Setting the Record Straight

Kyle Munkittrick, the transhumanist blogger with whom we
has a newish perch over on one of Discover magazine’s blogs. In a
post today
, Munkittrick tries to zing Peter Lawler, a contributing editor
to The New Atlantis
. For now I won’t comment on the substance of
Munkittrick’s post; I just want to focus on a prefatory paragraph. He mentions
that Professor Lawler served on the President’s Council on Bioethics, then offers
this smorgasbord of smears and demonstrable falsehoods:

For those of you unfamiliar with
Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics, they were the brilliant minds behind
halting stem cell research, focusing on it-worked-for-Bristol-Palin
abstinence-only sex education and being generally terrible philosophers and
thinkers. Charles Krauthammer was asked his opinion of ethical issues, I
kid you not
. In short, the PCBE happily rubber-stamped the backwards and
anti-science decrees of Bush and Cheney in an effort to supplicate the deranged
Christian base of the Republican party. I tell you all of this lovely
information so you have a working context for the luminary Big Think has
decided to employ.

Let’s look at these claims one by one.

Was the Council “behind halting stem cell research”?
No. First of all, stem cell research never “halted” — in fact, it received
funding from the federal government for the first time during the Bush
administration, and it flourished in the United States during the Bush years.
Second, President Bush’s stem cell funding policy was
announced on
August 9, 2001, in the same speech in which the president
announced he was going to create the Council. The Council didn’t even have its
first meeting until January
, after the policy was already in place. (The Council did, however,
publish an
extremely useful report in 2004
explaining the state of stem cell research,
as well as a
white paper in 2005
analyzing some proposed means of obtaining pluripotent
stem cells that wouldn’t require the intentional destruction of human embryos.)

Did the Council focus on “abstinence-only sex education”?
No. The Council never addressed that subject. Mr. Munkittrick is either
mistaken or lying. (Go ahead and search the Council’s publications
and meeting
for yourself. In fact, the only mention in all the Council’s
work comes from neuroscientist Patricia Churchland, an avowed secular humanist who,
in contributing a
to one report, criticizes abstinence education in passing.)

Was the Council composed of “generally terrible
philosophers and thinkers”?
I am happy to concede Mr. Munkittrick’s intimate
familiarity with terrible philosophers and thinkers, not to mention terrible
thinking. But this is a grossly unfair characterization of the Council. Among
its members were medical doctors, accomplished scientists, philosophers,
theologians, and lawyers, with a wide range of views. It also solicited
testimony and contributions from many accomplished and esteemed figures, also
with a very wide range of views. The Council’s members were very accomplished
people who often disagreed with one another on the subjects the Council debated
— disagreements that were sometimes very illuminating. (As for Dr. Krauthammer,
Mr. Munkittrick may dislike his views on national security policy, but that has
little bearing on his service on the Council.)

Did the Council “rubber-stamp the backwards and
anti-science decrees of Bush and Cheney in an effort to supplicate the deranged
Christian base of the Republican party”?
The latter part of this statement
is just inflammatory nonsense; the former part shows a plain ignorance of the
Council’s work. The Council was certainly not a rubberstamp, starting with its
first report, on cloning policy, in 2002
. It was such a diverse group of
scholars with such divided views that it couldn’t have been a mere rubberstamp
for any administration’s policies.

But policy wasn’t the Council’s chief concern anyway. As
Council member Gilbert Meilaender wrote
in an excellent essay for The New Atlantis
a year ago, “exploring
and examining competing goals” was the primary task of the Council. “Such
exploration is unlikely to result in a large number of policy recommendations,
but that is not its aim. The aim, rather, is to help the public and its elected
representatives think about the implications of biotechnological advance for
human life.” This is the assessment a reasonable person would have of the
Council’s work after reading any of its reports, all of which were
philosophically deep in their attempts to understand difficult bioethical issues,
but generally went lightly on the policy recommendations — so one gets the sense from this post that
Mr. Munkittrick is wholly unfamiliar with the reports issued by the body he so quickly

Finally, back to Lawler. A respected professor of political
philosophy, Lawler is the author of several wise books about modernity,
postmodernity, technology, and faith. I heartily recommend his latest book, Modern
and American Dignity
, as well as his previous book Stuck
with Virtue
; they both grapple with bioethical questions, and they both
reward careful reading.