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  • News from the President’s Council on Bioethics
  • Diane M. Gianelli (bio) and F. Daniel Davis (bio)

Although the President's Council has moved into several new areas of interest during the past year, it also has devoted considerable effort to finalizing several upcoming reports and white papers. In early 2008, the Council will publish a collection of essays on human dignity and bioethics, a report on organ transplantation, and a white paper on "brain death."

The Council's report on organ transplantation—now near the end of the drafting and editing phases—has the public as its main audience and, as such, seeks to promote greater understanding of the ethical issues in organ procurement, allocation, and transplantation. The report situates these issues within the contexts of the history of transplantation, the clinical realities of this therapeutic modality, and the current policy framework of state and federal law and regulation.

The Council is aware that other bodies—such as the Institute of Medicine—have, in recent years, produced excellent reports on transplantation. The Council's report, however, has a different focus. It explores such foundational issues as the meaning and experience of human embodiment, the philosophy of giving and receiving, and transplantation in relation to the ends and aims of medicine.

The report also analyzes the ethics of deceased organ donation, living organ donation, organ allocation, and various proposals for increasing the supply of organs, with a focus on those that call for the replacement of the organ-as-gift philosophy with a market-oriented ethic of selling and buying.

In another upcoming publication, the Council revisits the notion of "brain death." The Council did not plan to take on this issue when it began its organ transplantation project. But when researching material for that report, it became clear that—in recent years—some serious criticisms of the neurological standard for declaring death have arisen. Since the vast majority of organs procured from the dead come from "brain dead" patients—that is, those declared dead by the neurological standard—this presented an issue ripe for exploration.

The last time a national bioethics body looked at the criteria for determining death was in 1981, when The President's Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research issued "Defining Death," its seminal report that articulated and defended the neurological standard for declaring death. It also proposed a uniform statute for states to adopt based [End Page 397] on that standard. After its publication, states that had not already rewritten their laws to recognize the new neurological standard did so. The Council's white paper on the topic takes a new look at "brain death" in light of the recent evidence and arguments on both sides of the issue.

In the Council's last report to the Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal (December 2006), its upcoming volume on "Dignity" was described. Scholars from a variety of disciplines—and opinions—have written essays on "dignity and bioethics." The volume is ready to go to press.

In addition to these documents, the Council, after devoting a number of sessions to the topic over the past couple of years, is considering publication of a white paper on newborn screening, with a probable focus on the benefits, harms, and burdens of mandated screening, and a look at the broader human significance of genetic information. The paper probably also will address the moral precepts that should guide such testing, as well as the precepts that should guide the acquisition and use of the genetic information gained through this process.

Venturing into new territory this year, the Council heard from several speakers on "the healing professions" and "the ethical foundations of health care." Both of these topics are the subject of considerable attention and debate in the ethics literature. There is some concern, for example, that medicine and the other healing professions have lost—or are in danger of losing—their moral bearings. And in the controversies surrounding health care reform policies, what is at stake ethically often is obscured, confused, or lacking altogether.

Under the rubric of "the professions," the Council heard various dimensions of the issue: the "crisis" in the ethics...


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