Dec. 1, 2009
The previous President's Council on Bioethics was terminated before its time by President Obama back in June. Its charter was scheduled to expire in September, and there was some thought it was booted early to clear the deck for a new bioethics group aligned with the president. But no new bioethics council was formed to fill the void. Seems likely the old bioethics council was just giving contrary signals to the President (10 of the 18 members criticized the President after his March 9 speech where he opened the possibility of using more human embryos for research, including creating cloned human embryos for experiments.) Given that the NIH was preparing to promulgate new guidelines for using human embryos, including the steps to take for their destruction to allow federal taxpayer funding of their harvested cells, the "President's" bioethics council presented an official unwelcome burr under the saddle.
Finally, well after the old council's term would have expired, we now have the announcement that a new Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues will be established (Executive Order 13521). The announcement actually was made a week ago, on November 24. However, as of this writing the Executive Order still does not appear on the White House website (they must have been in a hurry to get to the state dinner.) However, the Executive Order was finally published in the Federal Register on Monday, November 30. The press release names the chair (Amy Gutmann, President of the University of Pennsylvania) and vice chair (James Wagner, president of Emory University) but does not name the other members of the commission (not more than 13 members total.) An interesting part of the Executive Order states that "at least one and not more than three of whom may be bioethicists or scientists drawn from the executive branch, as designated by the President." So, there is a chance to seed the commission with like-minded folks. Nature notes that the new group is "explicitly charged with recommending legislative and regulatory action and promises to have more influence on policy." The article also quotes George Annas opinion that the previous bioethics council had a "narrow, embryo-centric agenda". Nothing could be further from the truth, as evidenced by the range of topics covered by the previous council, including aging, genetic screening, and determination of death (the council's archived website should soon be available from the National Reference Center for Bioethics Literature).
It will be interesting to see the final composition of this new presidential bioethics group, and whether they can live up to the openness, education of the public, and representation of diverse views seen with the last bioethics council. If not, it will just be a rubber stamp for presidential policies.