By James Tillman

WASHINGTON, December 2, 2009 (—Just five months after disbanding the Bush-era President's Council on Bioethics, President Obama has established a new Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, which is expected to follow a decidedly different direction than its predecessor.

In June of this year, the White House had dismissed the members of the existing President's Council for Bioethics on one day's notice.  According to the New York Times, the council was seen as “a philosophically leaning advisory group” favoring discussion over developing consensus; and President Obama instead desired a commission offering “practical policy options.”  Perhaps more to the point, members of the council had criticized President Obama for lifting restrictions on federal funding of human embryonic stem-cell research.

The major difference between the two groups can be seen in the executive orders establishing them.  In the executive order establishing the previous council, President Bush commanded it to “strive to develop a deep and comprehensive understanding of the issues that it considers.”

“In pursuit of this goal,” the order continues, “the Council shall be guided by the need to articulate fully the complex and often competing moral positions on any given issue, rather than by an overriding concern to find consensus.” 

Such a directive resulted in the council producing documents that have been praised as being of “high literary and philosophical quality,” although others criticized them for being excessively speculative.

The executive order establishing President Obama's commission, on the other hand, calls upon it to serve more as a political body, and to “recommend any legal, regulatory, or policy actions it deems appropriate to address [bioethical] issues.”

The order furthermore mandates one to three members of the thirteen-member commission to be members of the executive branch of the government.  Members of the previous council had been explicitly prohibited from being “offices or employees of the federal government.”

President Obama also announced that Dr. Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, would be the chair of the commission and Dr. James W. Wagner, president of Emory University, would be the vice-chair.  In keeping with the policy-oriented nature of the commission, neither Gutmann nor Wagner are bioethicists; Gutmann is a professor of political science and Wagner has his doctoral degree in materials science and engineering.

The previous council had featured well-known ethicists such as Dr. Leon R. Kass, Mary Ann Glendon, and Dr. Peter Augustine Lawler.

Dr. Amy Gutmann has, however, written extensively about ethical issues outside of bioethics. Her views on how government policy ought to be affected by the moral values of citizens can be found in the essay “Undemocratic Education.”  In that essay she discusses a court case in which parents wanted their children to be exempt from reading a text in school that the parents said contradicted their religious beliefs.

“The parents claimed that their children would be corrupted by exposure to beliefs and values that contradict their own religious views without a statement that the other views are incorrect and that their views are the correct ones,” she summarized.  However, she said, “Democratic education is surely incompatible with this fundamentalist view of knowledge and morality.”

She called it, therefore, a “serious misunderstanding” to say that “a policy is repressive simply because it prevents parents from teaching their sincerely held beliefs or requires the teaching of views inimical to, or undermining of, those beliefs within publicly funded or subsidized schools.”

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