Looking More Like America?
by Mary Meehan
Presidential science adviser John Gibbons sees the new National
Bioethics Advisory Commission as "the bioethics body of the '90s
that can carry us into and across the millennium."
Pro-life leaders and some victims of research abuse fear that it
will do just that-with disastrous results.
The National Right to Life Committee's newspaper recently charged
that some members of the Clinton-appointed commission have little
respect for "Americans' ethical sensibilities on the destruction
of innocent life."
And Gwendon Plair, who represents people harmed by radiation
experiments, said, "We're very afraid."
Why all the fuss? The 17-member commission, which is supposed to
advise government agencies on ethics, held its first meeting Oct.
4 here in Bethesda, Md.
While government representatives stressed that its first
priorities are protection of human-research subjects and the
handling of genetic information, they also said the commission has
wide discretion to take up other issues.
Pro-life leaders worry because:
One commissioner is a former president of a statewide Planned
Parenthood group. Another is on the board of the Alan Guttmacher
Institute, which supports abortion; and a third used to be on the
Several commission members have clearly and publicly supported
human embryo research or fetal transplant research.
One commission member, a doctor, believes that doctor-assisted
suicide is "not immoral."
Another, although opposed to legalizing assisted suicide, has
long defended "eugenic abortion," according to the National Right
to Life News.
Gibbons and his White house Office of Science and Technology
Policy laid the groundwork for the new commission over a two-year
period. President Clinton appointed the members in July and
Plair, who speaks for the Task Force on Radiation and Human
Rights, and Acie Byrd, who represents the Atomic Veterans Working
Group, tried to persuade Gibbons to appoint a victim of research
abuse to the commission. He declined to do so.
Byrd, who said he was exposed to atomic testing in the Marshall
Islands in 1958, told Our Sunday Visitor that Gibbons's office
"felt that victims would not be objective, that they would be
principally advocating their own position-which I thought, quite
frankly, was an insult."
Plair and Byrd were also concerned because many commissioners have
them selves done research on human subjects, and some still do.
(Most of it appears to be social-science research, rather than
"Not that research-you must understand me-is not good," Plair
said, but that "the extent of the harm that maybe done-medication
or whatever it may be-must be told dearly to the potential patient
and to his family, so that everybody understands what's at stake."
He said his mother died in 1965, within a year of "total body
irradiation" in an experiment, and that she was "never told" that
she was being experimented on.
Many commission members have links with the National Institutes of
Health (NIH), a government agency that sponsors a huge amount of
A General Accounting Office report last March said that "a
potential weakness exists because NIH is both the regulator of
human-subject protection issues as well as an institution
conducting its own human-subject research."
Vice President Al Gore believes that bioethics commission members
are capable of dealing with tough ethical issues and ensuring that
"our ethics are as good as our science."
Greeting commission members in an Oct. 3 letter, Gore said he was
"most gratified to have such a highly esteemed group of experts
and community representatives" on the commission.
Commission chair Harold Shapiro, the president of Princeton
University, said he felt "very good about the composition" of the
group. It can do its work, he said at an Oct. 4 press conference,
"in a way that would be in the national interest," though he added
that it "may not be in the interest of every single subset of the
The commission, Shapiro said, can "help clarify" complex issues,
adding that "it's somewhat arrogant" to think that "we can resolve
all these issues."
Bioethics critic Dianne Irving, who teaches philosophy at De Sales
School of Theology in Washington, told Our Sunday Visitor that
there is "no such thing as a neutral ethics. That includes
utilitarianism and consensus' ethics."
"Who will be held accountable?" she said. "This commission should
be watched very closely by the American people and their
representatives, who will directly bear the brunt of their public-
Citizens who want to suggest topics for the bioethics commission
to consider, or to make other comments, may send their statements
to: National Bioethics Advisory Commission, 6100 Executive Blvd.,
Suite 3CO 1, Rockville, MD 20892-7508; phone: (301) 402-4242; FAX:
Those who wish to make brief oral statements at a commission
meeting should contact communications director Patricia Norris at
least seven business days before the meeting.
The next regular meeting is tentatively scheduled for Jan. 9-10,
1997. The location hasn't been decided yet.
"A road show would be useful," said one member, "as much as I hate
Ironically, commission member Alta Charo once said that "no
government body can purport to be the arbiter on that which is
ethical and that which is not."
But in an Oct. 4, 1994, letter to Gibbons' office, Charo stressed
the political potential of a bioethics commission: "A government
body can advise relevant agencies on the political acceptability
of their proposed activities."
She said it "can use arguments from the fields of philosophy,
sociology, etc., as a guide to likely public reaction, or even as
a tool for shaping future public opinion."
Meehan writes from Rockville, Md.
WHO'S WHO ON THE BIOETHICS COMMISSION
CHAIRING THE NATIONAL BIOETHICS Advisory Commission is Princeton
University president Harold Shapiro, an economist. He is on the
board of Dow Chemical and chairs the board of the Alfred P. Sloan
Foundation. Both his university and two of his daughters are
involved in human-subject research.
The other commission members are:
PATRICIA BACKLAR of Oregon Health Sciences University a specialist
in mental health issues She does research on human subjects and is
the primary investigator on a project that will be funded by the
National Institutes of Health (NIH).
DR. ARTURO BRITO, a pediatrics professor at the University of
Miami medical school. He is working on an NIH-sponsored asthma
ALEXANDER CAPRON, law professor at the University of Southern
California. He directed another presidential ethics commission
(1979-83). Capron supports eugenic abortion, but opposes doctor-
DR. ERIC CASSELL of Cornell University Medical College, whose
books include "The Nature of Suffering." In an NBAC discussion on
conflict of interest, Cassell said he has the "inevitable conflict
that comes from being of two minds about a lot of things."
ALTA CHARO, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin. She is
on the board of the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a think tank that
supports abortion. In 1994, she was on the board of International
Projects Assistance Services, which promotes abortion in Third
JAMES CHILDRESS of the University of Virginia, who co-authored
"Principles of Biomedical Ethics." He was on a 1988 NIH panel that
supported use of aborted fetal tissue for transplant research.
DR. DAVID COX, a professor of genetics and pediatrics at Stanford
University's medical school. "I'll teach genetics to anyone who'll
listen to me," he said recently. He is a founder and director of a
genetics company, and advises the National Center for Human Genome
RHETAUGH GRAVES DUMAS, a University of Michigan health-affairs
administrator and former official of the National Institute of
Mental Health. She was once on the board of the Alan Guttmacher
DR. EZEKIEL EMANUEL of Harvard Medical School, who specializes in
end-of-life issues and does ethics work for NIH. The National
Right to Life News called Emanuel's selection "intriguing,"
because of his articles "in which some modern ethicists'
prejudices are exploded through carefully documented fact." :
LAURIE FLYNN, executive director of the National Alliance for the
Mentally Ill (NAMI). Many members of the alliance are research
subjects, and the alliance itself sponsors research.
STEVEN HOLTZMAN, chief business officer of Millennium
Pharmaceuticals, a genetics company He co-chairs the Biotechnology
Industry organization's bioethics committee.
BETTE KRAMER, founder and first president of the Richmond
Bioethics Consortium and a fund-raiser for Democratic Party
DR. BERNARD LO of the University of California, San Francisco, who
supports human embryo research and believes doctor-assisted
suicide is "not immoral." He has done research on patients toward
the end of life.
DR.LAWRENCE MIIKE, director of a bioethics state-health
department. He's a former president of Planned Parenthood of
THOMAS MURRAY, director of a bioethics center at Case Western
Reserve University, who supports human embryo research and fetal
transplant research. He once described his views on abortion as
"conflicted, perhaps muddled, moderate." Murray has served on NIH
panels and received NIH grants for ethics research.
DIANE SCOTT-JONES, psychology professor at Temple University. She
does research, sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation, on children
and families. She has studied teenage pregnancy.-Mary Meehan
This article was taken from the November 3, 1996 issue of Our
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