Achievements and challenges for the European Group on Ethics
Interview with Prof. Günter Virt (Austria)
Günter Virt is Professor emeritus of Moral Theology at the University of Vienna. He has been a member of the European Group on Ethics since 2006 and his mandate has been renewed for 2011-2016.
What were the main difficulties and the main achievements of the past mandates of the EGE? What, in your opinion, were the main topics of relevance that have been discussed?
The main difficulty at the start lay in arranging for this pluralistic and multidisciplinary group of independent scientists to meet in a way that would allow expectations of drawing up consensus documents to be met, despite their very different backgrounds. As the work went on, guided by a fair and excellent chairman, we not only learned to appreciate each other but also became firm friends, even though we had differing origins and philosophies of life.
In Opinion 21 on the ethical aspects of nano-medicine, we were all breaking new ground. First we had to gather information from our discussions with the outstanding experts who had been invited. In the questions we put to the experts, we were able to form an initial view, and from the direction of the questions we also discovered the first stages of convergence of our own positions. From the many important points relating to this opinion, I would particularly like to draw attention to a possible new research approach offered by regenerative medicine: it consists in detecting stem cells in the living organism itself and steering them precisely to the place where the tissue has been destroyed. A therapeutic concept of this kind could also render the destruction of embryonic humans medically unnecessary in the future.
With regard to Opinion 25 on ethical aspects of synthetic biology, from very early on we were once again breaking new ground. It proved particularly difficult to gain a precise grasp of this topic and to understand what is really new about this technology. In the longer term, the use of this technology could bring about a change in our understanding of what life is. The underlying cultural and philosophical dimensions were tackled as well. Since our recommendation for funding these kinds of ELSA projects does not explicitly cover the philosophical, theological and religious aspects, we have provided a concluding recommendation for the establishment of an open intercultural forum in which philosophical and religious contributions would most definitely be included.
What are the main bioethical currents of thought represented at the EGE and how do they impact on the debates and outcomes of EGE?
The Opinions were all adopted by consensus, excepted for the less important annexes, and were signed by all the members of the Group. Reaching consensus was only possible because all our members kept in sight the basic principle of our ethics as grounded in human dignity. In this respect, all members fundamentally share a concept of humanity emanating from the personhood of each individual. But there are clear differences when this principle was specifically applied in controversial areas, such as in Opinion 22, where we had to formulate the ethical criteria for the panel’s work in the light of which EU-supported research projects using human embryonic stem cells should also be subjected to both ethical and scientific evaluation. It proved possible to draw up a consensus document despite the differing views on the status of the “embryonic human” or “human embryos” (both expressions already contain an evaluation). With the approximately 10 ethical criteria in Opinion 22, ethical conditions for the support of relevant research projects were formulated; the panels will examine compliance on a case-by-case basis. One particularly delicate point is taking heed of industry’s main interest in having recourse to human embryonic stem cells for toxicity testing as a way of reducing experiments on animals.
The Group did not explicitly exchange views on different philosophical and ideological positions. The differing models and methods of ethical debate finally emerged from a more analytical access via teleological and deontological approaches. It was also important to always keep in mind the socio-ethical dimension of our proposals.
What in your opinion are the main challenges and tasks for the new mandate of the EGE?
Right now we can assume that it is not just developments in technology that need ethical evaluation. In fact, generally speaking this is also true for the global challenges that the EU is also facing, such as climate change, economic crises, demographic change, migration, data protection and the protection of intellectual property, which should not stand in the way of poor societies, in particular, from obtaining affordable access to technological progress and so on. In all these areas, the EGE will face up to the challenge of contributing towards fundamental ethical debate even though not all these problems are strictly covered by EGE’s core activity.
the interview was conducted by José Ramos-Ascensão
Translated from the Original German