Brussels, 10 Oct 2003
Rapid scientific and technological progress can give rise to serious ethical dilemmas of concern to European citizens. A key question, therefore, is how to ensure that citizens are kept informed and involved in the resulting ethical debates.
One organisation that is rising to the challenge of bringing such debates into the public sphere is the Brussels based European Institute of Bioethics. Their strategy includes holding public meetings, attracting members of the public who do not necessarily have a scientific background, but who wish to improve their understanding of how bioethical issues affect their daily lives.
On 9 October, the institute held one such meeting to provide an overview of bioethics, an explanation of technical terms such as stem cells and supernumerary embryos, and an analysis of press coverage and Belgian law in relation to bioethics. CORDIS News spoke to some of those attending the meeting and asked why they felt it was important to remain informed about ethical matters relating to genetic engineering and biotechnology.
Cecile Martin works for an association based in Namur, Belgium, that provides support and advice to young mothers during pregnancy. She told CORDIS News that she decided to come to the meeting to hear more about stem cell research and genetic manipulation. 'I am very wary of the direction these technologies are taking, particularly cloning for therapeutic purposes and research using human in vitro embryos,' said Ms Martin. 'But I would like to better understand the research area before passing judgement.'
Sophia Kuby, a 22 year old philosophy student from Munich in Germany, also believes that it is important to reflect upon the bioethical implications of new technologies and research activities which involve the use of human embryos and human embryonic stem cells. 'It is crucial that we remain vigilant about the moral status of this type of research and activity,' she said.
To enable a better understanding of the issues, Ms Kuby finds public meetings very helpful. 'I already know a bit about bioethics from my philosophy classes, but I came here today because I know that if I don't continue to keep up with what's going on, I will get left behind in the debate.'
However, not everyone is as willing as the 40 people that turned up for the meeting to get involved, claimed Ms Kuby. 'There is real reluctance and a lack of interest among the public in science in general, and despite being very topical at the moment, there is even less interest in issues such as cloning for therapeutic purposes.
However, some participants argued that responsibility for keeping the public involved in the debate lies with scientists, the media and governments. Sylviane Jeanty is an Italian lawyer currently based in Brussels and is working on a study comparing Member State and EU legislation governing the use of embryos for research purposes. She told CORDIS News that everyone is responsible for informing the public, particularly the scientists themselves. 'Scientific issues are often quite complex and scientists find it is easier to debate among themselves than simplify the information for the public,' said Ms Jeanty. 'Perhaps those in the scientific community are not prepared to do this.'
Ms Jeanty decided to attend the meeting to find out more about recent Belgian legislation, permitting cloning for therapeutic purposes and research using human in vitro embryos. When asked for a show hands to see who was aware that this legislation existed, only a handful of participants came forward. 'It is not surprising that no one here knows about this Belgian law because there was no public debate preceding it,' explained Carine Brochier from the European Institute of Bioethics.
Ms Brochier believes that media, as much as the politicians and pharmaceutical lobbyists, is to blame for the lack of debate on bioethical matters. 'The media tend not to provide a balanced argument because they consider the humanist approach is too idealistic or has religious overtones,' she said. 'However, it is crucial to provide both sides of the argument so that people can form balanced opinions: science and ethics are not one another's nemesis.'
Ms Brochier likened science to a very fast locomotive, aboard which scientists, politicians and private investors share seats. 'While the politicians try to keep up with scientific advances, philosophers are trying to slow the train to allow the public aboard.' Ms Brochier claims that this is the role of her institute. 'In our three hour presentation, we aimed to present to the public an overview of the three disciplines involved in bioethics, namely philosophy, biology and law, with a view to getting people started and interested in the subject.'
However, there is still a lot more work to be done. Ms Brochier told CORDIS News that one of the institute's objectives is to reach out to the younger members of the public by designing special pedagogical curricula that cover ethical issues, to be used in schools across Belgium. 'These types of curricula could also be developed at a European scale,' she added, noting the Commission's role in supporting such projects.
For its part, the Commission is investing 80 million euro in activities to improve communication between science and society.
For further information about the European Institute of Bioethics, please contact:
rue de Trêves 49, bte 8
Tel: +32 2 280 6340
Fax: +32 2 280 6338