History of Bioethics Commissions

The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues continues the nearly forty-year history of groups established by the president or Congress to provide expert advice on topics related to bioethics. These groups have differed in their composition, methods, and areas of focus, but they have shared a common commitment to the careful examination and analysis of ethical considerations that underlie our nation’s activities in science, medicine, and technology.

The National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research (1974-78) is generally viewed as the first national bioethics commission. Established as part of the 1974 National Research Act, the National Commission is best known for the Belmont Report. It identified fundamental principles for research involving human volunteers and was the basis of subsequent federal regulation in this area.

The Presidential Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research (1978-83), also established by Congress, produced reports on foregoing life-sustaining treatment and access to health care, among other topics. Its 1981 report Defining Death was the basis of the Uniform Determination of Death Act, a model law that was enacted by most U.S. states.

The Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments (1994-95) was created by President Bill Clinton to investigate human radiation experiments conducted from 1944 -1974 as well as radiation intentionally released into the environment for research purposes. The committee considered the ethical and scientific standards for evaluating these events and provided recommendations aimed at ensuring that similar events could not be repeated.

Since the mid-1990s, each of the past three presidents has established bioethics commissions to explore ethical issues in science, medicine, and technology. The National Bioethics Advisory Commission (1996-2001), created by President Clinton, examined topics including cloning, human stem cell research, and research involving human subjects. President George W. Bush established the President’s Council on Bioethics (2001-2009), which issued reports on stem cell research, human enhancement, and reproductive technologies, among other subjects. President Barack Obama created the current commission by Executive Order in November 2009.

In addition to these presidential commissions, many other advisory bodies with mandates related to bioethical issues have existed within Executive Branch departments and agencies. Those groups have similarly aided the federal government’s work in ensuring that scientific research and biomedical regulation and policy proceed with awareness of and sensitivity to ethical considerations.

Former Bioethics Commissions