News that President Bush has dismissed two members of his bioethics council reminds me of a chat I had with Natasha Vita-More at last summerís TransVision 2003 conference at Yale University. Vita-More is an artist-or "cultural catalyst" as she likes to put it-and a well-known member of the transhumanist movement, an international group of highly educated technophiles who want to use genetic engineering and other advanced technologies to someday overcome the biological limitations of the human body and transform themselves into "posthumans."
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I asked Vita-More what she thought of the bioethics council, which had been criticized by some for being top-heavy with conservatives like chairman and bioethicist Leon Kass and syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer. "Itís funny," she said. "The council is against cloning but itís full of nothing but clones." If she and other bioliberals thought the council was too intellectually cohesive and bioconservative before, they are going to like it even less now that cell biologist Elizabeth Blackburn and medical ethicist William May have been let go and replaced by three scholars whose writings and work seem to be more in line with the majority of council members.
The move also put White House science policy back in the news, especially as it relates to embryonic stem cell research. In August 2001, many pundits said that Bushís half-a-loaf decision on stem cell research would be the most important decision he would make as president. (Bush said federal funding could only go to research on a limited number of existing embryonic stem cell lines.) One month later, though, the September 11 terrorist attacks brought presidential decisions about war and peace to the forefront. Yet the stem-cell issue has continued to percolate. Both New Jersey and California, for instance, are considering funding stem cell research, while Harvard University just announced plans to open a multimillion-dollar center to grow and study embryonic stem cells. And stem cell research continues overseas. In February, scientists in South Korea announced they had cloned 30 human embryos, grown them for a week in the laboratory and extracted stem cells for further research.
And donít forget that this is an election year, when just about everything gets highly politicized. Likely Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry was quick to criticize Bushís decision to shuffle the council, saying that "a scientific panel ought to be chosen on the basis of science and on the basis of reputation, not politics." Of course, itís not too hard to predict that a bioethics council under a President Kerry would look quite different from the current one. Itís my also guess that arguments over issues like therapeutic cloning, stem cell research, and human enhancement will occupy a larger and larger place in the political debate going forward, perhaps eclipsing abortion as the No. 1 issue in the so-called cultural wars.