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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Is Obama Receiving Good Bioethics Advice?

Dr Ezechiel Emanuel, brother to the President's Chief of Staff, recently spoke before the annual conference of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities and argued that what bioethics needed was more statistics. Without a solid grounding in quantitative methods, bioethicists simply aren't much good. Ideally, aspiring bioethicists should study behavioral economics, psychology, decision theory or sociology. There should be less public discussion and more number-crunching. And, he implied, it is number-crunching bioethicists who will be getting the precious government funding which enables them to stay in business.

America's best-known bioethicist, Arthur Caplan, of the University of Pennsylvania, was so irritated that he almost immediately posted an open reply. He responded that a bioethicist must be a "moral diagnostician". "A crucial part of the bioethicist's role is to alert, engage and help to illuminate ethical problems and challenges both old and new in the health and life sciences." Empirical data are just one tool in the bioethical toolbox.

Emanuel's address has not been published on the internet yet. But this very public dust-up provides more ammunition for those who believe that the field of bioethics is in crisis. When the most quoted US bioethicist says that the philosophy of the most powerful US bioethicist is "narrow, misguided and wrong", what are laymen to think? It certainly gives them no confidence whatsoever that President Obama is getting the right bioethical advice.

Read it all here.

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