Adding to the plethora of recent news related to embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research in the US, President George W Bush is being criticised for the reshuffle of the Council on Bioethics that took place last week.
In the reshuffle, Elizabeth Blackburn, a professor of cell biology at the University of California at San Francisco, and William May, a former bioethics professor at Southern Methodist University, were informed that their services were no longer needed on the panel. Both had been outspoken in their opinions that ES cell research should move forward and could lead to valuable therapies for many diseases. They were replaced by three members who are known to have expressed their opposition to ES cell research, in line with the president himself, meaning that the 18-member panel now contains a majority of those not in favour of such research.
Now, an open letter to the president, criticising the replacement of the two panel members, has been signed by 170 US academics, researchers and clinicians. The letter was written by Dr Arthur Caplan, chair of the bioethics department and director of the Centre for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. It alleges that the Council on Bioethics now fails to represent disparate views and therefore 'lacks credibility as a forum'. It also states: 'The creation of sound public policy with respect to developments in medicine and the life sciences requires a council that has a diverse set of views and possibilities. By dismissing those two individuals and appointing new members whose views are likely to closely reflect those of the majority of the council and its chair, the credibility of the council is severely compromised'. Caplan says the letter 'marks the first time that ethicists have assailed any presidential commission on bioethics', adding 'we didn't do it for Carter, Reagan or Clinton. There was some private whining but nothing public'. The American Society for Cell Biology, of which Elizabeth Blackburn is a member and former president, likened the removal of the two members late in the day on a Friday to a 'Friday afternoon massacre'. Dr Leon Kass, chair of the president's council, has so far declined to comment on the letter. But, in an editorial published in the Washington Post last week, he wrote: 'No one who has attended any of our meetings can believe that we do anything but serious and careful work, without regard to ideology, partisan politics or religious beliefs'.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth Blackburn and Janet Rowley, a biologist from the University of Chicago who is still a member of the Council on Bioethics, have said that the council systematically distorts scientific evidence to 'advance a conservative ideology'. They also accuse Kass of ignoring their scientific advice and refusing to include information in the council's most recent report: information that would challenge Bush's restrictive policy on stem cell research. Writing in the journal Public Library of Science Biology, they criticise the council's 'selective use of science', citing its recent report on stem cell research which, they say, deliberately exaggerated the potential of adult stem cells to justify the Bush administration's opposition to work on ES cells. They also said that a report by the council on genetic disease and ageing 'raised the spectre of designer babies' and suggested that stem cell research was used 'predominantly to serve vanity'.
Sources and References
Researchers blast US bioethics panel reshuffle
Science panel 'pushes Bush ethics'
Researchers accuse Bush of stacking bioethics panel