Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A national bio-ethics commission ?

In an article in The Times entitled Following Dolly into the future Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster, has called for the setting up of a national bio-ethics commission charged with pursuing serious ethical scrutiny of issues as a precondition of research and of the development of biomedical technologies.

The call comes within the context of The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill which is presently wending its way though Parliament.

In the article, the Cardinal says:

"In the 10 years since Dolly the sheep briefly walked the Earth the pace of biomedical research has massively accelerated, with extraordinary prospects for serving the good of humanity. Yet science is running ever further ahead of society's ability to reflect and assess the wisdom of the latest technological advance. We cannot stop the tide of knowledge, and nor should we want to. But we can and must find better ways of deciding how that knowledge is used, or risk the profound social consequences of what we have unwittingly allowed.

The UK is already a leader in bio-ethical research. For all our sakes, it now urgently needs to become a world leader in the quality of sustained and continuous ethical reflection that must go with it. Today the House of Lords will have the chance to help to achieve this when it debates whether to set up a National Bio-ethics Commission.

Many other countries already have such a statutory body, bringing together a broad spectrum of experts with a clear mandate and an independent advisory role. Only by establishing such an authoritative and independent body can we ensure that serious ethical scrutiny is a precondition of research and of the development of biomedical technologies. The area of embryo research, for example, is fraught with deeply contested and profound ethical questions that go to the heart of what it means to be human.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill now in the Lords is seeking to come to terms with many of these questions. But the Bill cannot second-guess the future and for that reason it has to include some flexibility for change and development.

The scope given to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and the Health Secretary to make decisions will not necessarily ensure that essential ethical reflection and discussion take place. The HFEA is neither a directly elected body nor is its membership required to include a full range of ethical views. It is not, primarily, an ethics body; it is a regulator.

While technology provides new opportunities, it requires wisdom to know how and if we should apply them. That we can do something does not mean we should do it. A national bio-ethics commission would include a variety of perspectives and would be a forum for serious sustained reflection.

We need not only a knowledge-based economy, but also a knowledge-based democracy. I hope that the House of Lords seizes this opportunity not just to frame laws for today but to plan for the future by establishing this new framework for ethical consideration. A national bio-ethics commission is long overdue. We need one for the sake of the common good.

As one reads the debates on the Bill in the House of Lords, it is clear that the present Bill has not been properly thought through. The imperative of the Government and its sponsoring department is simply to advance the industry of biotechnology in the United Kingdom and maintain the UK`s lead in the field.

The field is extremely complex and jargon-laden. So is the legislation.

Moral argument about the important issues is not possible due to lack of time, lack of expertise and lack of transparency.