A national ethics committee and bioethics during the 1990s
During the 1980s, many of the individuals who were pivotal to the making of British bioethics sought to establish what the British Medical Journal identified as a 'national bioethics committee'. Ian Kennedy was the strongest advocate of bioethics in Britain during the late 1970s and early 1980s, so it is no surprise to find that he was also the first individual to endorse a national bioethics committee. Sir David Weatherhall's lobbying led members of the Nuffield Foundation to undertake informal soundings on the need for a national bioethics committee. After Foundation trustees approved the steering group's terms of reference, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics was officially established in May 1991. The Nuffield Council's limited impact on policymaking ensured that bioethicists continued to have greater authority as members of ad hoc public inquiries.
Doctors and scientists successfully argued that they should be left to determine their own conduct during the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries, in a form of self-governance that Michael Moran terms 'club regulation'. They portrayed medical and scientific ethics as internal concerns in this period, produced 'by and for' colleagues and mainly concerned with limiting intra-professional conflicts. The emergence of club regulation in medicine and other professions resulted from social and economic changes during the nineteenth century. The reluctance to issue binding ethical guidelines was mirrored by the British Medical Association (BMA), which represented the interests of doctors after its formation in 1836. The BMA's belief that collaboration with theologians was 'necessary and desirable' might appear surprising, as club regulation was particularly strong in the late 1940s.
During the 1960s and 1970s Anglican theologians increasingly endorsed 'trans-disciplinary' discussion of new procedures such as in vitro fertilisation (IVF) in societies and journals dedicated to medical ethics. Figures such as Ian Ramsey, an Oxford theologian and later Bishop of Durham, endorsed greater engagement with social and moral issues to maintain the Church's relevance in the face of increasing secularisation. He viewed theologians as the 'common link' who facilitated debates between 'experts in different disciplines and from different occupations'. This was especially the case for discussions of medical and biological research, which Ramsey considered to be the major source of 'frontier problems' in the 1960s and 1970s. Joseph Fletcher, professor of Christian ethics at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was one of first American theologians to look at scientific and medical ethics.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book explores how and why bioethics became so influential in Britain, including the archives of government departments, public inquiries, universities and professional organisations, as well as private papers, published materials, press reports, television programmes and interviews. It looks at why doctors and scientists came to regulate themselves throughout the nineteenth and for much of the twentieth century. The book examines why outsiders increasingly joined debates on medical procedures such as in vitro fertilisation (IVF) during the late 1960s and 1970s, and shows how this was led by Anglican theologians. It also examines the growth of bioethics in British universities during the 1980s and 1990s. The book also explores how some senior doctors and bioethicists led calls for a politically funded national bioethics committee during the 1980s.
The international growth and influence of bioethics has led some to identify it as a decisive shift in the location and exercise of 'biopower'. This book provides an in-depth study of how philosophers, lawyers and other 'outsiders' came to play a major role in discussing and helping to regulate issues that used to be left to doctors and scientists. It discusses how club regulation stemmed not only from the professionalising tactics of doctors and scientists, but was compounded by the 'hands-off' approach of politicians and professionals in fields such as law, philosophy and theology. The book outlines how theologians such as Ian Ramsey argued that 'transdisciplinary groups' were needed to meet the challenges posed by secular and increasingly pluralistic societies. It also examines their links with influential figures in the early history of American bioethics. The book centres on the work of the academic lawyer Ian Kennedy, who was the most high-profile advocate of the approach he explicitly termed 'bioethics'. It shows how Mary Warnock echoed governmental calls for external oversight. Many clinicians and researchers supported her calls for a 'monitoring body' to scrutinise in vitro fertilisation and embryo research. The growth of bioethics in British universities occurred in the 1980s and 1990s with the emergence of dedicated centres for bioethics. The book details how some senior doctors and bioethicists led calls for a politically-funded national bioethics committee during the 1980s. It details how recent debates on assisted dying highlight the authority and influence of British bioethicists.
The political enthusiasm for external oversight was made clear in 1982 when officials at the Department for Health and Social Security (DHSS) broke from the longstanding reliance on scientific and medical expertise. It prioritised 'an outside chairman' for their public inquiry into in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and embryo experiments. Mary Warnock's appointment as chair of the IVF inquiry provided her with the chance to engage with practical affairs and led other philosophers to view bioethics as the most profitable branch of what Peter Singer called 'applied ethics'. While the Warnock committee, the press, scientists and politicians all agreed on the need for external oversight, there was less consensus when it came to deciding specific policies for embryo research. While the Warnock committee was disagreeing over embryo research, Robert Edwards used the prospect of moral disagreement to revive his opposition to outside involvement with science and medicine.
Ian Kennedy, oversight and accountability in the 1980s
Bioethics ceased to be an 'American trend' during the 1980s, when growing numbers of British outsiders publicly demanded greater external involvement in the development of guidelines for medicine and biological science. In 1980, Ian McColl Kennedy used the prestigious BBC Reith Lectures to endorse the approach that he explicitly labelled 'bioethics', critiquing self-regulation and calling for external involvement in the development of professional standards. Kennedy was keen to distance his proposed body from 'paternalistic' organisations such as the General Medical Council (GMC). In the updated edition of Unmasking Medicine and a 1984 article for the Criminal Law Review, Kennedy also reassured doctors that he was not advocating outside involvement on a case-by-case basis in 'a ghastly on-site Committee'. Recruiting individuals such as Kennedy to professional bodies helped doctors appear publicly accountable, which safeguarded them from political criticism.