Back to nature

The bioethics czar's new right-hand man is passionately opposed to abortion, public schools, federal taxes and Democrats.

Published November 30, 2001 7:57PM (EST)

When President Bush last summer picked University of Chicago philosopher Leon Kass to head a new bioethics advisory council, murmurs of approval rose from the pundit class, which swoons for Kass' fashionably unfashionable moralism.

Most of the secular bioethicists struggling with the challenges of cutting-edge medicine and biology plod forward with pragmatic ideas about limiting harm from science. Kass, on the other hand, has always seemed less worried by the practical risks than by what technology is doing to our souls. Sensitive to the "wisdom of repugnance," he has opposed in-vitro fertilization, stem cell research and cloning, often citing a personal reverence for the mystery of life. And he has done so from his chair at Chicago's lofty Committee on Social Thought.

That's deep stuff for a panel charged with telling Bush how to think. The stuff got even deeper Friday, when the government unveiled the man selected to serve at Kass' side as executive director of the President's Council on Bioethics.

Kass is no ayatollah -- he's generally considered to be an open-minded academic -- but his newly appointed right hand, Dean Clancy, can come off like a mini-mullah. The 37-year-old Republican, a senior staffer for Republican Majority Leader Dick Armey since 1993, is passionately opposed to abortion, public schools, federal taxes and Democrats. As a Georgetown student in the 1980s, he once made an impression by tearing up his libertarian roommates' porno films with his bare hands.

Prior to working for Armey, Clancy was a speechwriter for Dan Quayle and Jack Kemp. His writing tends to reflect a fanatical verve. In a 1998 letter to a right-wing magazine called the Journal of American Citizenship Policy Review, for example, Clancy attacked Steve Forbes' tax reform plans as namby-pamby, raged against Teddy Roosevelt and called for the repeal of the 16th and 17th amendments, which establish federal taxes and the directly elected Senate.

The federal tax, Clancy fulminated, "bribes the states with their own citizens' money, shackles them with intolerable mandates, forbids them from curbing such crimes as abortion and pornography and now threatens to nationalize health care."

"The moral regeneration of America," he added, "will require, ultimately, more significant reforms."

The other 17 commission members have yet to be announced, but the appointment of Clancy as agenda-setter suggests that the new council will make a radical departure from the bioethics committees of previous administrations.

Clancy replaces Eric Meslin, a hardworking, exceedingly polite Canadian scholar who now heads the Indiana University Center for Bioethics. Meslin oversaw the publication of six thick reports as executive director of Clinton's National Bioethics Advisory Commission, which met 48 times before disbanding in June. In addition to the issues of cloning and stem cells, NBAC considered the ethics of international clinical trials and experiments on the mentally ill.

Cultural conservatives charged that the NBAC during the Clinton administration was stacked with abortion rights supporters predisposed to accept the destruction of embryos for research. This was true, though NBAC did invite ideologically disparate guests to testify. Clancy's appointment hints at a new ideological fixing for the council.

With Clancy, "They didn't pick someone noted for thoughtful analytic views, they didn't get someone hooked up in the scholarly community. Instead they've gone for a politico," said Sean Tipton, a spokesman for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.

Tipton has good reason to be worried; the charter for the Presidential Council includes long overdue scrutiny of the field of reproductive medicine. There's plenty for Kass and like-minded committee members to feel repugnance about. Most of the science behind the creation of clones and embryonic stem cells derives from unregulated experiments by fertility doctors to help their patients get babies.

But some of Kass' bioethics colleagues say Kass' heavy reliance on "wisdom of repugnance" (others call it the 'yuck factor') -- has not always worked for him, especially in the area of reproductive technology. In the early 1970s, as a bioethics professor at Georgetown University, Kass was an outspoken opponent of the emerging in-vitro fertilization, which he saw as immoral experimentation on the children that were its products.

Kass' essays on the subject, laced with warnings of scientific hubris and quotations from Orwell and Huxley, were ignored by a child-hungry world. With mass multiple births, selective abortions and donor egg sales, there is plenty to feel yucky about in the fertility industry Kass railed against; but it has not produced the mutilated children he warned about. (In a recent interview, Kass said he was OK with IVF for married couples, as long as it didn't weaken families.)

"In a sense Kass is a bit of a technological pessimist," says Leroy Walters, a leading bioethicist at Georgetown.

Kass certainly isn't alone in his pessimism or his objection to the manipulation of natural processes. A news conference held this week to denounce the Massachusetts biotech company that is trying to clone a human embryo included everyone from right-to-life Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., to the president of Friends of the Earth.

In fact, Kass is something of a pioneer in his objections to technology muddying the waters of pure science. Consider this quote -- vintage Kass -- from his 1985 essay collection, "Toward a More Natural Science":

"We have paid some high prices for the technological conquest of nature, but none perhaps so high as the intellectual and spiritual costs of seeing nature as mere material for our manipulation, exploitation and transformation."

He continues, "We are already witnessing the erosion of our idea of man as something splendid or divine, as a creature with freedom and dignity. And clearly, if we come to see ourselves as meat, then meat we shall become."

Eloquent as he has been on the topic, Kass does not do much for pragmatic bioethicists, many of whom believe that his approach is potentially dangerous.

"The problem with repugnance and fear-and-trembling ethics is, they are good starting points but bad ending points," says Art Caplan, head of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. "If intuition is the last word, then African-Americans are at the back of the bus, women and people who have no property aren't voting and we still have slaves."

These critics allow that there is certainly a place in the debate for Kass' eloquent defense of intuition, but bioethicists who've done time on the commissions predict he'll have to come to grips with pragmatic objectives. This may be difficult, however, given that Kass has written that pragmatism "is like a warm bath that heats up so imperceptibly that you don't know when to scream."

The other challenge facing Kass has little to do with his philosophy and more to do with bureaucracy. Government committees like the panel he is in the process of selecting must by law meet in public. For a committee ensconced in the discussion of bioethics this can be a huge annoyance: Panelists have to address a wide range of public audiences as plainly as possible, while at the same time examining and debating complex issues of science and philosophy.

"Part of the challenge of doing bioethics in public is, you don't have the luxury of sitting quietly in a room and working through some of these problems by yourselves," says Meslin. "When you have 18 members in public thinking through an urgent policy problem it requires creative thinking and spectacular leadership -- but it also requires a reorienting of what one thinks bioethics is."

Kass goes into this maelstrom with many supporters, regardless of their diverging views. Bioethicist colleagues are particularly admiring of his insistence that the President's Council not be required to show consensus on difficult ethical issues, which would allow members to issue divergent opinions.

The disadvantage of this seeming advantage is that it could banish the council to obscurity for a lack of sound-bites. "In Washington," says Caplan, "if they want long deliberation they'll read a book. They want a quick quote, get it on one page, let's go." On the other hand, the council won't be required to dumb down complex arguments. Assuming some liberal pragmatists are appointed, they'll be able to express themselves alongside the conservatives.

"Leon is a teacher," says Ruth Faden, a bioethicist who holds appointments at both Johns Hopkins and Georgetown. "In a sense he's holding a national class. We need to get the science clarified so that it isn't so complex that people throw up their hands, but not so simplified that people have misleading understandings."

If pragmatic bioethicists are appointed to the panel, they are certain to clash with colleagues who will want to factor concepts of divine law and virtue into the discussion. But these considerations, sure to find a place at Kass' table, fly in the face of pragmatic considerations -- principles of self-determination, nonmaleficence, beneficence and justice used by secular bioethicists in reaching ethical decisions.

The question is, of course, just how many secular types will be invited? It's always possible that Bush hard-liners unleashed Clancy as a way of scaring off unwanted intellectuals.

"I don't know how the political leanings of the chair and executive director will affect willingness to serve," says Alta Charo, a medical ethics and law professor at the University of Wisconsin, who delicately points out that "Clancy, in particular, is quite far-reaching in his political positions."

Whatever the case, there will be plenty to chew over. Bush's August announcement on stem cells, which limited researchers to experiments with cell lines that had already been established, is likely to sour soon.

Scientists already have denounced the decision, saying that existing stem cell lines may not prove useful enough. Meanwhile, hard-line opponents of stem cell research also are disgruntled, insisting that in making an announcement, Bush opened a Pandora's box.

It is the contents of this box, which include the current hot topic of human cloning, that Kass and his commission will intellectually riffle before a confused and often angry audience. The outcome of the public ordeal won't be known for a long time, but the appointment of Clancy may be a hint as to the tenor and content of the argument.

By Arthur Allen

Arthur Allen writes on health, science and other issues for Salon. He lives in Washington.

MORE FROM Arthur Allen

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Abortion Stem Cells