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Let the Debates Begin: Bioethics in the Campaigns and Public Policy

Public policy on issues in bioethics is particularly important at this juncture. From Schiavo to Sicko to stem cells, our issues are increasingly grabbing the public’s attention. The 2008 presidential candidates have positions on abortion, cloning, health care reform, and stem cells, and Congress has introduced or is debating legislation on personalized medicine, health care reform, end of life care, abortion, clinical trials, nanotechnology, and torture, among other bioethics topics.

As part of its Bioethics and the Public Interest Initiative, the Center wants to ensure that these issues receive the kind of debate and attention that is required to make reasonable policy. As such, it has just published From Birth to Death and Bench to Clinic: The Hastings Center Bioethics Briefing Book for Journalists, Policymakers, and Campaigns. The volume is free online, though there will also be a limited print edition. The 36 chapters in the Briefing Book provide concise backgrounders on both familiar concerns such as health care reform and newer issues emerging out of biotechnology. Each chapter includes a click-able list of experts to contact, websites and other resources for story ideas, and links to relevant legislation and campaign positions.

The Briefing Book is designed to give journalists, policy-makers, and political campaigns the tools they need to write and respond well to the challenges posed by advances in medicine and science that affect individuals, families, and communities. The volume is grounded in the Hastings Center mantra that good ethics begins with good facts. Hence each of the entries includes careful description of the relevant science, social science, statistics, legal history, and other research. As for the bioethical considerations at the heart of the entries: The Hastings Center methodology, refined over four decades as a way to approach often thorny ethical concerns, is nonpartisan and multidisciplinary. It is also multiperspective – all reasonable voices deserve to be heard, with the aim of finding, if not consensus, then at least understanding and respect. The entries in this volume aspire to that standard. While the authors come from a range of disciplines, and from various political and moral positions, each has strived to present the full range of perspectives on a given topic.

A series of framing essays illustrates just what is at stake for journalists and policy-makers at the front lines of these critical issues. Hastings Center President Thomas Murray describesthe growing relevance of bioethics to public policy and the impetus for the Briefing Book, and Center co-founder Daniel Callahan reflects on the historical role of bioethics in policy, and its particular relevance to health care reform. TIME magazine editor-at-large Nancy Gibbs didn’t get to be one of the best journalists writing about bioethics without having a way with words. So I’ll let her have the final word, which seems both encomium and exhortation to our ranks: In her Briefing Book framing essay, Nancy encourages journalists to pave the way in a “whole new kind of conversation” about what it means to be human – one in which “bioethicists play a fateful role.”

Published on: October 3, 2008
Published in: Bioethics, Health Care Reform & Policy

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