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

Member Spotlight: Amy Gutmann

amy-gutmann_portraitThe Chair of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission), Amy Gutmann, Ph.D., is the eighth president of the University of Pennsylvania.  She leads Penn’s 12 schools and its Health System, including the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, overseeing a $6.4 billion annual budget.  This includes more than 21,000 full-time undergraduate and graduate students, and nearly 33,000 faculty and staff.  So when President Barack Obama asked Gutmann if she would volunteer her time to chair a commission that tackles complex, high profile, and often controversial issues, she could have respectfully declined due to lack of enough hours in the day. True to form, she did no such thing.

“The President was asking me to serve,” Gutmann said.  “Plus the request hit the sweet spot of my scholarly and professional interests.”

A political philosopher and scholar of ethics and public policy, Gutmann is keenly interested in deliberating the often complicated issues that arise at the convergence of health care, science, and technology.  Before becoming President of Penn in 2004, Gutmann served in a variety of successive roles at Princeton University, including dean of faulty, academic advisor to the president, and, ultimately, as provost, and held visiting appointments at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Social and Behavioral Sciences, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and the University of Maryland’s Center for Philosophy and Public Policy. At Princeton, she founded and directed the University Center for Human Values, a leading forum for the deliberation of ethical issues and human values.

“The best any democracy can do in the face of disagreement on complex issues is to have deliberation among a wide range of experts and involved citizens in a way that is transparent to the public,” Gutmann said.  Open and robust dialogue is at the very heart of deliberative democracy, a principle Gutmann has championed throughout her academic career, both in the books and articles she authors and in practice at Penn. Now, she has imbued the work of the Bioethics Commission with that principle.

“Deliberative democracy is the opposite of sound-bite democracy,” Gutmann said.  “Democracies do better when people discuss – robustly and respectfully argue about – their differences.  It’s the give-and-take of viewpoints with an aim of finding common ground and reaching mutual respect among citizens where that common ground is not possible. The common good of democracy includes living respectfully with our differences, while continually aspiring to create a society–and world–with liberty and justice for all.”

Gutmann’s commitment to learning, to service, and to open and respectful deliberation is in many profound ways an homage to her parents.  Her mother was a natural teacher, but she had no choice but to put that dream on hold–since she could not afford a college education and had to support her family during the Great Depression.  Gutmann’s father escaped Hitler’s Germany in 1934, and also saved the lives of his entire family by urging and enabling them to join him shortly thereafter in India.   “They were extraordinary people with great values, foresight, generosity, and courage, who had a powerful faith in America as the land of opportunity,” Gutmann said.

Gutmann has brought those values to bear through her leadership of the Bioethics Commission.  To date the Commission has:

  • advised the White House on the benefits and risks of synthetic biology;
  • completed an independent ethical analysis of the U.S. Public Health Service STD experiments in Guatemala in the 1940s;
  • assessed the rules that currently protect participants in research;
  • examined the pressing privacy concerns raised by the emergence of low-cost whole genome sequencing; and
  • completed a thorough review of the ethical considerations of conducting clinical trials of medical countermeasures with children, including the ethical considerations involved in pediatric anthrax vaccine research.

These are incredibly complex issues.  Gutmann relishes the challenge and embraces the democratically deliberative process as key to finding common ground and an ethically sound path forward.

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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.