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

By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 9, 2010; B03

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?

I think all of the previous bioethics commissions have been models of deliberation. They have all brought commissioners from different perspectives together to talk and argue with an idea of coming up with some action-guiding recommendation. Let me give you the most obvious example from recent history: the commission that President Clinton put together. Shortly after it was formed, Dolly was cloned, and President Clinton charged the commission with coming up with recommendations on how the government should approach the issue of cloning. The commission deliberated and came up with a report that the president recommended. Similarly, on a different issue, shortly after our commission was created, Craig Venter announced that he had synthesized a genome in a cell that was self-replicating. And President Obama has asked our commission to deliberate on that issue and come up with a report in six months that recommends to the federal government policies that the government should undertake, both in reaction to this development and other developments in the field.

Can you say a little bit more about what you were asked to do on that issue?

The president has asked us to investigate the field of synthetic biology. Not just the recent discovery but the field and related science and technology with an eye toward its benefits and risks and what ethical boundaries we would recommend as the field develops. Ultimately, we've been asked to develop recommendations about actions that the federal government should take to maximize the benefit, minimize the risk and identify appropriate ethical boundaries.

How does this commission differ from previous presidential bioethics advisory panels?

There's been a commission under all the recent presidents, and they all have one similar mandate which is I think core to their mission, which is to deliberate about important emerging issues in science, technology and medicine and advise the president. If you look at what's different from our commission from previous ones, two things stand out. One is: We are somewhat smaller in size. We're 13 members compared to 18 on the last commission. And this commission, unlike the last one, has three commissioners who have jobs in the federal government. The other thing that characterizes our commission is that it's a very diverse group of people who are experts in their field. We have experts in different branches of medicine and law. We have a nurse. We have a public member [Lonnie Ali, Muhammad Ali's wife]. We have a Franciscan friar who is also a medical doctor. And we have three federal members [Nelson Michael, director of the division of retrovirology at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research; Alexander Garza, assistant secretary for health affairs and chief medical officer for the Department of Homeland Security; and Christine Grady, acting chief of the Department of Bioethics at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center].

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