Education And Debate

An Ethical Debate: The role of ethics committees

BMJ 1995; 310 doi: (Published 03 June 1995) Cite this as: BMJ 1995;310:1457
  1. Ian Craft, professora
  1. a London Gynaecology and Fertility Centre, London W1N 1AF

    When in vitro fertilisation was being developed some 20 years ago I was convinced that future assisted conception units would need ethics committees to consider the more emotive types of fertility treatment that gamete permutation would allow. Now I am by no means so sure.

    The first such ethics committee was set up by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in 1982. Since then I have always worked alongside an ethics committee, although the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 does not require fertility centres to have ethics committees for considering different types of clinical treatments.


    So why am I so disillusioned about the role of ethics committees and how they function? The reason is simple—I am not sure that they are in the best interests of patients as I now believe that most ethics committees fail to focus on what their real role should be. Surely their role must be to decide if a proposed treatment is ethical or unethical—not whether a specific woman (or couple) should have her request voted on after a written anonymous submission by a clinician and an independent counsellor, as has been the practice of the committee at my centre.

    Ethics committees generally have no personal knowledge of the individuals requesting treatment—unlike the clinician and counsellor—and quite often …

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