President Forms New Bioethics Committee

Press Release Here.

So far, he appointed Dr. Amy Gutman, President of U of Penn, and Dr. James Wagner, President of Emory University. In a home town connection, Dr. Wagner once served as Provost, University Vice President, and Interim President of Case Western Reserve University. Prior to that, he was Dean and Professor of Materials Science at the Case School of Engineering from 1998 to 2000.

According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, the panel “replaces President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics, which drew criticism in scientific circles over alleged bias.”

One such incident refers to the firing of Nobel-laureate Elizabeth Blackburn, as she writes about in the New England Journal of Medicine found here.

Three of the 18 members of the original bioethics council were full-time biomedical research scientists. Chairman Leon Kass, of the University of Chicago, has, in his published work, questioned modern medical and biomedical science and taken the stance of a “moral philosopher,” often invoking a “wisdom of repugnance” ā€” in other words, rejecting science, such as research involving embryonic stem cells, because it feels wrong to him.

Work with animal models has been indicating the potential benefits of research involving embryonic stem cells for more than two decades…such research may result in therapies for diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and spinal injuries, among other conditions. Yet the best possible scientific information was not incorporated and communicated clearly in the council’s report [Report on Monitoring Stem Cell Research], suggesting that the presentation was biased.

Adam Holland explains: In spite of statutory requirements for appointing a panel with a balanced constituency representing a diversity of opinion, Bush replaced Blackburn and her colleague Dr. William May with Dr. Ben Carson, Diana Schaub and Peter Lawler, all of whom had passed litmus tests regarding stem cell research and other issues. The Bush-nominated panel, already stacked with non-scientists who supported his views, was thus denied the input of independent scientific voices on this question.

Union of Concerned Scientists piped up, and OMB watch was unamused.

While this incident is important, it also encourages a misperception that the field of bioethics is only about stem cell research or cloning, and bioethicists are only scientists or researchers. Those who specialize in bioethics have degrees in law, medicine, philosophy, religion, psychology, economics, etc. and their role is more likely to serve as the ‘conscience’ of an organization as opposed to the usual ‘money-driven’ or ‘lawsuit-avoidance’ approach we’re familiar with. It’s a need to find a balance between pragmatism and ideaology; profit and humanity.

In the next three years the President’s Council could deliver guidance on reproductive issues (IVF, surrogacy), end-of-life decisions (DNR, etc), medical errors and how they’re handled, clinical research guidelines involving human subjects, controversial and new medical technologies (gastic bypass, brain surgery to treat severe obsessive-compulsive disorder), and transplant issues (protection and selection of living donors, preventing organ failure, and coping with the inevitable shortage of donor organs), issues that affect all of us in some way. The choices of Wagner and Gutman are important – and consequently, so are their future policy suggestions.

Stay tuned….

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