International Journal of Applied Philosophy

Volume 22, Issue 1, Spring 2008

Bernice Bovenkerk, Lonneke M. Poort
Pages 19-35

The Role of Ethics Committees in Public Debate

Governments have used several mechanisms to deal with intractable policy conflicts about issues in bioethics. One mechanism is the installment of an ethics committee and another one is the organization of public debates. Often, ethics committees have an implicit or explicit role in the stimulation of such public debate. However, this role is not self-evident and we therefore analyse the relation between committees and public debate. What should the function of biotechnology ethics committees be, how does this relate to their composition, and to what extent are these functions met in practice? To this end, we have examined the three national committees of the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Australia in the field of animal and plant biotechnology. We argue that there is often a mismatch between the goals one wants to reach by stimulating public debate and the way this has been given shape, partly through ethics committees. In fact, installing (biotechnology) ethics committees is to a certain extent a premature move that contains rather than stimulates public debate.