Bishops Find Fault With Presidential Council's Bioethics Report

WASHINGTON — President Bush's Council on Bioethics' April 1 report “Reproduction and Responsibility: The Regulation of New Biotechnologies” was praised by U.S. Catholic bishops.

But it was also criticized.

The council unanimously recommended that Congress ban “the creation ex vivo of a human embryo with the intent to transfer it to a woman's body to initiate a pregnancy.”

Council members also all agreed that Congress should ban research on embryos of a certain age, though they differed on what the time limit should be — seven or 10 days.

The Council on Bioethics, which was established by Bush in 2001, is headed by American Enterprise Institute scholar Leon Kass, who is also a medical doctor and a professor on leave from the University of Chicago. Explaining the council's broad mandate, reflected in the latest report, Kass said, “Cloning is but a small part of a much larger concern.”

The concern includes “issues raised by the rapidly growing powers to intervene still further in human reproduction, adding techniques of genetic screening, genetic manipulation and sex selection to existing and expanding techniques of assisted reproduction,” Kass said. “This whole field is today largely unmonitored and unregulated. We need to find ways to govern these practices. While we seek them, we urgently need to legislate important moral boundaries and shift the burden of persuasion to those who would transgress them, while no one is paying attention.”

Most of the critics of the Kass council are routinely opposed to the commission, largely because they are in general disagreement with the White House on cloning and other hot-bottom issues. In recent months the council has received negative press, implying that the White House has stacked the deck in favor of banning cloning and other biotechnology.

Elizabeth Blackburn, a professor of biochemistry at the University of California at San Francisco and former member of the 18-member council, recently wrote that “a hardening and narrowing of views is exactly what is happening on the president's Council on Bioethics.”

‘Life Is a Continuum’

Kass dismisses the criticism as “nonsense,” arguing that the “council was and remains diverse and divided by design, for we owe the president and the nation the best arguments on the various sides of all hotly contested issues.”

But with the release of “Reproduction and Responsibility,” the council gained critics. The U.S. bishops, while praising the council for taking on these issues, had some reservations about its recommendations.

Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore, chairman of the Committee for Pro-Life Activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement that the report “deserves attention from all concerned about technological abuse of human life.” He agreed with the council's recommendations “for banning specific activities that demean human dignity: creating human/animal hybrids; placing human embryos in the bodies of animals or in women's wombs for purposes other than a live birth; buying, selling or patenting human embryos.”

But the cardinal took issue with the council's recommendation of a time limit for embryo research.

“The council favors banning the use of embryos in research beyond a certain number of days in their development,” Cardinal Keeler said. “Notably, members did not agree on the number of days or on the reason for this policy. Some believe such a ban would be better than the current situation, in which federal law does not ban privately funded embryo research at any stage. Others want to use this policy to weaken current laws on federally funded research, which respect the human embryo at every stage.

“The decisive fact is that human life is a continuum from the one-celled stage onward,” the cardinal said. “Any cutoff point after this event is arbitrary — providing no principled reason not to extend the time limit for destructive research, once the precedent is established. We should not start down this road but explore ways to discourage research that attacks any human life.”

Bad Judgment?

The bishops also object to the council's proposal that it be illegal to clone an embryo with the intention of implanting it in a woman's womb. They argue that legislating intention would be unenforceable, especially in the case of a rogue scientist.

Catholics and others on the council raised concerns.

In a statement, council members Robert P. George, Mary Ann Glendon, Alfonso Gomez-Lobo, William B. Hurlbut, and Gilbert C. Meilaender, emphasized, “We, and perhaps other members of the Council, have grave concerns about research that destroys human embryos at any stage of their development.”

“Most of the heated and often overwrought controversy surrounding the council has been generated by libertarians who regard the very idea of human reflection on the moral and political limits of biotechnological development with suspicion,” said Peter Augustine Lawler, a professor of government at Berry College in Georgia, who recently took a seat on the bioethics council. “But Catholics and other pro-lifers are worried that its compromises on issues such as using embryos for research will encourage unprincipled indifference to moral evil. I was not on the council during the time it produced this thorough and thoughtful report, but I think we can regard it gratefully and hopefully as full of rather large steps in the right direction.”

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor of