Bioethics Blogs

Presidential Bioethics Commission 101

The National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research was formed by Congress and charged with identifying fundamental principles for research involving human volunteers. It completed its work and was ended in 1979. That commission is recognized as the first contemporary U.S. bioethics commission and since its formation, bioethics has had a steady but varied presence within the federal government. For a list of U.S. bioethics commissions visit the history page on But what is a U.S. bioethics commission?

First and foremost, the key characteristic of each and every U.S. commission, including the current Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission), is that it is term limited. Each commission since 1975 has been independently established by Congress or, more often, by the sitting President. The commissions have been established for different purposes – some to examine single issues, like the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments and others to advise on bioethics writ large. Each commission has been equipped with its own members, staff, and unique name. As a result, there have been a total of seven federal bioethics commissions over the past 40 years. President Obama first established the current Bioethics Commission on November 24, 2009 with Executive Order 13521. Like all federal advisory bodies, his Bioethics Commission must be renewed every two years.   The Executive Order under which the Commission currently operates expires in September 2015. Even if President Obama extends his order and issues an additional continuance for the Commission, due to the nature of federal bioethics commissions it is expected that the Commission, in its current form, will likely complete its term at the close of President Obama’s second term.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.