Obama wants answers

Written order calls for research and recommendations

President Obama’s announcement of the full advisory commission for the study of bioethical issues clearly signals a departure from the Bush administration’s version of the panel. Whereas the previous group largely philosophized and deliberated, the new Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues is expected to provide practical, actionable guidance, according to Ruth Faden, Ph.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.


The commission will hold its first meeting on July 8 and 9, and as stated on its homepage, the group will work “with the goal of identifying and promoting policies and practices that ensure scientific research, health care delivery and technological innovation are conducted in an ethically responsible manner.


The executive order creating the 13-member commission states that it will “identify and examine specific bioethical, legal and social issues related to the potential impacts of advances in biomedical and behavioral research.” The commission also has the authority to “conduct original empirical or conceptual research and hold hearings” in order to help formulate its recommendations.

The commission’s chair, Amy Gutmann, is a distinguished political scientist, philosopher and scholar of ethics, who is currently president of the University of Pennsylvania. James Wagner, the commission’s vice chair, currently serves as president of Emory University, and is a materials science engineer.


Although the President’s Council on Bioethics, under George W. Bush, published a variety of reports ranging from newborn screenings to end-of-life care, some critics said that panel maintained “a relatively narrow focus on stem cells, cloning and abortion.” Also, Faden notes that the council spent more time reflecting about bioethical issues than on making specific recommendations to help resolve them.

The new commission is also distinct in that three of the members come from federal government agencies: Alexander Garza (Department of Homeland Security), Christine Grady (Department of Bioethics, National Institutes of Health Clinical Center) and Nelson Michael (Walter Reed Army Institute of Research). Lonnie Ali, boxing legend Muhammad Ali’s wife and a high-profile advocate for Parkinson’s disease research, is the only non-scientist or non-academic on the panel.

Beyond the headline

Starting with the creation in 1974 of the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, there have been five subsequent national bioethics commissions appointed by a president or Congress:


  • the President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research (1978-1983)
  • the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments (1994-95)
  • the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (1996-2001)
  • the President’s Council on Bioethics (2001-2009)
  • the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (2010) *

Faden chaired the 14-member Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, which served under former President Bill Clinton. “This committee was charged with investigating allegations of the use of unwitting human subjects in federally funded research during the Cold War era,” Faden explains, “and making recommendations to ensure that similar events could never occur again.”

Summer Johnson, Ph.D., executive editor of the American Journal of Bioethics, is completing a book on bioethics commissions, based on her dissertation in the Bioethics and Health Policy program at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Her research was carried out under the guidance of Nancy Kass, Ph.D., deputy director for public health at the Berman Institute.

The president has since assigned the commission its first task: to study the recent breakthrough in synthetic biology by the J. Craig Venter Institute.

* Former bioethics commissions: http://www.bioethics.gov/commissions/

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Michael Pena
Ruth Faden

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2 Responses to “Focus On: The Presidential Bioethics Commission”

  1. Articulos says:

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