The new mandate of the EGE
Some of the subjects of past Opinions – particularly those related to human embryonic stem cell research – are likely to remain at the centre of the Group's bioethical reflections
A new mandate of the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE) has just begun, with President Durão Barroso nominating its fifteen members for a 5-year period (2011-2016).
The EGE is the main independent, consultative body set up by the European Commission to meet its advisory needs on bioethics and research, in connection with the preparation and implementation of EU legislation and policies. Thus, it plays a key role in shaping the Commission’s positions regarding bioethical issues. The Group succeeded the Group of Advisers on the Ethical Implications of Biotechnologies, which operated from 1991 to 1997.
Pluralist advice is meant to be a key feature of the EGE, which has a multi-disciplinary composition, with members selected on the basis of their expertise in the fields of (i) ethics/philosophy/theology, (ii) law or (iii) science. Relevant, international recognized high level experience and previous membership of an ethics advisory board are other requisites of eligibility.
“Old” and “new” members
For the current mandate, eight new members were appointed and the number of women increased from six to eight, but the number of members with a Central European provenance decreased from three to one. Indeed, in the total of fifteen members coming from fourteen different countries (there are two German members) it is notable that there is a certain tendency to maintain the countries of origin; and members from the field of science are still outnumbered by members from the field of law, and the latter by members from the field of ethics/philosophy/theology.
The former members renominated are Emmanuel Agius (Malta), Dean, Faculty of Theology, University of Malta; Inez de Beaufort (The Netherlands), Professor of Health Care Ethics at the Medical Faculty of the Erasmus Medical Centre, Rotterdam; Hille Haker (Germany), 'Richard McCormick S.J.' Chair of Catholic Moral Theology, Loyola University Chicago, and Professor of Moral Theology and Social Ethics, University of Frankfurt; Julian Kinderlerer (United Kingdom/South Africa), Professor of Intellectual Property Law, University of Cape Town and Professor of Biotechnology and Society, University of Technology, Delft, The Netherlands; Paula Martinho da Silva (Portugal), Lawyer; Pere Puigdomènech Rosell (Spain), Research Professor and Director, Laboratori de Genètica Molecular Vegetal, Barcelona; and Günter Virt (Austria), Professor emeritus of Moral Theology, University of Vienna.
As for the new members, they are Peter Dabrock (Germany), Chair of Systematic Theology (Ethics), University of Erlangen-Nuremberg; Andrzej Gorski (Poland), Professor of Medicine, University of Warsaw; Ritva Halila (Finland), Head of Department, Hjelt Institute, University of Helsinki (leave of absence: General Secretary, National Advisory Board on Social Welfare and Health Care Ethics); Linda Nielsen (Denmark), Professor of Global Law and Governance, University of Copenhagen; Herman Nys (Belgium), Lawyer, Professor of Medical Law, Faculties of Law and Medicine, K.U. Leuven; Siobhan O'Sullivan (Ireland), Chief Bioethics Officer, the Department for Health & Children, Lecturer in Healthcare Ethics & Law, Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland, Dublin; Laura Palazzani (Italy), Full Professor of Philosophy of Law in Lumsa University; and Marie-Jo Thiel (France), Professor and Director of the European Centre for the Study and Teaching of Ethics, University of Strasbourg.
An evolving reflection on Bioethics
The subjects of the EGE's Opinions, during its first mandate (1998-2000), were human tissue banking, human embryo research, personal health data in the information society, doping in sport and human stem cell research. During the second mandate (2001-2005), Opinions were issued on patenting of biotechnological inventions, clinical tests in developing countries, genetic testing in the workplace, cord blood banking and ICT (information and communication technology) implants in the human body. As for the third mandate (2006-2010), the subjects of the Opinions were nanomedicine, ethical review of human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research in the 7th Research Framework Programme (FP7), animal cloning for food supply, modern developments in agricultural technologies and synthetic biology.
Some of the Opinions above were particularly influential in shaping the official position of the European Commission in regard to the subject in question. For example, the Opinion issued during the first mandate on stem cells was used as a reference point for the European Commission's support of hESC research. In that Opinion (No. 12 dated 23 November 1998) about an amendment to the then 5th Research Framework Programme that excluded any Community funding of research projects that resulted in the destruction of human embryos, after recognizing the different approaches that Member States take towards human embryo research, the EGE considered that “The respect for different philosophical, moral or legal approaches and for diverse national culture is essential to the building of Europe. From an ethical point of view, the multicultural character of European society requires mutual tolerance...”. And, from this principle, the EGE concluded that “according to the ethical dimension of the Community's Fifth Framework Programme Community funding should not a priori exclude human embryo research which is the object of different ethical choices in different countries.” This basic position was reiterated during the third mandate in its Opinion No. 22, “Recommendations on the ethical review of hESC FP7 research projects”, where the Group, recognizing again the diversity of ethical positions with regard to research on human embryos and hESCs, did not elaborate on the ethics of such research but simply addressed recommendations for the ethical review of hESC research projects in the context of FP7.
Another example of an especially important Opinion is, during the second mandate, the one on patenting of biotechnological inventions, grounded in Directive 98/44/EC on the legal protection of biotechnological inventions, which specifically mandates the EGE to evaluate ethical aspects of biotechnology. In this case, the Group considered that the prohibition on the patenting of stem cells or stem cell lines would have as a consequence “the major slowing of this research field (except in case of a very unlikely large public investment)” and, so, the EGE opinion was “that it would be contrary to public (and especially patients’) interests.” Only one member of the Group, Günter Virt, still in the Group for the fourth mandate, issued a dissenting opinion.
It is likely that the subjects of these ethically problematic Opinions - EU funding of research on human embryonic stem cells and patenting of biotechnological inventions - will be the target of new ethical reflection by the EGE during the mandate that is now beginning. The latter subject is now under scrutiny by the European Court of Justice, while the former regains momentum in the European agenda as the Commission launches the debate on the new cycle of research funding (starting in 2014) by issuing a Green Paper “From Challenges to Opportunities: Towards a Common Strategic Framework for EU Research and Innovation funding”. As public consultation on this document is open until 20 May 2011, Europeinfos will revisit this theme soon.