President Barack Obama's new Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues has been given its first big assignment. After Craig Venter's announcement that his research team had created "synthetic life", the President wants the commission to investigate the potential benefits and dangers of the new technology "while identifying appropriate ethical boundaries and minimizing identified risks". The commission is supposed to "consult with a range of constituencies, including scientific and medical communities, faith communities, and business and non profit organizations" and report back within six months.
Eric Parens, of the bioethics think tank The Hastings Center, was a bit perplexed by the President's request. Bioethicists had expected that the new commission would have a very pragmatic focus, as opposed to the more metaphysical approach taken by its counterpart under President Bush. However, Obama's observation in the letter that "It is vital that we as a society consider, in a thoughtful manner, the significance of this kind of scientific development" suggests that it is going to be difficult to escape the "big picture" questions. Parens writes in Bioethics Forum:
"Should there be limits on science aimed at creating new life forms "from scratch"? or, Is there an "ethical boundary" between the sorts of cell engineering we've done for a while now and the sorts of cell - and perhaps species - creation that Venter is talking about?... there is a tension between the language in the letter, which suggests that the commission should take up big philosophical questions, and the White House announcement last year that the new bioethics commission would avoid them. For the sake of clarity and forthrightness, the White House should choose."
Read the text of President Obama's letter to Dr. Amy Gutman here.