. "Bioethics Commissions: What Can We Learn from Past Successes and Failures?." Society's Choices: Social and Ethical Decision Making in Biomedicine. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 1995.
The following HTML text is provided to enhance online
readability. Many aspects of typography translate only awkwardly to HTML.
Please use the page image
as the authoritative form to ensure accuracy.
Society's Choices: Social and Ethical Decision Making in Biomedicine
bership and staff of the two commissions were quite different from each other. The strength of the National Commission lay in its membership and chair. The President's Commission's strength lay in its staff.
The difference between the commissions was not a simple matter of credentials and intellectual strengths of their members. Like the National Commission, the President's Commission had distinguished members, particularly the original set of appointees. The differences lay in other areas.
The National Commission's membership strength came from several factors. The first was its commitment and continuity. The commission had the same membership, except for the death of two members who were not replaced, throughout its existence. With its first report-on fetal research-due four months after the members were installed, the National Commission established a pattern of meeting monthly on a Friday and Saturday. Under time pressure and with considerable attention from national media and trade publications (meetings were public), the commissioners struggled intensively to find ways to reconcile their differences, particularly their deep moral division over the abortion issue. They held hearings, commissioned and discussed background papers, and had extended, passionate deliberations.
The divisiveness of the issues and the differences between the commissioners-not only regarding abortion but also in their professional backgrounds (ranging from the chairman of obstetrics/gynecology at Harvard, Kenneth Ryan, to deeply anti-abortion law professor, David Louisell) could have destroyed the possibility of respectful working relations among the commissioners. The chemistry worked in another way, however, and the pattern was established of members taking each other's views very seriously and seeking common ground on which to base recommendations. (Also contributing to the working relationships among commissioners and staff was a practice, established at the very beginning, of a social occasion or dinner on the Friday night of the commission's two-day meeting. Bonds and a group history developed that would be hard to match.)
One other early development in the National Commission's life set the tone for the relative roles of the commission itself and its staff. Under the legislation that created the commission-the National Research Act of 1974-members were appointed by the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare and the commission was located administratively in the National Institutes of Health, even though several of the topics assigned to the commission fell outside of NIH's jurisdiction. NIH appointed Charles U. Lowe, M.D., a career employee, as executive director, and he hired the staff director and staff, which included two members of his own staff. Lowe took an active role in managing the work of the staff and the perception grew that there was a conflict between his role as an NIH official and the commission's need to independently examine ethical issues in NIH-spon-