The landscape of policy-making in bioethics has changed significantly during the Council’s history. The Council was established by the Nuffield Foundation in 1991, in response to concerns that there was no government-sponsored national body responsible for overseeing developments in biomedicine and biotechnology. There was seen to be a need for an independent body that could review developments in research, identify ethical issues, make recommendations about policy and stimulate public discussion. The Council perceives its independence as critical to help maintain public trust in its work.
In 2000, following a review of the regulatory framework for biotechnology, the Government decided not to create an official national bioethics advisory body, as exists in many other and some parliamentary committees already fulfilled the role. Instead, the Human Genetics Commission (HGC) was established as the UK Government’s advisory body on how developments in human genetics impact on people and on health care. The HGC was disbanded in 2011, and in 2012 the Department of Health established a new expert advisory group, the Emerging Science and Bioethics Advisory Committee (ESBAC). The Council meets regularly with the UK Department of Health to exchange information about current and future work.
In 2008, members of both Houses of Parliament considered, as part of the debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, whether the UK should have a government-appointed or Parliamentary bioethics commission. All amendments to the Bill relating to this were ultimately withdrawn before the Bill passed through Parliament.