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

Democratic Deliberation in Bioethics for Every Generation

On May 12, 2016 the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) issued its tenth report Bioethics for Every Generation: Deliberation and Education in Health, Science, and Technology. In the first section, the report addresses how a pluralistic, democratic society can make policy decisions about complex topics in the realm of bioethics—which involves deeply held values regarding health, bodies, identities, and life and death—using democratic deliberation.

In an era in which complex topics often become mired in polarized debate, the Bioethics Commission’s recommendations for democratic deliberation provide a method for constructive public engagement. Democratic deliberation, characterized by mutual respect and reason-giving, offers a way to find acceptable solutions to complex policy challenges in bioethics. During its tenure, the Bioethics Commission has demonstrated the effectiveness of democratic deliberation by using this method to analyze and make policy recommendations about a variety of challenging bioethical topics.

Three of the eight recommendations that the Bioethics Commission made in Bioethics for Every Generation are about democratic deliberation. First, the Commission recommended that stakeholders in the democratic process inform bioethics policy decisions with democratic deliberation. Examples of stakeholders include government officials, health plans, researchers, and members of the public who are trying to set policies about health, science, and technology with important ethical dimensions. Democratic deliberation can promote understanding, mutual respect, and greater legitimacy for the resulting policy outcomes, even when the issues under discussion seem intractable at the outset.

Second, the Bioethics Commission recommended that organizers of deliberative activities conduct deliberative activities in ways conducive to mutual respect and reason-giving among participants in accordance with best practices. Reason-giving, a central tenet of deliberative practice, entails providing reasons that are accessible to all parties and using facts that are acknowledged by others. In addition, the Commission recommended that organizers design the deliberations to influence policy decisions. For example, if organizers anticipate a policy decision on a topic, they could convene deliberations about that topic and present the results to inform involved policymakers. Empirical research on deliberative activities should guide organizers as they design further parameters and principles of deliberative activities.

Third, the Bioethics Commission recommended that scholars and organizers of democratic deliberation conduct additional research on the effectiveness of deliberative methods to further the practical contribution of deliberation in bioethics. Empirical research serves as an evidence base on which to ground deliberative activities. Further research that evaluates different deliberative processes and outcomes will strengthen this foundation. Such research will require careful consideration of what constitutes success.

These three recommendations work to strengthen the value, process, and empirical foundations of democratic deliberation. Together, they encapsulate the Bioethics Commission’s commitment to democratic deliberation as the most effective way to solve complex problems in bioethics.

Bioethics for Every Generation and all other Bioethics Commission reports are free and available at

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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

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