In the final session of its nineteenth public meeting, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) heard from a panel of experts on deliberation and bioethics education, a theme that has been central throughout the Commission’s work since it was established by President Obama in 2009.
In introducing the new project this morning, Bioethics Commission Chair Amy Gutmann, Ph.D., noted that while all of the Commission’s reports to date have been topic-specific, its commitment to public bioethics and to related educational and deliberative efforts has been a constant. “Recognizing that education is required for informed deliberation, and deliberation enhances education at all levels, this new report will integrate deliberation and education as overarching themes of the Commission’s work, and focus on their symbiotic relationship as twin pillars of public bioethics,” Gutmann said.
Daniel Levin, Ph.D., associate professor of political science at the University of Utah, started the discussion by addressing the role of deliberation in public bioethics forums—such as the national meetings of the Bioethics Commission—in informing public understanding of bioethics.
Levin noted that public forums such as the Bioethics Commission are important to ensuring that policy discussions on complex and important issues that concern the public—but in which the public isn’t necessarily engaged—are transparent and serve the public.
Research has shown that Americans are “conflict avoidant” and do not like to engage in discussions of controversial issues, Levin said. However, he added, “Americans are concerned about the process itself, especially that special interests not be allowed to have undue influence, and they believe that the political process should be transparent.”
Next, Diana E. Hess, Ph.D., professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and senior vice president of the Spencer Foundation, examined the relationship between democratic deliberation and both public and medical education.
“People need to be taught how to engage in high-quality deliberation,” Hess said, starting in high school and throughout the course of their education, on complex issues, including issues related to bioethics.
She noted that anyone –not just physicians and bioethicists—may at some point in their life be faced with a bioethical decision, such as how to deal with care at the end of life. “You’ve got a responsibility to prepare people not just to participate in public policy discussions,” Hess told the Commission. “What is education for? We want to create a better society, but we want people to have better lives.”
Lisa Lehmann, M.D., Ph.D., M.Sc., director of the Center for Bioethics at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and associate professor of medicine and medical ethics at Harvard Medical School, rounded out the panel by focusing on the importance and value of ethics education in the education of medical professionals.
Lehman said bioethics education can foster the “moral courage” needed for medical professionals to “put ethical principle into action.” She defined moral courage as “the courage to do what’s right for patients, despite the professional risks … even if it conflicts with the law.”
However, she agreed with Hess that all members of society should have some bioethics education, so that they can make informed decisions such as whether to be an organ donor, for example.
Gutmann asked the panel if the example of quarantines during an Ebola outbreak might be the kind of case study that could help with bioethics education. She noted that such a case study brings science, law, and ethics together.
Hess replied that it is a “close to perfect case study.” She said that it is both highly authentic and that it has a lot of conflicting core values.
The Bioethics Commission’s next public meeting is scheduled for Feb. 5-6, 2015. The Commission plans to meet in Washington, D.C.