Kass leaves post as Bush’s Bioethics chair

By Jen Glickel

Leon Kass, the Addie Clark Harding Professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the College, stepped down from his position as Chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics this past Saturday, October 1.

President Bush created the Council, which is composed of 18 intellectuals from diverse fields, to advise Bush on the scientific and moral aspects of bioethical issues. Bush appointed Kass, also a medical doctor, as Chairman of the Council upon its inception in August 2001.

Kass explained what it really takes to “advise the President,” saying that “the heart of my activity comprised setting the agenda and direction of the council’s work, organizing staff and research, chairing the meetings, and writing and rewriting our reports.”

With Kass as chairman, the Council produced seven major publications, including reports on cloning, stem cell research, and regulating biotechnologies. “I am exceedingly proud of these reports and of our ability to enlarge the public debate about matters crucial to the human future,” Kass said.

Kass decided to step down as chairman of the Council after two full terms and after “having accomplished everything that [he had] hoped to do.” Although he will remain on the Council as a member, he said he wanted more time for writing, teaching, and spending time with his family.

Kass will be dividing his time between working at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank at which he is the Hertog Fellow in Social Thought, and teaching part-time at the University. He and his wife, Amy Kass, who is a senior lecturer in the Humanities at the University, will both return to campus for the spring 2006 quarter. The duo plans on teaching a class together on Tolstoy’s War and Peace in the spring.

While her husband served on the Council, Amy Kass also took a leave of absence from the U of C to work in other positions. She served as a member of the National Council for the National Endowment of the Humanities, as a consultant to the USA Freedom Corps, and as a consultant to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. She will be teaching part-time when she returns to the U of C with her husband.

For Leon Kass, the most interesting aspect of his work on the Council was negotiating the difficult relationship between theory and practice. He described the challenge as being “how to deepen our understanding of the human significance of the emerging biotechnologies and, at the same time, how to offer help to policy makers charged with governing these matters.”

Kass was able to incorporate his intellectual interests in both Classics and bioethics to capacity as chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics. “The biological revolution raises the most profound questions about our humanity—about body and soul, freedom and dignity, love and friendship, birth and death, the nature of human flourishing, et cetera,” he said. “The Great Books are excellent companions for thinking carefully about these matters.” Having discovered the value of using the Great Books in the Council’s work, the Council produced a reader called, Being Human: Readings from the President’s Council on Bioethics.

Holding both a S.B. and M.D. from the U of C, Kass is undoubtedly a scientist, but he also teaches classes on the Great Books in the humanities at the College. In his classes, Kass usually concentrates on one classical text for an entire quarter. Such texts have included Genesis, Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, and Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality.

In true U of C fashion, Kass said, “I believe strongly in the power of books to open minds and shape lives… A good liberal education is the best foundation for living thoughtfully and well.”