Press Release 01/2014

Ethics councils from Germany, Austria and Switzerland discuss child welfare, compulsory vaccination and bio-banks

Representatives of the German Ethics Council (Deutscher Ethikrat), the Austrian Bioethics Commission at the Federal Chancellery (Bioethikkommission beim Bundeskanzleramt), and the Swiss National Advisory Commission on Biomedical Ethics (Nationale Ethikkommission im Bereich der Humanmedizin) convened in Berlin for their second joint session on 11 March 2014. The President of the German Federal Parliament (Bundestag), Professor Dr. Norbert Lammert, had already welcomed the group in the Bundestag on the eve of the meeting and emphasised the significance of ethics discussions both for politics and for mutual understanding within Europe.

On the agenda of the symposium were questions relating to child welfare and vaccinations as well as bio-banks and personalised medicine.

Child welfare attracts increasing interest within the medical arena. One of the main points of discussion is the moral status of the child, how to weigh up a child’s expression of wish, such as the refusal to accept a medically necessary treatment, against its rights as a future adult, and how to give increasing weight to the child’s will as it gets older. The fact that paediatricians are becoming increasingly sensitised to this subject and are therefore able to minimise conflictive decision-making situations was perceived as a positive development.

The discussion regarding vaccinations revolved around the question of whether it is acceptable or perhaps even necessary from an ethical perspective to make vaccinations against certain diseases mandatory. The main issue in this context is balancing the right of the individual to decide for or against vaccination with the interests of the wider community, which are best served by maximising the vaccination rate in order to protect all or parts of the population from diseases or even to completely eradicate existing diseases. The delegates blamed the poor information level of the public for the fact that people are often more worried about the potential side-effects of a vaccination than the disease itself. The state, they agreed, should be made responsible for correcting this situation by providing sufficient and adequately differentiated information and by ensuring that healthcare professionals are appropriately trained. The delegates agreed with the assessment that voluntary vaccination is preferable to mandatory vaccination for the general public.

Thanks to the advances in personalised medicine it is now possible by introducing bio-markers and genetic information to deploy existing therapies much more effectively than was possible in the past, for example in the treatment of breast cancer. A corollary of this, however, is the ever-increasing accumulation of data and the various levels at which these data connect and interact. This is especially evident with the major bio-banking projects such as the National Cohort in Germany which are therefore subject to particularly stringent requirements when it comes to data security or to informing study participants and obtaining their consent. It is therefore crucial to ensure the greatest possible transparency for the study participants over the use of their data and the handling of research findings, including commercial exploitation by the industry.

Christiane Woopen, Chairperson of the German Ethics Council, said that the exchange of views between the three ethics committees had been extremely fruitful; the topics discussed are of interest to all three committees and, considering the increasing interconnection and interdependence between countries, cannot be confined within national borders.

The next meeting of the ethics councils from the German-speaking region will most likely take place in Bern, Switzerland, in March 2015.

The programme for the annual convention as well as the presentations and contributions to the discussions are available here (in German).