Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

One Law for All?

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

One Law for All?

Article excerpt

The proposed European Convention on Bioethics now being prepared by the Council of Europe ought to be prompting a debate as to whether the law should be used to enforce moral principles. That no such debate is occurring is a reflection of the quite unnecessary secrecy with which the convention has been drafted.

Here I must digress: European institutions are confusing enough for Europeans, let alone overseas observers. The European Union and the Council of Europe are entirely separate. The European Union, of fifteen members, is controlled by the European Commission in Brussels and the elected European Parliament.

The Council of Europe, however, is older and has more members but fewer powers. Based in Strasbourg, it has an unelected Parliamentary Assembly, whose members are appointed by the member states. It created the very important European Convention on Human Rights as well as the current draft bioethics convention.

The Council of Europe has had an advisory committee in the field of bioethics for over fifteen years. It has produced several recommendations to its thirty or so member states on various bioethics problems, some of which were helpful particularly in countries without an active bioethics community. A decade ago it tried to produce a textbook of medical ethics to be used by students and doctors throughout Europe, but the project died when it became apparent just how varied were the approaches to medical ethics in different parts of Europe. There tends to be a divide between the traditionally Catholic South and the mainly Protestant North that influences not only the principles on which bioethics rests, but also attitudes as to the desirability of legislating in such an area.

Nothing daunted, however, the council asked the advisory committee in 1991 to draft a convention that attempted to harmonize the varying standards. Last summer a draft was published without there having been any public consultation in the meantime. The working party that wrote the draft has rather more civil servants than experts in bioethics, and chose, apparently at the insistence of the British civil servant who chaired it, to work in private.

The resulting text is a disappointment. Any state that ratified the convention would undertake to give it legal effect by passing new laws for those articles not already covered by law. Yet a lengthy explanatory memorandum accompanying the draft does not say why it should be necessary to have laws on the rather random selection of topics included in the draft. …

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