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  • Bioethics Commissions: Town Meetings with a “Blue, Blue Ribbon”
  • Susan Cartier Poland (bio)

Town meetings are characteristic of New England. In theory, a quorum of registered voters in a small municipality meets annually to decide local public policy. In fact, special interests and the town bureaucracy control the meeting.

Like a town meeting, a commission (or committee or council) comes into being, whether on an ad hoc or permanent basis, to direct a government function. Bioethics commissions specialize in one area: the intersection of public policy with developments, either real or anticipated, in the basic and applied sciences.

That specialization of commissions carries over into the selection of the members. More often than not commission members are appointed on the basis of expertise in a specific area. Although some commissions are still made up entirely of one kind of expert, usually medical, the majority of these government bodies seek breadth between the fields of law, religion, ethics, and science (including medicine and the social sciences).

In the words of Mrs. Rigenbach, the law clerk to Chief Judge Carl B. Rubin of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, selection of persons “knowledgeable in the field” constitutes a “blue, blue ribbon” jury. In contrast, a “blue ribbon” jury is composed of those persons having “the greatest amount of formal education” (In re Richardson-Merrill, Inc. (Bendectin litigation), 624 Federal Supplement 1212 at 1217 (1985)). The problem with persons knowledgeable in the field is that their minds may have already been made up. For a jury, this is a disaster; for a bioethics commission, this directs and shapes the research, investigation, and discussion, or, in short, it makes for more efficient decision making.

For this Scope Note, the definition of commission begins with the Bioethicsline description of its index term “advisory committees” as committees or commissions set up to advise government bodies on public policy. Furthermore, a commission [End Page 91] (or committee) receives government funding and support in exchange for its expertise in research, investigation, reporting, and recommendations.

Six functions served by bioethics commissions have been clearly and succinctly described by LeRoy Walters (Commissions and Bioethics. Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 14 (4): 363–68, August 1989). The functions are: (1) to legitimize action; (2) to delay action or resolution; (3) to identify duplication; (4) to be representative; (5) to do research and find facts; and (6) to provide education and support (pp. 364–65). Since 1989, however, another government function has moved to the forefront. Instead of remaining within the legislative arena, government commissions serve the judiciary as well, in cases involving complex and technical questions. The now defunct Law Reform Commission of Canada recognized this use when it included in its annual reports a section on its “Influence on Law Reform through Judicial Decisions.”

In mid-1997, the United States Supreme Court in its consolidated cases on assisted suicide used extensively the writings from a state commission, the New York State Task Force on Life and the Law, to support its rationale. Not only did the Court make use of the Task Force’s work, but in so doing the Court extended the efforts of the commission beyond its jurisdiction of New York into another jurisdiction on the opposite coast, Washington state. Furthermore, although the commission was chartered by one state, through the federal court system, its influence became national.

Outside the U.S., the United Nations recently adopted its first bioethics text on the ethics of genetic research, and Canada is reworking its human research guidelines into a single set of guidelines that will apply to research in both the natural sciences and the social sciences.

This Scope Note attempts to compile for the researcher and the reference librarian those commissions, existing and defunct, that have addressed bioethics issues. Only one other such attempt is known to the author, an Office of Technology Assessment [OTA] Background Paper, Biomedical Ethics in U.S. Public Policy (1993). Due to space limitations, not all publications could be listed; the selections included represent the range of topics from a particular group or the more frequently cited sources. Future updates of this compilation are planned, so please notify the...

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