Bioethics is a crowded space

In 2012 on January 20, 2012 at 1:21 pm

There have been calls for a national bioethics commission in the UK for many years, including from Sir Ian Kennedy in his Reith Lectures, Unmasking Medicine in 1980. They have been resisted for just as long, mainly (e.g. as explored in Parliament in the debate on an amendment proposing such a commission in 2008) on the basis that there were already bodies working in this terrritory, including the Human Genetics Commission, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.

In the light of the disbanding of the Human Genetics Commission at the end of March 2012 and the announced intention of the Government to dissolve the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority it will be interesting to see how organised bioethics develops. The announcement of two separate consultations on aspects of mitochondrial disease shows one of the problems of co-ordinating activity in the crowded space of the current system.

The Department of Health has identified the need for public consultation on the use of new techniques, which alter the mitochondrial DNA of an egg or embryo,  in assisted conception to prevent the transmission of serious mitochondrial disease. It has asked the Human  Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to undertake this consultation and  issued a call for evidence, to be submitted by 15 March 2012.  The core group to consider the issues, which includes HEAL member Anneke Lucassen, has been asked ‘to collate and summarise the current state of expert understanding on the safety and efficacy of methods to avoid mitochondrial disease through assisted conception.’ 

On the same day, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics also issued a call for evidence (by 24 February 2012) for its own work in the area. It has established a working group   ‘(a) to identify and examine ethical issues relevant to the clinical use of techniques of in vitro mitochondrial transfer, (b) to elaborate these issues with a view to stimulating and informing further discussion, deliberation and debate, and (c) to prepare a report on the above, to be delivered in Spring 2012.’

These concurrent enquiries into the area have different concerns and the fact that they call for evidence on the same day cannot be accidental. The HFEA’s interest is expressed to be primarily about safety in order to suppport its responsibility to make licensing decisions and the NCoB is concerned about broader ethical issues. However, it might be considered that the overlapping processes point to the value of more explicit co-ordination of actitivies. It is reminiscent of the oddity that we saw in the 199os when both the Department of Health and the Nuffield Council on Bioethics undertook work on Xenotransplantation.

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