legal theory dedicated to maximizing the scope of individual freedom from government restrictions. Its work would have been enriched by the perspectives of conservative Catholic legal scholars such as Robert George or Mary Ann Glendon, who defend a more communitarian understanding of the law.

What about the Bush council, on which George and Glendon did serve? That council included secular scientists and religious believers. But many of the religious believers were very much of the same stripe. George, Glendon, Meilaender, and Jean Bethke Elshtain, all council members, serve on the editorial board of First Things, the neoconservative magazine founded by the late Richard John Neuhaus. Leon Kass, the council's first chair, has been an important contributor to that magazine.

Nor did other distinguished members add to the religious diversity; Edmund Pellegrino and Paul McHugh are also conservative Catholics. Another member, William F. May, is a prominent Christian ethicist and by no means a radical liberal. Nonetheless, he argued for a more permissive stance on embryo research than Meilaender, George, and Glendon. When he left the council at the end of his first term, his expertise and perspective were not replaced.

In the ideological construct of the culture wars, religious “true believers” are socially and politically conservative and implacably pitted against secularists. Diversity is understood to be debate between two clearly defined views. But in the real world, religion and politics interact in far more complicated and interesting ways. The membership of a council whose purpose is to consider the “big questions” ought to reflect that complexity. In selecting members to represent the voices of American Christianity, why not include someone like Cornel West, a progressive African-American public intellectual? Or perhaps Karen Lebacqz, a liberal Protestant bioethicist who served as president of the Society of Christian Ethics. Even a little more diversity among Catholics would have been nice-and easy to accomplish. Why not Lisa Cahill (Boston College) or Bryan Hehir (Harvard)? Why not Daniel Callahan, a founding father of secular bioethics (and a former editor of Commonweal) who is also very familiar with the Catholic tradition?

The religious diversity of the United States is messy and energetic. As the last election proved, religious believers do not line up in neat ideological lines. Some support health-care reform, some oppose it. Some support embryonic stem-cell research, some oppose it. My own hope is that in composing his council, Obama doesn't flee the messiness, but engages the energy and commitment of American people of faith.

Published in the 2009-09-11 issue: 

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.

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