Science

    The National Ethics Council - Advisor on Bio-Ethical Issues

    Mikroskopische Aufnahmen; Copyright © Max-Planck-Institut für Immunbiologie The German Ethics Council (Deutscher Ethikrat) will be commencing its activities on 1st July 2007 and in doing so will be continuing the work of the National Ethics Council set up in 2001. Just like its predecessor institution it will serve as an independent public forum for the discussion of ethical questions relating to the life sciences.

    The increasing specialisation in scientific disciplines on the one hand and their complex, cross-border effects on the other confront the individual with the ever harder task of coping with the avalanche of information he or she is being swamped by. Information is very short lived these days, especially in the fields of bio and life science, and is outdated in no time at all. Does anybody really know what is actually going on? This applies not only to private individuals, but above all to members of parliament who in some cases have to use the information available to them to draft laws.

    In addition, in the fields of the bio and life sciences – more distinctly than in other sciences – ethical and religious motives are more prevalent and this can render the decision-making involved in what is admissible and what is not even more difficult. In order to provide light in the darkness of this jungle of verified scientific data, ideological reservations, vague promises or apocalyptic horror scenarios the German Federal Government decided at the beginning of 2001 to set up an Ethics Council. The Ethics Council serves as a forum for dialogue on ethical issues in the life sciences. Its members have been appointed in order to bring about an interdisciplinary discourse between the natural sciences, medicine, theology and philosophy and the social and legal sciences. At the same time, the Ethics Council produces statements on ethical questions that arise in the field of life sciences.

    The legal basis of the Ethics Council

    The setting up of the national Ethics Council was actually somewhat controversial. First there was the question of what effect yet another committee would have in an area in which well over 20 state or semi-state institutions had been active for many years pooling their ideas, advice and information. Alongside the numerous bodies in the universities, medical associations, or regional parliaments, one might mention here the German Reference Centre for Ethics in the Life Sciences that is financed by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).

    A further criticism was related to the question of the democratic legitimation of the Ethics Council. It was set up at that time by the Federal Government without there being a legal basis for its work. What is more, its members had not been appointed by parliament but by the government. In order to eliminate this lack of democratic legitimation of the Ethics Council the Bundestag (i. e. German lower house of parliament) adopted the Ethikratgesetz (i. e. Law pertaining to the Ethics Council) in the Spring of 2007. According to this law half of the – from now on – 24 members of the Council will be appointed by the Bundestag and the other half by the Federal Government. The law also specifically stipulates that this body, which will in future be termed the "Deutscher Ethikrat" (i. e. the German Ethics Council), be politically independent.

    The Statements of the Ethics Council

    The members of the Ethics Council meet once a month to consult on current developments in the fields of the bio and life sciences. Since it was inaugurated, the Council has published its positions on eleven matters, among them the import of human embryonic stem cells (12/2001), genetic diagnosis before and during pregnancy (01/2003), biological materials banks for research purposes (03/2004); cloning for reproductive purposes and cloning for biomedical research purposes (09/2004); or the question of how one can increase the number of organ donations in German (04/2007). These comprehensive statements can all be viewed on the Internet pages of the National Ethics Council.

    Just as divided as society itself

    When in September 2004 the Ethics Council decided against the cloning of humans for research purposes in Germany, the statement had been preceded by an intense internal discussion which showed in an exemplary fashion that unanimity can seldom be achieved on bio-ethical questions – even within an ethics council.

    There were actually three groups within the Council. The first one rejected cloning on principle – whether for reproductive or research purposes. Its members considered it necessary to protect the life and dignity of a cloned embryo right from the very start of its life. A second group on the other hand advocated the basic approval of therapeutic cloning in Germany because, among other things, a cloned embryo could not be granted the status of a person and could therefore not be considered to be a "bearer of human dignity with a right to life". The third group eventually decided on a temporary ban because at that point of time it could not be foreseen whether the cloning of embryos would indeed bring about the desired medical results.

    When the Ethics Council began its work in 2001, many were sceptical – also because of the way the members were appointed – of whether the then Federal Government had not simply created a compliant instrument to promote its policies geared towards progress and research with the moral strength of a (supposedly) independent authority. For instance, the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper feared at the time that the Ethics Council might be instumentalised as a "specialised department for bio-politics aimed at preparing legislative and economic measures". – However, in the six years since it began its work, the Ethics Council has not only adopted differentiated positions on complex bio-ethical questions but has also shown one thing in particular – that it is politically independent.

    Antonia Loick
    V8 Verlag, Cologne

    Translation: Paul McCarthy / Moira Davidson-Seger
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion

    Any questions about this article? Please write to us!
    online-redaktion@goethe.de
    June 2007

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