The blog of the 2009 – 2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

An ethical framework

At the opening of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues meeting today in Atlanta, the first discussion wasn’t about the issue at hand – synthetic biology.

Instead, it was about how to approach the issue.

It was the third meeting of the Commission for its assigned task to make a recommendation to President Obama about how the federal government should reap the benefits and minimize the risks of synthetic biology. The Commission should deliver that decision in roughly a month.

It has heard so far from 34 experts in a range of fields to talk about potential applications and potential risks in the field following the announcement on May 20th that the J. Craig Venter Institute had created the world’s first self-replicating synthetic genome in a bacterial cell of a different species. In other words, Venter and his colleagues showed they could design and construct new biological parts by inserting gene sequences not found in nature into existing organism.

So how has the Commission approached the issues?

Dr. Amy Gutmann, Commission Chair and President of the University of Pennsylvania, explained that the group has been looking at synthetic biology through the lens of five principles: public beneficence, responsible stewardship, intellectual freedom and responsibility, democratic deliberation, and justice and fairness.

Some of the principles are self-explanatory. She particularly focused on the second principle: responsible stewardship.

“This is a charge to scientists and public bodies alike to be trustees of the interests of those who can’t be represented here — to the children, future generations, the environment,’’ Gutmann said.

That, she said, had to be interpreted in the broadest sense, meaning that the Commission would look at the potential risks to the environment if something made by synthetic biology released into the natural world. But it also meant, she said, that if intellectual freedom were curbed, stopping research in life-saving vaccines, that would be detrimental to future generations.

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This is a space for the members and staff of the 2009 -2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to communicate with the public about the work of the commission and to discuss important issues in bioethics.

As of January 15th, 2017 this blog will no longer be updated but continues to be available as an archive of the work of the 2009-2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

Learn more about the 2009 - 2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.