Bioethics: Left, Right, and Wrong

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In November 2009, the White House quietly established a new Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. While few details about the commission have emerged, the press release announcing its creation named University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann its chairman and Emory University president James W. Wagner its vice chairman. Given the burdens of their administrative day jobs, it seems unlikely that either Ms. Gutmann or Mr. Wagner will be able to devote significant amounts of personal time and energy to the commission’s work, which suggests that leadership will come from elsewhere.

The executive order formally chartering the new bioethics commission holds another early clue to the Obama administration’s intentions for it. It emphasizes policy-relevance: the commission is tasked with “recommend[ing] legal, regulatory, or policy actions” related to bioethics. This stands in contrast to its immediate predecessor, the Bush administration’s President’s Council on Bioethics, the charter for which emphasized exploring and discussing over recommending. As Gilbert Meilaender, who served on the council from beginning to end, argues elsewhere in this issue, the council sought to examine the ends of biotechnology. Its aim, he writes, was to puzzle through the philosophical questions that lie beneath the policy questions, and “to help the public and its elected representatives think about the implications of biotechnological advance for human life.”

The council’s critics have consistently missed that crucial aspect of its purpose and have regularly misrepresented the methods it used in its work. Even now that it has been disbanded, its critics persist in distorting its accomplishments. A new volume called Progress in Bioethics, just published by M.I.T. Press, collects fourteen essays by left-leaning bioethicists. While a small minority of the essays is worth reading, others include paranoid caricatures of the council and its work. Further, they lament what they depict as the polarized and politicized state of bioethics, even as they indulge in their own hand-wringing search for a new “progressive bioethics.”

Those of us concerned with the implications of biotechnology for human dignity will be watching carefully to see what, if anything, this progressive bioethics amounts to — what it stands for and against, and what it hopes to accomplish. It will be especially fascinating to see whether this progressive strain influences President Obama’s new bioethics commission and the recommendations it has been ordered to make.

The Editors of The New Atlantis, "Bioethics: Left, Right, and Wrong," The New Atlantis, Fall 2009/Winter 2010, p. 170.

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