German Ethics Council Fundamental Questions of Human Life

Members of the German Ethics Council; © Deutscher Ethikrat
Members of the German Ethics Council | Photo (detail): © Deutscher Ethikrat

The German Ethics Council prepares opinions on debates in which fundamental decisions about human lives are to be taken, such as questions concerning preimplantation genetic diagnosis or intersexuality. Its members do not always vote unanimously.

Should human stem cells be transferred to animals so that research can be conducted into diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s? Should it be permissible by law for artificially generated embryos to be tested for possible genetic effects before they are implanted in the womb? And should scientists be allowed, for the purposes of researching diseases, to store a person’s tissue samples and DNA, together with all their personal details and socio-demographic information, in what is known as a human biological database?

These are the questions addressed by the German Ethics Council; it tracks current developments in the fields of biomedicine and biotechnology, and assesses the consequences these may have for human beings. In its assessments, the Council does not restrict itself solely to ethical questions but also provides information about legal and medical implications. Its opinions serve to inform the public, while at the same time supporting the Bundestag (Germany’s parliament) and the German Federal Government in their decision-making processes.

Members come from a wide variety of disciplines

The German Ethics Council comprises 26 members in all, half of which are appointed by the Bundestag and half by the German Federal Government. All are academics from a wide variety of disciplines. Chair of the German Ethics Council, former Federal Justice Minister Edzard Schmidt-Jortzig, is a lawyer, for example. The Council’s vice-chairs are Christiane Woopen, professor of ethics and theory of medicine at Cologne University, and Eberhard Schockenhoff, a professor at Freiburg University’s Institute of Systematic Theology. Doctors, life scientists and philosophers are also amongst the Council’s members.

It is not possible to apply to sit on the German Ethics Council – membership is by appointment only. Its members have a broad spectrum of duties: once a month, they meet for a plenary session, and there are also other meetings of the working groups. It is not the Council’s remit to take decisions but rather to present the facts and basic legal principles relating to a particular issue.

Unanimity not always achieved

Sometimes the Council is unable to reach a unanimous vote, however, such as on the question of preimplantation genetic diagnosis, an issue over which the German Ethics Council was split in March 2011. Half of its members were in favour of testing, which is intended to determine whether an embryo can be implanted into a woman’s womb. The other half of the Council was against the test.

Meanwhile the controversial law has come into force: preimplantation genetic diagnosis is permissible if a serious genetic disease is possible or a stillbirth is likely. The debate on preimplantation genetic diagnosis was sparked when Germany’s Federal Supreme Court decided in 2010 to acquit a doctor of illegal abortion after he had undertaken preimplantation genetic testing and then turned himself in to the police.

The members of the German Ethics Council can themselves determine which issues they wish to address – though they can also be requested to do so by the Bundestag or the Federal Government.

The government has only taken advantage of this right twice in recent years; for example as regards the question of whether intersex individuals, that is to say persons whose gender cannot be clearly identified, should be given surgery shortly after birth to make them male or female. In such situations, the German Ethics Council examines, among other things, whether this would violate a person’s basic rights to physical integrity, self-determination and his or her own sexual identity.

German Ethics Council succeeds National Ethics Council in 2007

The German Ethics Council has existed in its present form since 2008. It succeeded the National Ethics Council that was established in 2001 at the initiative of the then red-green Federal Government – which was precisely why the body quickly met with criticism. It was presumed that its sole purpose was to back up critical decisions taken by the Federal Government in the area of stem cell research.

Today, the duties of the German Ethics Council are legally regulated. According to the law which came into force on 1 August 2007, the Council is an independent council of experts whose members may not belong either to the Federal Government or to a state government nor to a legislative body at federal or state level. Its duties include preparing opinions and holding at least one public event every year.

The question, however, is whether it is not somewhat too narrow-minded to establish a body which assesses fundamental human questions at a national level. After all, these are often decisions which affect the lives of all people, across national borders. Although Europe’s national ethics councils meet regularly, the individual bodies take their decisions independently, and this is to remain the case at least for the time being.

If we ever get to the stage where ethical decisions are taken on the basis of internationally valid principles, this would be a task for the United Nations. As yet, however, this is still a long way off.