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No survey on ''human genes''

Media Release

28 January, 2004

No survey on ''human genes''

The Bioethics Council has not conducted any surveys on use of human genes in other organisms, Council Chair Sir Paul Reeves said today.

Responding to a New Zealand Herald story which claimed the Council had undertaken a “survey” which found a “majority” opposed to “human gene experiments”, Sir Paul said the research was actually a series of focus group designed to help the Council understand what questions and concerns New Zealanders had about biotechnology. It was conducted to help the Council identify the issues that needed to be discussed through the national dialogue, which will occur over the next three months.

“In research, a survey involves a poll – asking a specific question, recording how many agree or disagree and coming up with a percentage which has some statistical validity. We decided very early on not to undertake that kind of polling because it doesn’t ask people to think below the surface about what are really complex and difficult issues,” said Sir Paul.

“We are charged with helping New Zealanders explore and understand the cultural, ethical and spiritual aspects of biotechnology and ensuring that the use of biotechnology has regard for New Zealanders’ values.

“This will involve getting New Zealanders talking to each other and thinking deeply about some pretty fundamental questions, including what it means to be human. We have planned a dialogue process – which we will launch next month - to help New Zealanders have that discussion in a constructive way, which will hopefully help people hear others views as well as examining their own views and sharing these with the Council.

“We aim to give all those interested the opportunity to take part, as well as ensuring that those who have a more direct interest in biotechnology are fully involved.”

“We are asking people to think about whether, when, how and for what purposes it is acceptable to transfer genes found in humans into organisms where they do not naturally occur. We are trying to foster an open debate about the issues - to get New Zealanders talking to each other as well as talking to the Council – rather than getting the ‘right’ answers to specific questions.”

Sir Paul said the dialogue – which will begin mid-February - would include facilitated workshops and hui; providing background information and resources to assist dialogue; online discussion and a more traditional submission process.

The main outcome of the dialogue will be advice to the Government on the cultural, ethical and spiritual issues surrounding the use of human genes in other organisms. The Bioethics Council reports to the Minister for the Environment, but has a high degree of independence, including setting its own work programme and priorities.

“While the report to Government can be seen as the main outcome, the dialogue is an aim in itself,” said Sir Paul.

“Biotechnologies are developing very quickly and typically involve complex science, but they also potentially have huge impacts on people’s lives and we can’t afford to leave the debate solely to the experts.

“Our job is to provide the information and the forum for ordinary New Zealanders to think about and discuss these issues and to make sure that government takes New Zealanders’ views into account when it makes decisions about how these technologies are regulated.

“We have no illusions about how difficult this is likely to be, but just because issues are complex and difficult to discuss doesn’t mean we should shy away from them.

“New developments in biotechnology have the ability to bring huge benefits, but may also pose significant risks and frequently challenge the way in which we think about our humanity and values. These are ‘big issues’ and its crucial that we discuss them as a nation. Toi te Taiao: the Bioethics Council exists to help that happen.”

About the Council

The Government established Toi te Taiao: the Bioethics Council in December 2002, following a recommendation by the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification, to meet public concern that decision-making was not adequately addressing the cultural, ethical and spiritual dimensions of genetic modification and biotechnology.

The purpose of the Council is to:
- Enhance New Zealand's understanding of the cultural, ethical and spiritual aspects of biotechnology.
- Ensure that the use of biotechnology has regard for New Zealanders' values.

It does this by providing independent advice to Government on the cultural, ethical and spiritual aspects of biotechnology and promoting and participating in public dialogue on these aspects, and enabling public participation in the Council's activities. The Council’s advice is made public and can reflect diverse views - it is not required to provide advice based on a consensus of opinion.

ENDS

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