February 24, 2008
A Chat With George W. Bush’s Conscience
Francis Wilkinson in Discover:
As a former chairman of George W. Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics, Leon Kass is well acquainted with controversy, and with the treacherous terrain at the nexus of science and politics. The council, tasked with advising the president on such hot-button issues as stem cell research and cloning, has sometimes been dismissed as a vehicle for the right wing of the Republican Party. But although some of his views comport with those of hard-liners, Kass, a physician with a Ph.D. in biochemistry, is hard to pigeonhole. “I do not come from a school of thought, nor do I have an ideology,” he says.
An old-fashioned moralist, he holds some views that are remarkably unfashionable—even premodern. He still employs the term bastard to describe the children of unwed parents, and he has written despairingly about the loss of “female modesty” in our culture. At the same time, he has misgivings about the effects of global capitalism and believes in integration, tolerance, and inclusiveness. In the end, what really rankles many scientists is Kass’s belief that society has a duty to regulate research, and his frequent warnings about the dehumanizing effects of some technologies.
The recommendations of the Council on Bioethics, though substantive and scholarly, have by and large not been put into practice by policymakers, and the group’s prominence has faded as the debate about stem cell research has ground to a standoff. Kass left the council in September and currently is a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, where his office is a few paces from Lynne Cheney’s. He sat down with DISCOVER to reflect on his tenure and discuss his beliefs, his influences, and his concerns for the future.
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