Views sought on the ethical implications of research in behavioural genetics

Press release

Current research in the field of behavioural genetics is attempting to identify links between genes and human behavioural traits such as aggression, antisocial behaviour, alcoholism, homosexuality and intelligence. This area of research is proceeding at a rapid pace, and the latest findings are frequently highlighted in the media.

Research in behavioural genetics is controversial, not only because of concerns about its scientific validity, but also its ethical, legal, social and practical implications. Fears of discrimination, stigma, the elimination of what are said to be ‘undesirable traits’, and of the erosion of responsibility for behaviour have been widely expressed.

In November 2000, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics established a Working Party to examine these important and complex issues and to make recommendations. Today, the Working Party launches a consultation document that sets out the issues involved and invites members of the public to contribute their views.

‘This is an important area of research that affects the way in which we think about ourselves, and has implications for the way we treat other people. The Council is very keen to hear the views of members of the public on these difficult questions’ said the Director of the Council, Dr Sandy Thomas.

All responses will be considered by the Working Party, which includes specialists in genetics, psychology, psychiatry, moral philosophy, law, and the social sciences. The consultation period ends on 31 July 2001. The Working Party hopes to produce its report in the Spring of 2002.

NOTE TO EDITORS

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics is an independent body which examines the ethical issues raised by developments in medicine and biology. Established in 1991 it is funded by the Nuffield Foundation, the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust.

The terms of reference of the Council are:

1 To identify and define ethical questions raised by recent advances in biological and medical research in order to respond to and anticipate public concern;

2 To make arrangements for examining and reporting on such questions with a view to promoting public understanding and discussion; this may lead, where needed, to the formulation of new guidelines by the appropriate regulatory or other body;

3 In the light of the outcome of its work, to publish reports and to make representations, as the Council may judge appropriate.

The reports previously issued by the Council are:

Genetic screening: ethical issues (1993)
Human tissue: ethical and legal issues (1995)
Animal-to-human transplants: the ethics of xenotransplantation (1996)
Mental disorders and genetics: the ethical context (1998)
Genetically modified crops: the ethical and social issues (1999)
The ethics of clinical research in developing countries – a discussion paper (1999)
Stem cell therapy: the ethical issues – a discussion paper (2000)

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bioethics@nuffieldbioethics.org

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