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April 2009

Axing Bioethics Council blow to democracy say critics

By Marie Sherry

The government’s recent decision to close the Bioethics Council of New Zealand has raised concern about citizens’ ability to have input into major ethical issues.

Environment Minister Nick Smith says he has discontinued the council to help ensure the Government can afford to meet its priorities for the environment in difficult economic times.

The Bioethics Council was an independent advisory committee to government on ethical controversies brought about by advances in biology and medicine such as genetic engineering and cloning. The Environment Ministry assisted the council by providing administrative support and research material. This work no longer fits with the Ministry’s function, given the priorities indicated by the new Government.

"The work the Bioethics Council was doing was somewhat duplicated by other Government committees," Nick Smith says.

"This included the Ministry of Health's National Advisory Committee and Advisory Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology (ACART), and the Environmental Risk Management Authority and its Maori advisory Committee, Nga Kaihautu Tikanga Taiao. It makes no sense for multiple Government agencies to do essentially the same work."

However, Bioethics Council chairman Dr Martin Wilkinson says an independent review of the council found no other body in government had the broad range and deliberative focus of the Bioethics Council, and there was no duplication.

"What we did was unique. The Government is wrong to think there’s no need for a deliberative or broad approach because someone else is already doing it, because they’re not," Martin says.

Since 2002, the council has issued major reports on pre-birth testing, animal-to-human transplantation, and the use of human genes in other organisms. The council was heavily involved in decisions about research on human embryos and has given advice on legislation and ministry policies on many aspects of biotechnology.

"We are pleased that much of the council's advice has been followed," Martin says.

"Deliberating with the people of New Zealand has been at the heart of the council's way of working. As we have learned over the years of our operation, and as other countries are saying more and more, government policies are fairer, more democratic and more successful when citizens are properly informed and given the chance to shape what government does."

The risk of dealing with bioethical issues without the council is bad policy, knee-jerk reactions or polarisation, Martin says.

"People could feel the wool is being pulled over their eyes or they’re not being listened to."

Helen Bichan was a member of the Bioethics Council from its inception in 2002 until June last year. She is very disappointed by the decision to close the council.

"The previous Government supported the idea that the public should be involved. There was public participation in the development of the question and the framing of the issues," she says.

People with different cultural backgrounds, ages, and interests came together in a safe and facilitated way to address the issues. This could have been built on but it was cut short.

"The council was aware that a number of issues people talked about were defused by having a setting to discuss them in.

"Science and technology are pretty good at explaining things, but for a number of people there’s a na?ve assumption that if you explain it, people will agree with it. We found that, while people had a great respect for science and certainly enjoyed its benefits, the sort of things that communities know about, such as relationships and whakapapa, and their wisdom needs to be part of the discussion, because it’s a different way of framing the world."

InterChurch Bioethics Council (ICBC) chairperson Rev Dr Barbara Peddie says without the Bioethics Council of New Zealand there would be no bioethics committee, independent of any lobby group, to debate issues of public interest such as euthanasia, animal-to-human transplants, and the development of foods matched to human genotypes.

The ICBC represents the Anglican, Methodist and Presbyterian churches of New Zealand and includes people with scientific, medical, ethical, cultural, educational and theological expertise.

In a letter addressed to Prime Minister John Key, the ICBC strongly urges the Government to reconsider the closure of the Bioethics Council.

Barbara believes the ethnical, spiritual and cultural issues surrounding science require constant monitoring and consultation.

"This is best served by a dedicated monitoring group such as the Bioethics Council of New Zealand, who can then raise appropriate issue with Government," she says.

"An important role of the Bioethics Council of New Zealand was to be forward looking and develop bioethical policies for various scientific advances before the need arises. Again this involves dialogue and education which is best served by a dedicated, publicly-funded body independent of any lobby group."

Barbara says New Zealand has been at the leading edge in deliberative democracy and of debates over issues of public interest such as genetic engineering. The formation of the Bioethics Council with its roles of dialogue and education was an example of this.