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

Ethically Sound Episode 2: Ethics and Ebola

Since the Bioethics Commission was established through Executive Order in 2009 by President Barack Obama, it has released 10 reports on a variety of ethically challenging topics, including synthetic biology, neuroscience, and whole genome sequencing, among others. The Bioethics Commission is excited to release a new podcast series, Ethically Sound. Each episode features one of the Commission’s reports.  Today’s episode, the second in the series, focuses on the Commission’s report Ethics and Ebola: Public Health Planning and Response, which addresses several ethical challenges, including ethical dimensions of public health preparedness, ethical justification for U.S. engagement in global health response, the use of liberty-restricting public health interventions, and selected research ethics issues, that emerged during the response to the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic in western Africa.

This podcast focuses on the use of restrictive measures, such as quarantine and travel restrictions. Upon their return from affected regions, some health care workers were subjected to restrictive measures by state governments and local public health agencies. Restrictive meaures are sometimes necessary during an epidemic in order to maintain public safety. However, some of the measures used during the Ebola epidemic were overly restrictive, and were issued by state governments and public health agencies in response to the public fear that accompanied Ebola, rather than on the best available scientific evidence. The Commission addressed the stigma and discrimination that can accompany public health emergencies, which can be exacerbated by the use of restrictive measures, and reviewed the historical use of such measures in response to other epidemics. The Commission recommended that governments and public health agencies use the least restrictive interventions necessary, such that interventions are grounded in the best available scientific evidence, and ensure that both the ethical and evidentiary rationale for these measures is clearly communicated, with particular attention to the needs of those most directly affected.

The podcast opens with Dr. Patricia Henwood, an emergency medicine physician and the co-founder and president of the PURE initiative, which examines the use of point-of-care ultrasounds in regions with limited resources. Dr. Henwood recounts her experience of traveling to Liberia during the Ebola epidemic to provide medical care to over 100 patients before the Commission during the Commission’s 20th public meeting. After her return, Dr. faced unclear guidance about what restrictive measures were necessary. Dr. Henwood decided to limit contact with friends and family members during her 21-day monitoring period so they would not have to undergo unnecessary measures. Of her experiences, Dr. Henwood said she and her colleagues were “often touted as heroes while working in West Africa, [but] felt like pariahs once we were back in the United States.”

The podcast also includes an interview with Commission member Dr. Barbara Atkinson, the Founding Dean of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Medicine. Hillary Wicai Viers, former Communications Director with the Bioethics Commission, conducted this interview. Dr. Atkinson discussed some of the ethical challenges surrounding restrictive measures. Regarding the decisions surrounding the use of restrictive measures, Dr. Atkinson said “the people who were making the decisions at a state level were responding to the fear of the public, [not] the scientific facts. The public was very worried about the lethal nature of this virus, and so they responded in a political way, which was to segregate [health care workers].”

The podcast is available on our website, as well as on our SoundCloud, YouTube and iTunes pages. In addition to this episode, listeners also can access the first episode, “Safeguarding Children.” Listeners can follow the podcast using the hashtag #EthicallySound or following us on twitter @bioethicsgov. Stay tuned for the third episode in our series, “Anticipate and Communicate,” which will be available on September 26, 2016. 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.