A survey of national ethics and bioethics committees

Bulletin of the World Health Organization
Volume 99, Number 2, February 2021, 77-168


A survey of national ethics and bioethics committees
— Johannes Köhler, Andreas Alois Reis & Abha Saxena
To assess the current state of national ethics committees and the challenges they face.
We surveyed national ethics committees between 30 January and 21 February 2018.
In total, representatives of 87 of 146 national ethics committees (59.6%) participated. The 84 countries covered were in all World Bank income categories and all World Health Organization regions. Many national ethics committees lack resources and face challenges in several domains, like independence, funding or efficacy. Only 40.2% (35/87) of committees expressed no concerns about independence. Almost a quarter (21/87) of committees did not make any ethics recommendations to their governments in 2017, and the median number of reports, opinions or recommendations issued was only two per committee Seventy-two (82.7%) national ethics committees included a philosopher or a bioethicist.
National ethics (or bioethics) committees provide recommendations and guidance to governments and the public, thereby ensuring that public policies are informed by ethical concerns. Although the task is seemingly straightforward, implementation reveals numerous difficulties. Particularly in times of great uncertainty, such as during the current coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic, governments would be well advised to base their actions not only on technical considerations but also on the ethical guidance provided by a national ethics committee. We found that, if the advice of national ethics committees is to matter, they must be legally mandated, independent, diverse in membership, transparent and sufficiently funded to be effective and visible.