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

Member Spotlight: John D. Arras

President Obama appointed philosopher John D. Arras, Ph.D., to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) in May 2010. Dr. Arras is the Porterfield Professor of Biomedical Ethics and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Virginia, where he directs the Program in Bioethics and is affiliated with the Center for Biomedical Ethics and Humanities in the School of Medicine. He has also served as a longtime fellow and former board member of the Hastings Center, consults regularly at the National Institutes of Health, and is a founding member of the ethics advisory committee of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As a child Arras already seemed to have the mindset of a philosopher. At an early age he developed a love for fly fishing; a sport that he says allows an individual the opportunity to be one with their thoughts. He spent many childhood family vacations fishing by himself, pondering life’s questions.

Arras went to college at the University of San Francisco knowing that his father wanted him to join the family engineering business. However, in his freshman year he found himself bored with business classes and intrigued by classes that left him wrestling with difficult ethical issues.

He later studied in Paris. While there he had the opportunity to study with French philosopher Paul Ricœur. Ricoeur is known for combining phenomenological description with hermeneutics; in 2000 he was awarded the Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy.  Arras said this time with Ricoeur is what led him to realize his future. “Debating the nature of freedom and time with this world-famous philosopher, holding my own but realizing that he was certainly holding way back, gave me the confidence to go forward with graduate studies in philosophy.”

The Bioethics Commission’s recent report, Safeguarding Children: Pediatric Medical Countermeasures Research, responded to a question that, as Arras put it, keeps a person up at night. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius asked the Bioethics Commission to conduct a thorough review of the ethical considerations of conducting clinical trials of medical countermeasures with children, and to make recommendations regarding the conduct of trials of anthrax vaccine absorbed (AVA) post-exposure prophylaxis in children. This report, Arras felt, offered him the opportunity to stretch his philosophical muscles. He said the Bioethics Commission’s recommendations on these issues had to find the right balance to ensure protection for children enrolled in research studies, while also developing the knowledge needed to save children’s lives during a possible emergency. Arras is proud of the conclusions that the Bioethics Commission reached because he feels they found that balance.

Arras said he never dreamed that his career would take him to a Presidential Commission, but instead saw himself “as a modest laborer in the fields of academe and bioethics.” While, he never envisioned himself serving on the Bioethics Commission he said the experience “has been truly enriching and educational. I not only like but admire my colleagues; this experience is a privilege and pleasure.”

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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.