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December 16, 2010

US report sets out basic ethical principles for assessing emerging technologies

by Ubaka Ogbogu

President Obama’s Commission on the Study of Bioethical Issues today released a report of its ethical investigation and recommendations for oversight of the emerging field of synthetic biology. The report responds to a charge to the Commission issued by the President in May following the announcement by the J. Craig Venter Institute of the creation of the first synthetic organism. The report outlines eighteen key recommendations, which are neatly summarized in the following excerpts (annotations are mine):

On the hyped portrayal of the achievement as “creating life” and reliance on scientific evidence in policy deliberations

“The announcement last May, although extraordinary in many ways, does not amount to creating life as either a scientific or a moral matter. The scientific evidence before the Commission showed that the research relied on an existing natural host… The feat…does not constitute the creation of life, the likelihood of which still remains remote for the foreseeable future…The Commission therefore focused on the measures needed to assure the public that these efforts proceed with appropriate attention to social, environmental, and ethical risks.”

On proactive oversight of emerging technologies:

“We are ahead of the emerging science, and this unique opportunity underscores the need for the government to act now to ensure a regular, ongoing process of review as the science develops. The Commission calls on the government to make its efforts transparent, to monitor risks, to support (through a peer-review process) the most publicly beneficial research, and to educate and engage with the public as this field progresses.”

What I found most interesting about the report is the Commission’s take on the basic ethical principles for assessing emerging technologies. The report lists and discusses the following five guiding principles: 

  • Public beneficence: the government’s duty to promote scientific and biomedical research that “have great potential to improve the public’s well-being.”
  • Responsible stewardship: shared obligation to protect the interests of those who cannot represent themselves.
  • Intellectual freedom, backed by regulatory parsimony: proper oversight that balances public good with “justice, fairness, security and safety.” 
  • Democratic deliberation: “collaborative decision making that embraces respectful debate of opposing views and active participation by citizens.”
  • Justice and Fairness: fair and equal distribution of benefits and burdens.

As far as I know, this is the first time that the first four principles are being articulated and applied to biotechnology research at the policy level. This, in my opinion, signals a shift towards a more inclusive ethics, one that properly considers the ethically responsible interests of all—research participants, society, researchers, regulators—participating in and affected by the biotechnology research enterprise. It may be worthwhile for ELSI (ethical, legal and social issues) scholars to spend some time unpacking what these principles mean for biotechnology in general, and stem cell research in particular. 


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