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Looking Ahead to Obama’s Bioethics Commission

President Obama’s decision to name Amy Gutmann and James W. Wagner to lead his new Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues is an inspired one. Wagner is an engineer and president of Emory University, where he’s earned high marks for his devotion to the ideals of liberal learning. Former provost at Princeton and now president of the University of Pennsylvania, Gutmann is a political philosopher whose work explores, among other themes, the subject of moral disagreement in a democracy.

A proponent of deliberative democracy, Gutmann (along with her collaborator, Harvard professor Dennis Thompson) advocates a set of ethical principles for the conduct of debate and the formation of policy in the face of moral controversy. In brief, Gutmann has thought long and hard – and, I believe, creatively – about the challenges that she, Wagner, and their fellow commissioners will face when they get down to business.

Once the other members of the 13-member commission are named, it will be possible to get a preliminary read on the likely dynamics of the new body. The White House, however, has already signaled the methods and expected outcomes of its deliberations: in issuing the executive order creating the commission, the President stated that it will “develop its recommendations through practical and policy-related analyses.”

“Practical” and “policy related”: these are two adjectives that have been invoked before by the White House, specifically back in June when the members of the President’s Council on Bioethics were abruptly dismissed by the Office of Presidential Personnel. In explaining the decision to disband the Council several months ahead of its scheduled expiration on September 30, White House press officer Reid Cherlin described – and, it’s fair to say disparaged – the Council as “a philosophically leaning advisory group.” He then went on to say that the President would soon appoint a new commission with the mission of offering “practical policy options.”

The criticism of the Council as too philosophical and not practical or policy-oriented enough seems to me to have two targets, one legitimate and the other misguided and apparently oblivious both to the history of bioethics as a field and to the promise of a public body devoted to bioethical inquiry.

The legitimate target is the degree to which the President’s Council operated, more often than not, at some remove from those arenas in which federal policy on the complex issues of bioethics is forged and implemented. For some observers, such “splendid isolation” is the condition of a necessary independence to be sought and zealously defended, lest a commission become a mere mouthpiece or rubberstamp for the political party in power. But that same isolation can leave a commission adrift and bereft of a clear sense of its mission and of any accountability for its work.

My own hope is that the President will go beyond a simple enumeration of the broad topics that the commission is likely to deal with and, instead, mandate that it take up clearly defined ethical questions undergirding the formation of sound public policy. The new commission can analyze and deliberate on such questions without risking its independence or its integrity as a public body. It need only commit itself to the principles that Gutmann has elucidated in her work:

  • The principle of reciprocity: Deliberation demands mutual respect, an honest effort to articulate and understand fundamental, often conflicting values, and a willingness to engage and comprehend moral convictions at odds with one’s own.
  • The principle of publicity: Deliberation requires publicity and openness, along with a concerted effort to seek input from relevant constituencies and to advocate and defend policy decisions in publicly accessible ways.
  • The principle of accountability: Deliberation depends upon the trust of the public to whom policymakers are ultimately accountable.

The misguided target of criticism is the suggestion that the Council’s work was too philosophical. The idea that a bioethics commission can or should avoid “going too deep” when it analyzes and deliberates on policy-oriented questions misses the whole point of having a public body of this sort. “Philosophical” and “practical, policy-related” are not mutually exclusive possibilities for the quality of bioethical inquiry by a commission.

The midwives who attended the birth of bioethics some 40 years ago were philosophers and theologians who sought to “go real deep” and to comprehend, as well as vigorously debate, the “ultimate” meaning of scientific and technological developments in the life sciences – for individuals, societies, and future generations. And they did so precisely with the aim of shaping public policy.

If the president wants policy advice framed without attention to such philosophical complexities, it can be easily had – and at considerably less expense – by relying on the existing channels in the federal government for developing policy. But if the hope is to have and benefit from bioethical inquiries that plumb the depths with an eye firmly trained on the practical, conducted by a body deliberating in the full light of the public square, then a federal advisory commission is not only preferable but necessary.

As a public body, the new commission will have to wrestle with the longstanding problem of how to achieve effective engagement with the public on the often difficult questions and issues of contemporary bioethics. Advance posting of meeting agendas in the Federal Register and meetings held in hotel ballrooms around the nation’s capital are minimalist approaches to this challenge. A truly public body will need more innovative strategies, both to reach and to learn from the public.

Here, too, there’s cause for hope, for we have a president who is extraordinarily gifted as a communicator, who can articulate and explain complex issues and make them accessible to the public, and who has committed his administration to transparency and openness. We have, that is, an administration that has taken a strong stand on behalf of an informed public; certainly, the current ferment of ideas and efforts to realize that stand in practice can yield fruit for the commission and its strategies for public education and debate.

It has been suggested that Obama’s presidency is the first “bioethics presidency.” Bioethics has been with us for some time, through at least six presidencies. Although it is unlikely that the persistent controversies in bioethics will be resolved any time soon, it is possible that the president and his new commission will spur a renewal of faith in the potential of a truly public bioethics. The signs thus far are quite promising.

F. Daniel Davis, Ph.D., served as executive director of the President’s Council on Bioethics from January 2006 to September 2009.

Published on: January 5, 2010
Published in: Bioethics

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