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President's Council on Bioethics

The following is the text of a letter sent to the editors of The Washington Post and The New York Times in response to Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn's removal from President Bush's Council on Bioethics.

To the Editor (of the Washington Post and the New York Times),

As geneticists and concerned citizens, we protest the dismissal of Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn from President Bush's Council on Bioethics (Washington Post, Saturday, Feb. 28, page A6; New York Times, Thursday, March 4, page A18). Dr. Blackburn is a geneticist with impeccable credentials who has contributed very substantially to our understanding of the molecular basis of chromosome structure, inheritance and cellular aging. A professor at the University of California at San Francisco, she has been President of the American Society of Cell Biology and is a member of the National Academy of the Sciences. Her removal by the Administration represents the loss from the Council of a well-reasoned voice supporting both scientific rigor and moral values. She has emphasized the need for research with embryonic stem cells because of the great promise for tissue regeneration that they offer. We suspect that her views on this subject led to her dismissal.

An informed dialogue about bioethics requires a discussion of basic biology and genetics. The dismissal of Dr. Blackburn diminishes the scientific expertise necessary for a complete, rational debate on the critical issues about which the Council on Bioethics is charged to inform the President and the public. The three new members of the panel (Dr. Benjamin Carson, Dr. Peter Lawler, and Dr. Diana Schaub) do not replace the scientific expertise of Dr. Blackburn. This unexpected dismissal, which came late on a Friday afternoon, gives the appearance of stifling a voice not following the Administration's desires. We feel that the explanation given by the Chairman of the Council Dr. Leon Kass (Washington Post, Wednesday, March 3, page A25), in response to criticism for her removal, was inadequate. In addition, Dr. Kass did not explain why she was not replaced by a geneticist or other basic scientist of comparable stature.    

Mark Johnston, Ph.D
Thomas D. Petes, Ph.D.
Gerald R. Smith, Ph.D.

The first and second authors are the present and past presidents of the Genetics Society of America, and the third author is a member of the GSA Board of Directors.

Dr. Blackburn's Op Ed article in The Washington Post, which reflects on her service to the President's Council on Bioethics, was written following her dismissal. (Note: You can see a preview of the article for free, but there is a $2.95 charge if you want to see the entire article at The Washington Post Web site.)