The ethics over who makes up the bioethics committee
Developments and trends in science and academics tend to reach Israel after they have become the accepted norm in other parts of the world. For example, only now, a National Council of Bioethics is forming, many years later than the establishment of similar committees in the West, and three years after the date scheduled in a previous government decision.
Developments and trends in science and academics tend to reach Israel after they have become the accepted norm in other parts of the world. For example, only now, a National Council of Bioethics is forming, many years later than the establishment of similar committees in the West, and three years after the date scheduled in a previous government decision. While other countries are striving to slow the advance of science, in recent years, the ruling trend in Israel is to limit generic research progress as little as possible, if at all. Almost every advance in the field is welcomed with open arms.
The bioethics council will have a profound influence on Israeli society. Among other issues, it will decide if cloned individuals will walk among us, whether we are free to genetically design our future infants, and whether scientists may clone embryos to be research subjects.
The council intends to serve as a governmental statutory authority that oversees bioethics. It will monitor existing committees, and advise the Knesset, government, and courts on ethical questions arising from biotechnological research, medicine and genetics. In addition, the committee will be charged with seeking public participation for bioethical questions, advising committees dealing with the area, facilitating cooperation between such committees, and representing Israel in international organizations examining bioethical questions.
The council was designed according to a model used in the United States and Europe. Committees to investigate various bioethical questions are now in place, but until now, there has been no government body that would formulate legislative policy. This type of council is especially significant in countries such as Israel where experiments are being conducted that have been defined as "immoral" in other nations.
For example, in 14 of the 24 Western European nations, including the Netherlands, Germany, France, Denmark and Austria, it is illegal to clone human embryos. Israel has an obtuse attitude toward these experiments, which researchers interpret as a green light. Europe and the U.S. apply stringent limitations to human embryonic stem cell research, while Israel places no limits on research in this area. The only Western nation that permits experiments in cloning embryos and the production of embryonic stem cells is the United Kingdom. However, these experiments are conducted in a strict, government system that requires documentation and the most stringent supervision. Israel maintains no such system.
Despite the need for such a body, three years passed from the time the government decided to form the National Council of Bioethics and initiation of the council's activity. The delay came due to an argument between the Science Ministry and Health Ministry over where the the council's administrative offices will be housed - the ministry hosting the council will have a much greater influence on its activity.
The council is comprised of public representatives and various government office staffers. Some believe this formula poses many problems. Many the council members who were appointed to serve as public representatives also serve on other medical bioethics and bioethics in biotechnology committees. They belong to a small, yet dominant, group of lecturers and researchers who tend to favor minimal regulation and the least possible limitation of research.
"There are always the same people on every committee," says MK Melli Polishuk-Bloch, head of the Knesset Education Committee. According to her and several university researchers, this group of physicians, scientists and two philosophers has successfully taken ownership of Israel's public bioethical discourse.
"There is a great deal of overlap between the people sitting on all the committees," Polishuk-Bloch says. At least seven of the 11 public representatives and experts who are members of the new council also are representatives at one of the institutions responsible for supervising bioethical research. "It is annoying that this is the same crowd, which is there all the time in every location."
Public representatives serving as council members include Prof. Asa Kasher, who is a member of the Health Ministry's committee to determine the status of the embryo and a member of the bioethics committee of the National Academy of Sciences; Prof. David Hed, a philosopher from the Hebrew University and a member of the bioethics committee of the National Academy of Sciences; and Prof. Amos Shapira, a legal expert from the Tel Aviv University and member of the National Academy of Sciences committee and the National Helsinki Committee on Genetic Research in Humans.
The council's chairman, Prof. Michel Ravel, and several of its members like Shapira, claim that the overlap is necessary to facilitate collaborative decision-making. They say that this will "prevent conflicts" between the committees investigating subjects related to bioethics.
According to Prof. Hagit Messer-Yaron, once a leading scientist at the Science Ministry and head of the founding committee of the National Council of Bioethics, the choice of public representatives is meant to reflect a variety of positions and viewpoints shared by the public, as well as to provide the council with a pluralistic base of consideration. She adds that representatives of government offices will facilitate implementation of the council's policy and decisions.
How were individuals who already serve in committees to investigate bioethics appointed, once again, to sit on a council examining the same field? In the government decision calling for the establishment of the council and makeup of its membership, it was decided that the Science Ministry and Health Ministry would be responsible for making appointments based on recommendations made by the National Academy of Sciences, the High Court president, the Committee for Higher Education, and other government offices and bodies. Most of the appointments were made during a period when the science minister was being replaced every few months.
A senior Health Ministry official claims that its membership actually reflects the wishes of Ravel himself. "No one was really interested," the official says. "We received names from him and just accepted his authority." The council was supposed to include two philosophers and one education or social sciences expert. However, there are two philosophers on the council, Kasher and Hed, and no expert in education or social sciences.
Former science minister MK Ilan Shalgi (Shinui) remembers that in response to a request made by Ravel, he passed a decision in the government that amended the council's makeup. According to the decision, the council must include two philosophers, and rather than requiring the appointment of an education or social sciences expert, another researcher in the humanities may be appointed. "Kasher and Hed already had been appointed, and Ravel also wanted Prof. Avi Ravitsky, so we just changed that one line," Shalgi says.