Duncan Wilson (University of Manchester)
Birmingham University History of Medicine & Health Seminars: Summer 2014
College of Medical and Dental Sciences
School of Health and Population Sciences
The second seminar of the 2014 Summer Term will take place in WF38 on the first floor of the Medical School at 5.30pm
Thursday 15th May
Recent decades have witnessed a profound shift in the politics of medicine and the biological sciences. A wide range of participants, including philosophers, lawyers, theologians and social scientists, among others, now discuss and help regulate issues that were once the preserve of doctors and scientists. This new configuration, which emerged in the United States during the 1970s, goes by the name of ‘bioethics’. Sociologists and historians who explain the ‘insatiable demand’ for bioethics share a number of core assumptions. They argue it has become a valued enterprise because it constitutes an important part of post-industrial ‘knowledge economies’. Bioethics, they claim, performs a vital role by helping legitimate biomedical research: resolving the differing views of citizens, professionals and other stakeholders to produce guidelines for new procedures. In these accounts, enthusiasm for bioethics is embodied by the political establishment of national ethics committees across Europe, in the United States, Asia, Australia, Canada and elsewhere. These national committees not only develop new guidelines and laws, but are said to ensure the credibility of the country in question by giving it a rigorous and accountable regulatory framework.
But these explanations have their limits, and are not universally applicable. While broad models are certainly appealing, we need to appreciate how nationally specific factors shape the contours and determine the influence of bioethics in different locations. In Britain, bioethics became an important and high profile enterprise in the 1980s, when a number of philosophers, lawyers and others became renowned ‘ethics experts’ who discussed and helped regulate procedures such as IVF and embryo research. But in a notable contrast to other countries, successive British governments refused to establish a national bioethics committee. In this paper, I outline why this is the case. I show that despite support from bioethicists and prominent doctors during the 1980s, politicians argued that a national committee would obstruct research and politicise bioethics. I then detail how political reluctance led supporters to establish an independent Nuffield Council on Bioethics in 1991. I also show that while council members celebrated their independence from government, it ensured that their policy recommendations were often ignored. I close by considering whether the absence of a national committee has limited the growth of British bioethics or whether it has, in fact, worked to its advantage.
ALL ARE WELCOME TO ATTEND
Details of future seminars are available from: Dr Vanessa Heggie, History of Medicine Unit, College of Medical and Dental Sciences, University of Birmingham, Birmingham B15 2TT.
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