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04/18/2016

Using the Bioethics Commission’s Meeting to Educate About Democratic Deliberation

In the Bioethics Commission’s upcoming work focusing on deliberation and education, the Bioethics Commission describes the principles inherent in successful democratic deliberations. These principles include maintaining mutual respect and providing clear reasons for a position with the goal of arriving at a shared solution.

The Bioethics Commission puts these principles into practice in their own deliberations conducted at public meetings. Since July 2010, the Bioethics Commission has conducted 23 meetings across the country during which they have deliberated about topics and reached agreement on recommendations that are published in their nine reports.

Dr. Rachel Fink, professor of biological sciences at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, brought eight of her students to Washington, DC to observe the Bioethics Commission deliberation in action on November 17, 2015. For many of the students, this provided their first opportunity to observe democratic deliberation firsthand—an opportunity that many of the students found educational.

As one student observed:

Each commissioner had started out in a specific profession and had knowledge in certain subjects, yet they all sat together diplomatically, accepting, critiquing, and refining each other’s ideas and points.

A second student reflected:

I thought the meeting would be a heated debate about an issue of their choice with strong opponents to each side. I expected it would take them awhile, maybe even a few meetings, to agree on a position, and even then the decision wouldn’t be perfect. However, I was incredibly impressed with how well each panelist presented themselves in speech and in logic supporting their individual perspectives, taking into account a number of pros and cons, and how easily they were able to agree with a level head.

Observing democratic deliberation in practice, such as the deliberations carried out by the Bioethics Commission, can serve to educate future deliberators about the merits of the practice and foster appreciation for all that can be achieved through deliberation. In fact, one student noted that the deliberations:

[L]eft an impact on me because I have never had an interest in pursuing politics or policy as I assumed the fields were more cutthroat, more about how the individual can get ahead without thinking about how their decisions affect others. However, after … observing how composed and productive the commission was in a few short hours, I am hoping to someday consider using my advanced degree in science to benefit the community from a political standpoint.

Source: Student reflections provided by Dr. Rachel Fink

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