Tuesday, May 18, 2010

George Annas on Obama's Bioethics Commission

George J. Annas, of Boston University, is one of America’s best-known bioethicists. In this BioEdge exclusive interview, he answers questions about his latest book, Worst Case Bioethics: Death, Disaster and Public Health.

BioEdge: What do you think of Obama’s new Bioethics Commission?

GJA: I thought that the Bush Bioethics Commission was so politicized and embryo-centric that it undermined any good that could come from a government-sponsored bioethics panel. I think this experience counseled us to place any future federal bioethics panel outside of government altogether. Obama, however, has decided to up the political ante by making his own Bioethics Commission openly and explicitly political. He did this primarily by appointing a political scientist to chair it, putting members of his administration (including the Department of Homeland Security) on it, appointing only three members who could be considered bioethicists to it, and placing it firmly in the arms of the Department of Health and Human Services.

It is, in short, not a bioethics panel at all, but a governmental science policy advisory group, and at least its title should be changed to reflect this reality. It’s not a worst case scenario, but it is, sadly, a missed opportunity to depoliticize bioethics commissions. Especially sad, I think, because our country desperately needs independent expert bioethics analysis to move us beyond “death panel,” abortion, and conscience clause political rhetoric to issues of fairness, equity, and patient rights in what will be a long and hard-fought implementation and modification process for our new health insurance reform program.
Read the entire interview here.


Unknown said...

I have great respect for George Annas. However, I find I am less uncomfortable with the new Bioethics Commission. Like Professor Annas, I am a lawyer with a masters in public health. I have come to bioethics later in my career and teach bioethics in a law school and public health school context. Yet, I have yet to claim the professional identity of a bioethicist.

I anticipate that the field of bioethics will likely evolve over the next several decades, away from philosophy as its fundamental underlying discipline. Other academic disciplines will become equal or perhaps more dominant contributors to the field. I was thrilled to see a political scientist with a passion for deliberative democracy chair the panel. I like the wide range of scientific views represented. I don't think the areas that bioethics will address in the upcoming decade are capable of being de-politicized. The issues will be very much in the public square.
Would a group a traditional bioethicists be any more able to move us beyond the rhetoric of death panels? I have my doubts.

Relabeling the panel would perhaps satisfy those who share the views of Professor Annas about missed opportunities. There have been many talks and articles in recent years noting that the the term "bioethics" is often laden with "baggage." Dr. Emanuel has said that the term "ethics" is like a Rorschach inkblot test. Perhaps relabeling the panel would allow the new Commission to function without some of the negative stigma that is sure to be attached in the current climate to a "bioethics panel."

Alice C. Linsley said...

A very thoughtful comment! Thanks.

I teach Ethics at a local college. My background is in linguistics and cultural anthropology. I came to this position because I also hold a Master of Divinity degree and they needed an Ethics teacher. Coming from anthropology, I've concluded that Ethics is really about one thing: identifying and honoring established boundaries. This may sound subjective, but I think the ancient Afro-Asiatics with their binary worldview have a good deal to teach us about this. They always started from objectively verifiable and universally observed "truths" in nature and moved from there. Ethics today is more difficult because we modern urbanites are poor observers of nature and given over to the notion that there are no fixed boundaries.