Ben Carson: The candidate from bioethics

During the George W. Bush administration, Ben Carson was a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics.  Compared to separating conjoined twins in a landmark surgical procedure, this might seem like a small item on his resume. But there’s good reason to think that his bioethics experience helped shape the thinking that has made him so appealing to many social conservatives. 

I made the call about Carson’s appeal earlier this year in the Huffington Post.  Talking about who might win the hearts of traditionalists I wrote that “at the moment the early favorite is Ben Carson. He seems to have been sent down from central casting for the role. An up-by-his-bootstraps African-American neurosurgeon who speaks softly but carries a big rhetorical scalpel, Carson was a member of President George W. Bush's bioethics council, which was notably skeptical about biotechnological innovations that challenged traditional notions of and respect for human beings. Enthusiasm for Carson could power him through the early going and give him reason to hang in for quite a while.”

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The professional pundits and politicos missed this point because they failed to understand how central certain bioethical values are to social conservatives, especially evangelical Christians. For decades, bioethics scholars have been arguing about the ethics of new reproductive technologies like in vitro fertilization and the prospect that while preventing suffering they might also undermine human dignity. 

Carson was a member of the bioethics council when they issued a report on embryonic stem cell research in 2005. At that time, conservatives were hoping for an alternative to the destruction of embryos in laboratories that wished to obtain valuable stem cells that might help scientists understand the origins of disease and how to use those cells for new treatments. In 2008 presidential candidate John McCainJohn McCainTrump's new debate challenge: Silence Senate rivals gear up for debates McCain opponent releases new ad hitting his record MORE got in trouble with social conservatives for failing to oppose human embryonic stem cell research.

Carson is a keen observer, a quality that served him well as a surgeon who has to appreciate what is happening to the body on the table while he is operating. He was perceptive enough to observe the important social currents swirling around bioethics. As a surgeon, he also has a quality usually associated with the current president that he would like to replace: audacity. Anyone who cuts open another human being to heal them has to have a lot of that, not to mention the audacity required to think he should be president of the United States. Yet this perceptive and audacious surgeon wraps himself in a gentle and firm demeanor and “gifted hands” that understandably inspired awe in the operating room and makes him attractive to many voters.

Just now a new bioethics debate is giving Carson a golden opportunity if it comes up in a debate. The National Academies, along with science organizations around the world, are discussing the use of new technologies that can redesign or “edit” the genes in embryos. Should human beings use the power of science to shape the genetics of future generations? No other candidate is so well positioned to adopt a strong position on this issue that would solidify his hold on the Republican base and certify him as the candidate from bioethics.

Moreno is the David and Lyn Silfen University Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.