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German ethics council under fire

Opposition politicians say ethics advice should be anchored in parliament, not the Chancellor's office

By | August 1, 2005

With German national elections looming, leading members of the main opposition parties have expressed deep dissatisfaction with the way that the country's National Ethics Council operates.

The council, formed by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in 2001, comprises 25 members from science, medicine, law, religion, social sciences, and philosophy. Their mandate is to provide guidance about ethical questions in the life sciences, and to act as a public forum for debate.

On June 23 this year, Schroeder extended the life of the council by a further four years, but the move prompted criticism from several members of the conservative CDU/CSU coalition, who said that bioethical discussions belonged in the Bundestag's Enquete Commission for ethics and rights in modern medicine. They called the National Ethics Council superfluous, alleging that the council had been basically a conduit to promote the views of Schroeder.

Thomas Rachel, a CDU/CSU member of the Enquete Commission, was quoted in the German press as describing the survival of the National Ethics Council as "more than questionable," strongly criticizing Schroeder for renewing the council's mandate, despite looming national elections.

This week, a top official from the coalition hinted that Germany's National Ethics Council would be dissolved if her party coalition wins in national elections in September. In an interview with The Scientist, Maria Böhmer, deputy chairwoman of the CDU/CSU in the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of Parliament, said that her party had always been opposed to the council in its current form because it had been created by Schroeder and not by the Bundestag.

Schroeder is now in an uphill battle to hold his job against CDU/CSU candidate Angela Merkel. When asked whether a Merkel victory in September would mean the end of the National Ethics Council, Böhmer declined to answer directly. "Without a doubt, we need a council to debate ethical questions about the beginning of life and the end of life. But such a council should be anchored in the Bundestag, not in the chancellor's office," she said.

Böhmer acknowledged that the council members are technically independent, but said that in practice it has always backed the positions of Schroeder.

Kristiane Weber-Hassemer, chair of the council since June, strongly disputed any assertion that the council would unquestionably support any position promulgated by Schroeder. "All of us on the council, we think very independently," Weber-Hassemer told The Scientist. "So when they say we are not independent, that is just not true."

Asked how she felt about hints from the CDU/CSU that the council would be dissolved if Merkel wins the election, Weber-Hassemer said. "Not well. Not well at all. This I do not like to hear."

Weber-Hassemer, a former district court judge who has been a council member since 2001, pointed out that other European Union nations have ethics councils that are independent of their parliaments. She said the Bundestag's Enquete Commission was to help advise members of parliament on legal issues, while the National Ethics Council was for the voters. "We are for the people of Germany," she said.

She said that because of Germany's Nazi past, an ethics council representing the people was important to provide guidance on medical research in life sciences. "In Nazi Germany, scientists did horrible things," she said. "For Germans, research in medicine is much more complicated to discuss than it is in other countries."

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