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Insight & Intelligence : May 17, 2011
Do Presidential Bioethics Committees Shape Science Policy?
Panels help frame the debate, but topics are sometimes chosen more because of political pressure than scientific need.
When President Barack Obama’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues reconvenes tomorrow, May 18, the agenda will include the Guatemalan governments’ investigations into the intentional infection of people from 1946–48 by the U.S. Public Health Service during research on sexually transmitted diseases. It’s a far cry from the original issue for which the president formed his commission last year—the ethics of synthetic biology research.
Framing the Debate
Two separate panels formed by President Bill Clinton investigated issues related to research subjects. The latter committee, the National Bioethics Advisory Commission, became better known for offering the first federal report on the topic of stem cell research. Following the creation of Dolly the sheep, the world’s first cloned mammal, Clinton requested the panel provide advice on human cloning within 90 days.
Another ethical hot potato that one of Clinton’s bioethics commissions weighed in on was whether to embrace research based on the then-new application of human embryonic stem cells (hESCs). The panel’s final report included support for research involving the derivation and use of human embryonic germ cells from cadaveric fetal tissue derived from aborted fetuses and research involving the derivation and use of hESCs from embryos remaining after infertility treatments under regulations that include public oversight and review.
Trying to Be Bi-Partisan
While President Clinton’s bioethics committee set out its own guidelines for cloning, in 2002 President Bush’s bioethics council also produced a report. The referral of the cloning issue to presidential bioethics committees reflects the most obvious source of influence over such panels—agenda-setting by the White House.
Getting Back to Subject Protection
Protection of human subjects involved in research came to the forefront almost three decades ago when the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research was set up. It explored the treatment of several vulnerable populations during research, including fetuses, children, and prisoners.
Alex Philippidis is senior news editor at Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., and Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News.
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