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

Ethically Sound Episode 1: Safeguarding Children

Since the Bioethics Commission was established via Executive Order by President Obama, the Bioethics Commission has released 10 reports on a variety of ethically challenging topics, and has provided recommendations on topics ranging from synthetic biology to neuroscience to whole genome sequencing. In an effort to share the Bioethics Commission’s work with a wide variety of audiences, we are issuing a new podcast series called Ethically Sound.  Today’s episode, the first in the series, focuses on the Commission’s report Safeguarding Children: Pediatric Medical Countermeasure Research, which addressed the ethically challenging topic of when and how to test pediatric medical countermeasures for possible bioterrorism agents. When and how, for example, should we test an anthrax vaccine, approved for adults, in children?

The Ethically Sound: Safeguarding Children podcast centers around the question: How can we best protect children in the event of a bioterrorism attack? At the time this report was written, a vaccine for anthrax had only been tested in adults, but not in children. The Commission was asked to provide recommendations on how this vaccine could be safely tested in children, and when the vaccine would be ethically permissible to test.

The podcast opens with a narrative from Dr. Suzet McKinney, who is the Executive Director of the Illinois Medical District Commission. Dr. McKinney discusses how her public health training taught her that vaccines were largely beneficial, but the thought of an anthrax vaccine that had not been tested in children was a cause for concern. “If there were an anthrax bioterrorism attack in the US and the government determined a need to immunize children with a vaccine that had not been tested and deemed safe, experience tells me that even the most aggressive and comprehensive efforts to educate parents about the risks and potential benefits will be met with anxiety, fear, protest and apprehension… even I would have difficulty agreeing to an untested anthrax vaccine for my own child in the absence of a real, credible threat of attack.”

Hillary Wicai Viers, a former Communications Director with the Commission, interviewed Commission Member Col. Nelson Michael, the Director of the U.S. Military HIV Research Program at Walter Reed Army Medical Institute of Research. Col. Michael discussed his military background, and how the Commission came together to address a particularly sensitive topic. When asked about the most challenging aspect of this topic, Col. Michael said, “Research with children is ethically different from research with other groups, especially when the research in question promises really no direct prospect of benefit for the participants. This was really the heart of our matter. [While] competent adults can volunteer and give their consent and can accept risks and benefits for doing research, children really can’t do that legally or ethically. [As] a consequence, that really posed lots of dilemmas for us as a deliberate group.”

The podcast is available to interested listeners on our website, on our SoundCloud, and will launch shortly on YouTube and iTunes pages. Listeners can also follow the podcast using the hashtag #EthicallySound or following us on twitter @bioethicsgov. Stay tuned for the second episode on our series, “Ethics and Ebola,” which will be available on September 19. We welcome comments and feedback 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

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