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Posted on July 11, 2014 at 10:54 AM

At first glance legal scholars, doctors, philosophers, scientists, and engineers may not appear to have much in common; however, members of these professions make up the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission). For the past four years, since its first public meeting on July 8, 2010, the Bioethics Commission has been advising President Obama on issues arising from advances in biomedicine and related areas of science and technology. Bioethics is a multidisciplinary field that draws upon many subject areas and disciplines to address ethical questions in health care and biomedical sciences. The field revolves around core principles such as justice, beneficence, autonomy, and democratic deliberation. Different disciplinary perspectives lend various lenses through which to consider these principles, contributing to the richness of the field as a whole and increasing the likelihood that the ethical analysis generated is well-rounded.

Reflecting the multidisciplinary nature of bioethics, Bioethics Commission members include philosophers John Arras, Ph.D., and Christine Grady, R.N., Ph.D.; legal scholars Anita Allen, J.D., Ph.D., and Nita Farahany, J.D., Ph.D.; clinician Barbara Atkinson, M.D.; scientific researcher Raju Kucherlapati, Ph.D.; clinician and philosopher Daniel Sulmasy, M.D., Ph.D.; along with Nelson Michael, M.D., Ph.D., and Stephen Hauser, M.D., who are both clinicians and researchers; Vice-chair James W. Wagner, Ph.D., an engineer; and Commission Chair Amy Gutmann, Ph.D., a political philosopher. Our Member Spotlight series provides an in-depth look at each member of the Commission, highlighting how their professional backgrounds contribute to the commission’s bioethical work, and our video, What a Bioethics Commission Does,further illustrates the interdisciplinary nature of the field.

Just as the variety of the Bioethics Commission members’ backgrounds fosters rich dialogue and collaboration, so too does the multidisciplinary nature of the Commission’s staff, who assist members with research, drafting reports, and planning public meetings. The Commission staff come from law, epidemiology, philosophy, medical anthropology, health sciences, and public health. This diversity in expertise is intentional and helps the Commission tackle the wide variety of issues bioethics addresses. Already the Commission has covered a range of issues including the ethical considerations arising from emerging technologies—such as synthetic biology, whole genome sequencing, and neuroscience—and the protection of scientific research participants. More specifically the Commission has addressed questions such as: should the government conduct pediatric medical countermeasure research; and how should researchers and clinicians prepare for incidental and secondary findings?

Bioethics often examines questions to which there are no easy answers. Commission Members, representing a variety of professional backgrounds, bring a range of legal, moral, scientific, and political perspectives to the issues it considers. With help from a multidisciplinary staff the Bioethics Commission provides well thought out ethical analyses about complex issues.

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