Toi Te Taiao: The Bioethics Council


Sharron Cole
Issue 9, April 2003

The New Zealand Catholic Bishops' Conference Submission to the Royal Commission (2000) on Genetic Modification analysed the debate around genetic modification. The Bishops recommended there be an ethical framework for decision making and suggested the following as a way forward:

In order to prevent unethical or unwise use of GM, oversight of its use by appropriate bodies, established by regulation, is a moral imperative. We strongly believe that a framework of ethical principles is needed to assist individuals and the community to make informed decisions about the profound issues associated with genetic modification....

Such a framework would provide consistency in decision-making and regulation across diverse applications, and continuity and stability across time. Some issues, especially cultural concerns, would be best dealt with at this principled level rather than being handled, as they currently are, on a case by case basis within the regulatory process.

In its report, the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification recognised the cultural, ethical and spiritual concerns that underlay many of the submissions (14.4) and that there was a "shared framework of values that many New Zealanders would recognise as things we hold in common" (2.1). The Commission recommended the establishment of a Bioethics Council which would be, as Barbara Nicholas has written (2002, p.7), "an additional body [to the current ethics committee structure] to address the over-arching cultural, ethical and spiritual issues that were not easily dealt with through the case-by-case review process that is typical of ethics committees and of ERMA."

The Government subsequently heeded the recommendation of the Royal Commission and established a group to develop the terms of reference. These terms, approved by Cabinet in May 2002 and published on the Ministry for the Environment website, are to:

  1. Provide independent advice to Government on biotechnological issues that have a significant cultural, ethical and spiritual dimension.
  2. Promote and participate in public dialogue on cultural, ethical and spiritual aspects of biotechnology, and enable public participation in the Council's activities.
  3. Provide information to the public on the cultural, ethical and spiritual aspects of biotechnology.

The Council was established in December 2002. Its goals are to enhance New Zealand's understanding of the cultural, ethical and spiritual aspects of biotechnology, and to ensure that the use of biotechnology has regard for the values held by New Zealanders. Presently, it is a Ministerial Advisory Committee, reporting to the Government through the Minister for the Environment but this will be reviewed after a period of two years when it may become a statutory body. The Council's guidelines and recommendations will not be binding and it is not a decision-making body.

The independence of the Council is a feature that is emphasised in media information, particularly the government website on genetic modification. The Council sets its own work programme and priorities, there are no restrictions on freely communicating its activities and findings and it has links to government agencies, the biotechnology sector, and the public. It is expected to co-ordinate with other advisory and decision-making bodies concerned with ethics and values and to establish links with similar international bodies.

In appointing members to the Council, the Government stated that it wanted them to have the qualities of an open and inquiring mind; the ability to deal with complex issues and to work collaboratively; the ability to communicate difficult ideas across different generations and communities of interest; good judgement; and the time to dedicate to the work of the Council. The Government also claims that membership of the Council is a demonstration of its commitment to the Treaty of Waitangi and to consult and engage with Māori in a way that specifically provides for their needs.

Council Members:

Sir Paul Reeves is the inaugural Chair and is a former Governor General and Anglican Archbishop.

Helen Bichan has scientific training and considerable experience in the health industry, most recently working in the area of mental health.

Eamon Daly is an independent researcher in information technology ethics and information privacy issues.

Anne Dickinson is National Director of the Catholic agency for Justice, Peace and Development and final chair of the disestablished Independent Biotechnology Advisory Council (IBAC).

Professor Gary Hook is a distinguished scientist who has spent his life as a scientific researcher after training as a biochemist. He is also a board member of the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology.

Waiora Port is a respected Kuia with long-standing community knowledge of Māori health issues.

Graham Robertson is a self-employed farmer and a past member of the Independent Biotechnology Advisory Council (IBAC).

Ian Shirley is Professor of Public and Social Policy, Auckland University of Technology.

Cherryl Smith has experience in horticulture and is a member of Te Waka Kai Ora, the Māori organic growers association.

Jill White is a former MP and former Chair of ERMA.

Dr Martin Wilkinson is a senior political studies lecturer at Auckland University.

What is expected of the Bioethics Council is demanding. It is required to bring together the knowledge of many wide-ranging disciplines and to ensure that that the ambit of social and ethnic perspectives that make up New Zealand society are both heeded and incorporated into its recommendations. It also has the challenging task of integrating the cultural, ethical and spiritual dimensions with the scientific and economic ones. Whatever its recommendations, it is certain that the Council will not please everyone but it is significant that Government, by the very act of establishing a Council, accepted that the less tangible spiritual, cultural and ethical dimensions are at least as important in our society as the more concrete scientific, economic and political concerns.

New Zealand Catholic Bishops' Conference Submission to the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification October 2000. accessed 17 March 2003.

Royal Commission on Genetic Modification (2001). Report of the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification. Wellington: 1 September 2002.

Nicholas,B (2002). 'Bioethics Council:Toi Te Taiao'. NZ Bioethics Journal, 3:3, pp 6-8.

Ministry for the Environment Website, o ethics-council-terms-of-reference.html,

Government Website on Genetic Modification,, accessed 17 March 2003


Sharron Cole is a member of the Hutt Valley District Health Board and a member of the Panel of Advisors for The Nathaniel Centre