New Bioethics Panel: The Usual Suspects

Author: Mary Meehan


-------------------------------------------------------------------------- Action Required-Stop Clinton's Priesthood of Bioethics

The article by Mary Meehan, reprinted below, exposes a problem America is having with President Clinton. Most Americans look to the clergy for advice on moral questions. So American Life League is deeply angered by the President's proposal to invent another body of experts whose mission is to undercut the clergy. None of the churches trusted by the American people have been consulted in developing this new panel of experts, although the panel's task is to make recommendations on moral questions of life and death. The American people do not look to this President or his divisive appointees for advice about morality. The entire scheme of anointing a priesthood of bioethics is a scam. It must be exposed, denounced and defunded.

Let your members of Congress know-No Thanks, No Funds, Not Now, Not Ever!

Honorable , House of Representatives, Washington, DC 20515 Honorable , U.S. Senate, Washington, DC 20510 -------------------------------------------------------------------------- New bioethics panel: the usual suspects by Mary Meehan

THE FACTS: The Clinton administration wants to appoint a National Bioethics Advisory Commission.

THE IMPACT: Many people considered for membership on the commission support physician-assisted suicide, abortion, fetal research and/or embryo research.

The Clinton administration's National Bioethics Advisory Commission hasn't been formally announced yet, but euthanasia opponent Rita Marker already hopes it will be "defanged and defunded."

Richard Doerflinger, an official of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said names proposed for the Clinton commission so far suggest that it may be even "less representative" than the recent National Institutes of Health (NIH) Human Embryo Research Panel-adding that this "hardly seems possible." He said the bishops must decide whether to propose some names of [their] own or "oppose the whole thing."

Why all the fuss? On Dec. 2, when he announced a restriction on proposed government funding of human embryo research, President Clinton added that "we are planning to move forward with the establishment of a National Bioethics Advisory Commission over the next year." Later, right-to-life groups were surprised to find that the administration had published a notice about the proposed commission in the Federal Register last Aug. 12, inviting public comments and names of people to fill 15 seats on the commission.

The comment period closed before most pro-lifers even knew about it. Comments came largely from bioethicists and medical groups. Among the people proposed for membership on the commission are:

* Several individuals who believe doctors should help some patients commit suicide;

* One who approved "rare instances" of infanticide and another who suggested killing some coma patients;

* Many who support abortion, fetal and/or embryo research.

Clinton's Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is handling the commission proposal and a staff member there told the Register that it "could be several months" before commission members are chosen and a formal announcement is made. More names of possible members may be solicited, the staffer said.

The Federal Register notice stressed issues related to "research on human biology and behavior," but the OSTP staffer said that if commission members want to look into physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia, "we would not consider that beyond the scope of their activities."

Professor Arthur Caplan, director of a bioethics center at the University of Pennsylvania and one of more than 50 people proposed as commission members, said the commission, "to be credible, should take on some issues first that are not hot-button questions."

In a Jan. 16 interview, he said it could probably reach consensus on issues such as research on the mentally ill and on emergency patients. But Caplan suggested that "you're not going to get consensus from a committee format about highly divisive moral questions" such as euthanasia and embryo research.

A review of people proposed for the commission found three-law professor Alta Charo, Dr. Bernard Lo and ethicist Thomas Murray-who served on the recent NIH Human Embryo Research Panel. All three voted to recommend federal funding of embryo research.

Charo is on the board of the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion. She's also on the board of International Projects Assistance Services, which promotes abortion in poor nations. Last year she told the Register that this group "manufactures abortion equipment."

In 1989 Lo was one of 10 doctors who wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine that "it is not immoral for a physician to assist in the rational suicide of a terminally ill person." While acknowledging that this "is a crime in many states," the physicians stressed that "we know of no physician who has ever been prosecuted in the United States for prescribing pills" for a patient's suicide.

Dr. Christine Cassel, also proposed for the national bioethics commission, co-authored that 1989 article. Three years later, writing in the same journal with two other doctors, she suggested guidelines for legalizing physician-assisted suicide. "The time before a controlled death," the doctors wrote, "can provide an opportunity for a rich and meaningful goodbye between family members, health care providers and the patient."

Ethicist Larry Churchill, also suggested for the commission, is another supporter of physician-assisted suicide. Last year he said that, by helping to legalize it, medical leaders "would enhance the public trust in medicine."

Another commission nominee, ethicist Robert Weir, wrote in a 1992 article that assisting suicide is sometimes "the right and compassionate thing to do." Earlier, in his 1984 book on Selective Non-Treatment of Handicapped Newborns, Weir said that killing a handicapped baby "can be justified, but in rare instances." He suggested that newborns are "potential persons" who "will at some future point naturally meet the requirements for membership in the personhood club as long as the rules for membership do not change between now and then."

Ethicist Daniel Wikler, another possible member of the bioethics commission, has proposed changing the rules about brain death so that patients in a "persistent vegetative state" can be declared dead. In a 1988 article in the Hastings Center Report, Wikler suggested that "the body of the patient in persistent vegetative state is still alive and could remain so, but the patient is not."

With sufficient "re-education," he thought, the public might accept action to kill the body: "Just as the public accepts the idea that brain-dead patients may have their vital organs removed . . . so may they come to accept the administration of an agent that causes cardiac arrest to patients in persistent vegetative state."

Others suggested for the commission include:

* Father John Paris, S.J., who in the 1980s testified in favor of withdrawing IV artificial feeding from long-term coma patients. He also opposed right-to-life efforts to obtain surgery for "Baby Jane Doe," a New York infant with spina bifida;

* Charles McCarthy, a former NIH employee who told the NIH Human Embryo Research Panel last year that using an embryo for research may be "a mark of respect" for that embryo;

* Judy Norsigian, co-author of The New Our Bodies, Ourselves, a women's guide that strongly supports abortion;

Caplan, who described himself as "more conservative" on some issues and "more liberal" on others. He said he opposes legalizing physician-assisted suicide. He has supported fetal research, though, and he told the Register that "embryo research should be done on a limited basis with embryos that are going to be destroyed." But he said he's not sure whether any research now proposed is important enough to justify this.

In a 1988 article in Transplantation Proceedings, Caplan justified taking organs from babies diagnosed as anencephalic (that is, lacking a large part of the brain) for transplant to others. Since such children "cannot make choices or even have wishes or desires and lack the means to be aware of pain or to suffer in any way, it is difficult to imagine how they could be harmed in any way," Caplan wrote. Later, however, he indicated that the public was not ready to accept this step.

Among others proposed for the bioethics commission are at least two defenders of traditional medical ethics: Professor Russell Hittinger of the Catholic University of America and Dr. Edmund Pellegrino of George-town University. Several others-such as an advocate for the mentally ill, a critic of genetic engineering and a doctor who exposed research fraud-might offer independent viewpoints. And there are some whose positions could not be determined.

The Register suggests, though, that President Clinton may choose a commission heavily weighted against traditional medical ethics. Nevertheless, he did oppose physician-assisted suicide during the 1992 campaign.

Mary Meehan is the Register's medical ethics correspondent. Taken from the "National Catholic Register," February 5, 1995. For subscriptions contact the "National Catholic Register", P.O. Box 260380, Encino, CA 91426-0380, (800) 421- 3230.