Reasons for initiating public debate
Perhaps the first question for those considering initiating a public debate activity An organised activity, delimited in scope, intended to stimulate and to attend to public debate on a specific theme in the expectation that it will inform or influence policy development or governance. concerns their reasons for doing so. Both organisers and participants Public authorities, experts and citizens all may be regarded as participants in a public engagement activity or debate. benefit if the reasons behind the process are clearly stated.
Inevitably, there will be more than one reason for any given initiative. Reflecting on the nature and balance of reasons can help to identify what approaches may be appropriate. Public debate activities should never be undertaken without careful prior reflection, as just a ‘box-ticking’ exercise, since this is unlikely to serve the interests of anyone involved and could even lead to public distrust.
One reason for initiating a public debate activity might be a principled commitment to involve those potentially affected by biomedical developments in the governance In this guide ‘governance’ means the accountable use of power or authority to set, monitor, and enforce standards and behaviours within systems or organisations. It can mean both steering people’s behaviour and ensuring that they are held to account. Governance can be given effect through compulsory and non-compulsory measures (legal provision, licensing systems, professional norms, codes of conduct, recommendations etc.,). Governance can be a function of both public and private actors. of those developments, recognising that all voices are entitled to be heard. In the case of developments in biomedicine, the scope of those potentially affected extends to the whole of society.
A development that concerns people’s human rights or challenges implicit social norms is likely to be one where public debate In this document and in Article 28 of the Oviedo Convention the overarching concept of ‘public debate’ is used to describe discursive interactions in the public sphere (that is, not in a professional context) through which individuals and groups may identify, explore and resolve their different interests in matters that affect (or potentially affect) them all. is not only desirable but morally and, in some domains, legally required.
Consideration should be given to whether a development has implications for people’s human rights.
Making better informed decisions
Good decision-making requires consideration of broad questions of vision and value that technical experts are not always well placed to answer. Professional advice is often limited in scope and questions about the application of new developments are not necessarily technical questions so much as moral and political questions.
Technical questions could be whether it is safe, useful or economical to implement a new technology, whereas the initiator The person who takes the initiative in a public debate activity (see ‘invited/ uninvited public debate’). The initiator will usually provide or co-ordinate the resources for the activity and may commission specialists to facilitate or deliver the activity on their behalf. may further want to explore whether any risk is considered socially or morally acceptable, and who should be empowered to decide this.
It is useful to open up questions in ways that can challenge professional assumptions in a constructive way. The framing of questions to be addressed can reveal or embed underlying values.
Consulting the public can help to ‘crowd source’ expert input or identify considerations that may not be present in the mainstream.
Another reason policy makers may wish to initiate public debate is to seek legitimacy for decisions about the implementation of a development that raises novel or unusual issues that have not been discussed previously. This might occur further ‘downstream’ where a technology has emerged rapidly or where there is pressure to transfer a new technology from other national settings.
In circumstances in which policy makers propose to introduce a controversial new development, initiating public debate activities can help to inform the public, assess its acceptability and, where appropriate, prepare the way for implementation.
Consideration should be given to the need to inform the public about the proposed introduction of new biomedical developments and what level of public awareness and acceptance would provide assurance that implementation decisions enjoy broad societal support.See France and Russian Federation examples
The public debate Genomchirurgie im gesellschaftlichen Diskurs (about genome editing) is a good example of a range of actions undertaken for ethical reasons.
There is a provision in law that requires public debate periodically, when amending legislation on bioethics, and in any case, every five years. This was last done by a large-scale public debate called “États Generaux” in 2018.
Russian Federation – Public debate and its impact on the law on transplantation of human organs and tissues (2016)
The Russian Federation has a long-standing practice of discussion on draft laws at the level of state authorities and through public discussion at various venues. Views from the public are also collected via an Internet portal. A debate on the amendments to the law "on transplantation of human organs and tissues" took place in 2016. The discussion is still ongoing.
- I. Guide to Public Debate on Human Rights and Biomedicine
- II. The need for public debate
- III. Preparing for public debate
- IV. Effective public debate
- V. Public debate that counts
- VI. Conclusions
- Examples of public debate
- Selected resources