Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.
Many had (somewhat) higher hopes than in the past when Dr. Edmund Pellegrino was recently named to take over the chair of the President’s Council on Bioethics from the execrable Leon Kass. And early returns suggested a freer sense of intellectualism within that body: more-open dissent, in distinction to the persecution dissenters faced under Kass, and a broader range of opinion flowing out of the Council under Pellegrino. But it was too much to expect that the overwhelmingly conservative membership would now incline to any higher sense of purpose, or more-inclusive understanding of what bioethics should be, than in the past. Today, Council member Robert P. George has disgraced himself – while acting in his personal capacity, not within the Council, it should be noted – by not merely endorsing but campaigning for anti-gay discrimination in company with conservative religious bigots.
George, I emphasize again, was acting outside the Council, in a private capacity. And the position he takes – for a Constitutional amendment prohibiting civil rights (marriage) for gay citizens nationwide – is not outside the range of common opinion in these degraded times, though it is certainly an ugly and shameful one. His conduct does not strictly reflect upon the Council, and certainly not its Chair, who, to his credit, has reversed the policy of retaliation upon holders of unapproved opinions that had been pursued by Kass. As a mere exercise of the right of opinion, or of personal political prerogative, George’s action is immune to reproach. So I am not arguing that the Council is implicated in this action, or that George’s endorsement of official discrimination directly incriminates anyone but himself. However, I cannot overlook what this says about the kind and quality of Council membership, and its ramifications for public bioethics in what it is increasingly hard to regard as a liberal democracy.
The President’s Council is the only official bioethics advisory body operating under the aegis of the federal government and charged with a broad mandate to provide a voice for moral input into high-level policy-making across the board. (There are bioethics review committees in various federal biomedical agencies, but only one with an open mandate at the top of the Executive Branch.) It is the voice of bioethics, generally, within the government of the United States. Although charged by the President with service to the President, it is also understood to be a voice of and for the people. And so, though it is unsurprising that a President who ran on an extremist-conservative platform would appoint an extremely conservative Council (an expectation reinforced the the President’s expulsion of most of the few dissenting members after only two years), it is a reasonable expectation that that Council would recognize an obligation to speak for all the members of the American community.
George has taken sides with an extremist and reactionary minority faction of religious Americans who have it as their explicit agenda to deny or restrict, to other groups of Americans, civil rights that are expressly protected for all other Americans, and on no grounds other than personal animus. (I take arguments about “the breakdown of marriage as an institution” to be contentless, as “marriage as an institution” is indefinable, and the imputation of that argument is either unproven, unprovable, or nonsensical.) I take it as obvious that no decent person can hold this position, but my concern goes beyond that. Aside from the fact that the Council harbors at least one member who apparently qualifies as “no decent person”, the President’s Council on Bioethics – a body charged with stating moral positions on public policy issues in the name of the nation itself – harbors a member who has set himself against an entire subset of Americans.
I believe George’s position on this issue unfits him for membership on the President’s Council. I am aware of the dangers of punishing people for uncomfortable or unpopular opinions – I have complained of it in the context of the Council just above – but I am not suggesting punishing George simply because his position is offensive. The problem is that his position is legally discriminatory against a sub-population of American citizens and residents. And I take it that no person who holds such a belief can hold a position of influence in the United States Government, particularly not one of the nature of membership on this Council.
I hope it goes without saying that anyone who openly advocated racial segregation, or the elimination of voting rights for women, would instantly be written out of candidacy for any position such as the one in question. I also hope that anyone who was clearly and openly racist or sexist would also not be appointed to such positions, but for a different reason. It is morally wrong to be racist or sexist, and no President should appoint people with such views to a public policy body – but it is contrary to the civil and Constitutional rights of Americans to advocate segregation or recision of voting rights, and I contend that no President can appoint advocates of such policies to an influential body, and still be in conformity with the President’s duty to the country. Simply put, it is not a question of holding immoral opinions that is the decisive matter; rather the President cannot, as a matter of the obligations of office, set him- or herself against the civil rights of the American people without justification, and cannot appoint to influential positions people who have done so. It is not a violation of any duty other than basic morality to be a racist or sexist, but it is a violation of one’s duty to advocate racist or sexist policies while in public service. And, to conclude the argument, there is no moral distinction between homophobia and anti-gay discrimination, and racially- or gender-based discrimination of similar kinds. Advocates of homophobic discrimination have no more place on the President’s Council on Bioethics than do advocates of racial segregation or non-suffrage for women. Robert George has chosen to ally himself with the former – and should now take his place on the dustheap of history with the latter.
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