This piece, which originally appeared on blog.bioethics.gov, the blog of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, was written by the Bioethics Commission Staff and has been reposted with permission.
This is the first post in our “History of Bioethics” series in which we will examine some of the seminal events that shaped the landscape of bioethics and its practice in the world today. This first blog will focus on the creation of the national bioethics advisory bodies in the United States and their different iterations throughout the years.
From our History of Bioethics Commissions page…
The current advisory group, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, established by a 2009 Executive Order from President Barack Obama, continues the more than 40-year history of bodies established by the President or Congress to provide expert advice on topics related to bioethics. These groups have differed in their composition, methods, and areas of focus, yet they all have shared share a common goal – to promote the careful examination and analysis of ethical considerations that underlie our nation’s activities in science, medicine, and technology.
The National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research (1974-78) is generally viewed as the first national bioethics commission. Established as part of the 1974 National Research Act, the National Commission is best known for the development of the Belmont Report, a document that laid out the ethical principles and guidelines for research involving human subjects. This document has been used as a basis for further federal regulations in the area of human subjects protections.
The Presidential Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research (1978-83), also established by Congress, produced reports on foregoing life-sustaining treatment and access to health care, among other topics. Its 1981 report Defining Death was the basis of the Uniform Determination of Death Act, a model law that was enacted by most U.S. states.
The Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments (1994-95) was created by President Bill Clinton to investigate human radiation experiments conducted from 1944 -1974 as well as radiation intentionally released into the environment for research purposes. The committee considered the ethical and scientific standards for evaluating these events and provided recommendations aimed at ensuring that similar events could not be repeated.
Since the mid-1990s, each of the past three presidents has established bioethics commissions to explore ethical issues in science, medicine, and technology. The National Bioethics Advisory Commission (1996-2001), created by President Clinton, examined topics including cloning, human stem cell research, and research involving human subjects. President George W. Bush established the President’s Council on Bioethics (2001-2009), which issued reports on stem cell research, human enhancement, and reproductive technologies, among other topics.
The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues was established in November 2009 and is chaired by Dr. Amy Gutmann, President of the University of Pennsylvania and renowned political philosopher and educator. The Bioethics Commission has dealt with topics ranging from neuroscience, to Ebola, to whole genome sequencing, and more. All of the Bioethics Commission’s reports can be viewed and downloaded for free at Bioethics.gov. A major point of emphasis for the current Bioethics Commission is to educate and inform the nation about bioethics. So far, in its tenure, the Bioethics Commission has created and disseminated materials for a variety of audiences in traditional and non-traditional educational settings. To date over fifty education materials have been developed and are disseminated freely through the website.
Stay tuned to [blog.bioethics.gov] for upcoming posts on the “History of Bioethics”!