The ability to shape public policy has been a hallmark of the committee since it was formed in 1983. Its report, denouncing a "zeal to procreate" among some segments of society, warned that current advances in genetics could be exploited in eugenics. The moratorium, which covers researchers in all federal facilities, is meant to allow time for more permanent guidelines to be drawn up. It applies to any work that is meant to alter the genes, chromosomes or sex of embryos in vitro.
The Comité Consultatif National d'Ethique pour les Sciences de la Vie et de la Santé (National Advisory Commission on Ethics in the Life and Health Sciences) was created by President François Mitterand. Its chairman is Jean Bernard, the eminent hematologist and member of the Académie Française. The 79-year-old Bernard, author of a major work on the geographic distribution of blood problems, reports to Mitterand once a year. Government and individual citizens raise issues for the group to address.
The French commission's 37 members encompass biologists and physicians, philosophers and sociologists, jurists and legislators. Its members come from various religious traditions and political backgrounds.
Its mandate is to deal with ethical issues evoked by new biomedical research. Problems of clinical application are left to the Ordre National des Medecins, the professional medical association.
At one point it addressed the question of what should be done in the case where five embryos are prepared for one in vitro insemination of a sterile woman. In most countries, the response would be to let the unused embryos "die" after a successful pregnancy. Bernard's committee has determined that surplus embryos must be frozen and stored in authorized centers for possible re-implantation.
"No conclusions by the commission are definitive; it can always re-open a subject," Bernard said. "But I estimate that the commission's life is not eternal. It foresees, on an ad hoc basis, a minimum of interaction with trial judges and would prefer to leave the adjudication of any disputes to France's examining magistrates."
The group adheres to certain principles as it performs its work, Bernard said. They include respect for the individual—awareness of the limits of human knowledge; rejection of commercial motivation; and a faith that scientists will foresee the social impact of their own research.