Q&A with Amy Gutmann of Presidential Commission for Study of Bioethical Issues

(Courtesy Of University Of Pennsylvania - Courtesy Of University Of Pennsylvania)
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By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 9, 2010

President Obama has appointed a new Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, replacing his predecessor's President's Council on Bioethics. Like the previous entity and similar ones before it, the group will advise the president on a wide range of difficult, controversial scientific issues. Previous presidential bioethics advisory panels have considered issues such as cloning and human embryonic stem cell research.

To chair the new 13-member panel, which will convene for the first time in a public meeting in Washington on July 8-9, Obama chose Amy Gutmann, a political scientist, philosopher and scholar of ethics and public policy who serves as the president of the University of Pennsylvania. Here are excerpts of her first extended interview since being named:

Why did you decide to take on this challenge?

My scholarly expertise is political philosophy and ethics of public policy. I spent my entire professional career writing and speaking about ethics of public policy and in particular about the advantages of making democracy more deliberative. I founded an ethics center at Princeton -- the University Center for Human Values. I've written books on deliberation and democracy and articles on bioethics. So when the president asked me, it seemed, first, "How could I not accept a call to serve from the president?" And, second, it was a sweet spot of mine to be able to bring a group of experts together to deliberate about important issues in bioethics.

You are known for this idea of deliberative democracy. Could you explain it?

The easiest way of understanding it is what it isn't: It's the opposite of sound-bite democracy. The idea is quite simple, which is: Democracies do better to the extent that they allow people to discuss, including robustly argue about, their differences to try to find common ground where possible -- and, where common ground isn't possible, to come to the greatest respect possible for reasonable differences of perspective on controversial issues. So it's the give-and-take of viewpoints with an aim of finding common ground and reaching mutual respect where common ground isn't possible.

Can you give an example of how this might work?

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