Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The demise of the Irish Council for Bioethics

‘The demise of the Irish Council for Bioethics gives us a good opportunity to reflect on the topic and how it is handled in Ireland.’   This is the heading for a piece written by Professor Desmond O’Neill, who is a consultant in geriatric and stroke medicine, in relation to the recent disappearance of the Irish Council for Bioethics – in its present form.    That Council is one of a number of quangos established (and demolished) by the previous government.   One of its functions was to invite submissions from the general public on a specific ethical question – and it then promptly ignored the opinions of those who provided submissions.

To get back to what Professor O’Neill had to say:

‘The changing profile of bioethics – the ethics of medical and biological research – in Ireland is fascinating.  Of most interest are the transitions: from when the Catholic Church had an inappropriately large influence on all aspects of Irish life, through a marked move to secularism and, increasingly, an evolution to what the philosopher Jurgen Habermas calls the “post-secular” age, in which we are secure enough to embrace a pluralism that makes space for reason, faith and the secular.  In this, we are assisted by Habermas’s methodological atheism – the search for the values and intellectual arguments of the major faiths, without bending to dogma.
‘The recent demise of the Irish Council for Bioethics affords an opportunity for reflection, and future developments would benefit from careful analysis of the experience. …
‘For those working in ethics in Ireland, the council provided a fresh public focus on the subject.  However, its remarkable consensus, most notably on embryonic stem cells, raised eyebrows. 
‘Although the council stated that it was not a representative body, even the most reasoned ethical debate cannot avoid an element of representation of the backgrounds of those involved – either overtly or without design.  Having a more clearly representative body of expertise would ease interpretation, avoiding the need to divine the dynamics of a council made by appointment, or of those who made the appointments.
‘More emphasis on academic involvement in bioethics might also be helpful. …   ‘Although all physicians on the council were senior and medically experienced (and clearly generous with their time and experience), little evidence of their formal engagement with the academic aspects of clinical ethics was apparent from searching MedLine.  [note: MedLine is the main medical database]
‘Reflection on structured interaction with other disciplines, such as theology, would be helpful.  Although one academic ethicist on the council was also a priest, there was no obvious formal linkage with advances in the theological thinking of the largest faith grouping in the State for this wide programme.  …’
The Life Institute (Ireland) recently published a report in booklet form entitled Join the DotsWho’s Behind the Push for Embryo Research in Ireland.   This gives an account of the background, links, and other information concerning organisations such as the Irish Council for Bioethics.   It makes for very interesting reading. A PDF copy of the report  may be downloaded on this link