Bioethics Council bids us bye-bye

The Bioethics Council closed its doors yesterday without much more than a murmur or two of disquiet from the public.

Announcing it had been disestablished, the council tried to emphasise its importance by saying that since its inception in 2002, it had 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. These were broad topics, not falling neatly into the areas of particular ministries or committees. We are pleased that much of the Council’s advice has been followed.

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.

As an independent review of the Council found, no other body in government had the broad range and deliberative focus of the Bioethics Council. What we did was unique. We hope the Government will in some form pursue broad and open deliberation.

Mind you, that’s the sort of thing you expect an outfit to say, when it is disestablished, and we seemed to get by well enough before we had a council.

It was set up – remember? – to show the Clark Government had done something with the advice from the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Genetic Modification. It was one of the easier things to do. Some of the harder ones were quietly forgotten.

But as Environment Minister Nick Smith said a few days ago, the previous government left a $26 million hole in his ministry’s budget. He had to consider priorities when he scrapped or cut back five of its programmes, and anyway, other government agencies were doing much the same work.

The Carbon Neutral Public Service programme was scrapped, too, and the Recycling in Public Places initiative will be ended on June 30.

So who laments the Bioethics Council’s demise?

One Press Gallery hack, Colin Espiner, reckons National is branching out into things that weren’t in the pre-election script, thereby showing it is further out to the right than electors were led to suppose.

The latest to feel the winds of change is the Environment Ministry. It’s restructuring, we learned yesterday. Nearly 90 positions are at risk, although we’re assured not that many people will lose their jobs.

I’m not sure how this squares with National’s promise to cap but not cut the bureaucracy, but anyway. There’s also been a change of direction, too.

Out goes the directive to government departments to attain “carbon neutrality”. No loss there, it was always flim-flam. I don’t think anyone will miss the $6 million fund to educate the public in how to be sustainable either. More bossy flim-flam.

But why scrap the Bioethics Council? Doesn’t the country need a guiding voice from an expert panel in this legal and ethical minefield? Did it really cost that much to run?

Not much. But that’s no reason to keep spending it.

Naturally, there were yelps of opposition from the Labour side of the House. Labour environment spokesperson Nanaia Mahuta urged the Maori Party to speak out urgently against the planned scrapping of the council.

“Establishing the council was one of the most important and fundamental recommendations in the 2001 report of the Royal Commission on Genetic Engineering,” Nanaia Mahuta said.

Don’t think so. Otherwise Green Party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons would be howling her dismay. She isn’t.

Mahuta went on:

“Since it was set up it has become of great importance to Maori as an avenue for Maori views on genetic modification to be heard.

“But now the cabinet is on the brink of scrapping the council. The issue is on the cabinet table for Monday, but the Maori Party, one of National’s confidence and supply partners, has said nothing on the matter,” Nanaia Mahuta said.

“I cannot understand the Maori Party’s silence on such an important issue. I would have expected the Maori Party to be a staunch defender of the council, especially since axing the council is going to save the Government such a paltry amount of money.”

Maybe the Maori Party is silent because it’s no big deal and while the money saved is comparatively small – $1.3 million or so – it can be put to better use elsewhere.

Down south, scientists and ethicist Cushla McKinney argued in the Otago Daily Times that the dissolution of the Bioethics Council of New Zealand is a hasty mistake.

Who, now, will engage the public with the moral and ethical conundrums met at the frontiers of modern technology?

Scientists do not work in a moral vacuum but as members of a community, with a range of social, cultural and spiritual concerns; one in which the outcomes of their work will have wide implications.

If scientists want to earn the respect and trust of the wider society, they have a corresponding duty to engage in ongoing dialogue to better inform non-scientists about their work and to understand the public concerns about the implications of their research.

Similarly, while it is easy to say “I don’t understand” and to blame scientists for hiding the truth, this can also be a convenient excuse for avoiding discussions about difficult ethical issues – particularly when they provoke strong emotional responses.

In such situations, it may take a third party to act as a mediator, to identify points of commonality and difference, and to map out a compromise position where tensions exist. The Bioethics Council was formed in 2002 to fulfil just such a role.

Actually, this was a thoughtful article, and it had Alf thinking too (although his attention span isn’t what it was).

But in the upshot, he notes there are other outfits doing similar work, such as the Ministry of Health’s National Advisory Committee and Advisory Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology and the Environmental Risk Management Authority and its Maori advisory Committee, Nga Kaihautu Tikanga Taiao.

Ethics isn’t one of his strong suits, anyway. If they were, he would have to give up politics.

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