Focus: Brussels – The union gets interested in ethics

BMJ 1997; 314 doi: (Published 28 June 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;314:1849
  1. Rory Watson

    Scientific advances and the complexity of modern legislation are forcing the European Union to enter the unfamiliar territory of ethics.

    Two unrelated developments are largely behind the change in attitude. The first is the progress made in animal cloning–in particular, the arrival of the world's most famous sheep, Dolly, at the Roslin Institute in Scotland earlier this year. The second is the attempt to establish pan-European legislation to ensure patent protection for biotechnological inventions.

    Animal cloning, with its implications for humans, has convinced many union leaders of the need to establish clear rules that would apply to researchers in the 15 member states. Earlier this year the union organised a meeting that brought together the medical profession, pressure groups, churches, and others to consider the implications of the Dolly breakthrough.

    The event confirmed unanimous opposition to any attempt at human cloning. It also showed widespread recognition of the potential benefits of such scientific advances–but tempered by the need to minimise animal suffering.

    Late last month the European Union's group of advisers on the ethical implications of biotechnology–established several years ago–offered its own advice. It maintained that research on cloning in laboratory and farm animals was likely to add to the understanding of biological processes, in particular aging and cell commitment. But the techniques should take account of animal welfare, the need to preserve genetic diversity in farm stocks, and the public's right to information and protection against risks.

    The group was uncompromising in condemning human reproductive cloning, advising that the union should forbid such practices. It also ruled out “any attempt to make genetically identical embryos for clinical use in assisted reproduction.”

    At the same time, the group emphasised that further efforts must be made to debate with the public the potential risks and benefits of such technologies.

    One vehicle for stimulating this debate is draft union legislation covering the biotechnological industry. Efforts to establish legal protection for biotechnological inventions failed over two years ago amid fears that it would provide a charter for unchecked scientific experiments. The debate is now being conducted in wider terms as patient groups in particular point out the potential benefits of scientific developments to individual sufferers.

    Many also see the draft legislation as a way of establishing a European Union ethical committee. This would be designed to ensure political and public confidence in biotechnological developments. The ethical committee is expected to be formally proposed when the European parliament examines the draft legislation next month. It would draw on the experience of the existing group of advisers but have a wider remit and membership. It would not vet every biotechnological invention, but it would examine emerging trends and analyse the implications. Interestingly, the idea has not provoked immediate opposition from the industry, which suggests that the union's formal move into the field of ethics may not be that far off.

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