Bioethics Council bids us bye-bye

March 17, 2009

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.
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Bioethics Council offers scant savings

March 6, 2009

When Green Party leader Jeanette Fitzsimons doesn’t get too excited about the prospect of the Bioethics Council being disbanded, it’s a fair bet it won’t be too greatly missed.

But there we are. Fitzsimons told Morning Report this morning the council’s creation in 2002 was something easy the Clark Government could do to implement recommendations from the Royal Commission into Genetic Modification. Some of the tougher recommendations were skipped.

The council hasn’t cost much to run and the savings will be trivial.

Toi te Taiao: the Bioethics Council is a ministerial advisory committee providing independent advice to Government on biotechnological issues, and promoting public dialogue and participation on the cultural, ethical and spiritual aspects of new biotechnologies.

Its purpose is to

• Enhance New Zealand’s understanding of the cultural, ethical and spiritual aspects of biotechnology.

• Ensure that the use of biotechnology has regard for New Zealanders’ values.

Council members have to be conversant

with a range of relevant skills, including knowledge of science particularly biotechnology, ecology, social science, tikanga Māori, Māori development, ethics, cultural and spiritual values of New Zealanders.

Among its achievements, according to the council’s media statements, it produced (in 2005) The Bioethics Report on Xenotransplantation. This concluded that, in principle, animal-to-human transplantation is acceptable to New Zealanders and recommends that it be allowed with appropriate regulations.

In 2006 is launched a booklet aimed at encouraging discussion on whether human embryos should be used for research in New Zealand, and if so, where might these embryos come from and what might be the result of such research.

Nothing among the media statements on the council website gives Alf much idea of what resulted from this work.

Last year it produced a report entitled Who Gets Born? which contains recommendations to Government on the cultural, spiritual and ethical issues associated with pre-birth testing, in light of public opinion and the implications of rapidly changing technology.

The council members who will be given their marching orders are unlikely to finish up in the dole queue. They are –

Assoc Prof Martin Wilkinson (chairman), expert in Community Health and Philosophy at the Auckland School of Medicine.

Dr Huia Tomlins-Jahnke, (Kahungunu, Ngai Tahu, Ngati Toa Rangatira and Ngati Hine), associate professor of Maori education at Massey University, a member of the Ethics Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology, and a member of the Social & Human Sciences Sub Commission of the NZ National Commission for UNESCO.

Brett Stephenson, (Te Kapotai and Ngati Wai), Senior Lecturer in Environment Science at Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiarangi in Whakatane.

Dr Marie Bismark, lawyer who specialises in health law and patients’ rights.

Dr Mark Fisher, Hastings, scientist with extensive experience in farm animal reproduction and animal welfare.

Dr Peggy Fairbairn-Dunlop, inaugural director of Va’aomanu Pasifika at Victoria University of Wellington. She was a UNESCO Social and Human Services Adviser involved with the Pacific project on bioethics in 2004-05.

Assoc Prof Rosemary Du Plessis, sociologist at the University of Canterbury and Social and Human Sciences specialist for the New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO.

Tahu Potik
i, (Kaati Moki, Kaai Te Ruahikihiki), Dunedin, former Chief Executive of Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu. His qualifications for this job? He is “a fluent speaker of Te Reo Maori and has published widely in both English and Maori.”

Alf is fascinated to see Tomlins-Jahnke was awarded her PhD in 2007 after investigating the cultural and spiritual issues around DNA testing for Maori with a genetic predisposition to cancer.

Probably he needs more instruction in this “Maori world view” stuff to understand what’s going on here – as he see it, DNA testing simply requires someone to take a bit of blood, spit or whatever, then let the scientists go to work on it.

All going well, the scientists will learn things that help lift Maori health standards, which everyone is banging on about because they are lower than non-Maori health standards.

Is there a problem here?

If someone doesn’t want their DNA taken to help the scientists to help them, so be it. Some people with strong religious beliefs similarly would prefer to die than have a blood transfusion.

We are all entitled to live by our strongly held beliefs. And to die by them.