The Challenge of Biotechnology and Public Policy

6. Conclusion

[T]he current lack of visibility and transparency on the contentious, fundamental quality of life issues constitutes an affront to Canadian citizens... The intermingling of facts and values can only be legitimately recognized and remedied by putting into place procedural mechanisms such as regional fora, media debates, websites and public referenda, etc. that are both participatory and consultative.

Currently, the state of the debate in Canada is that there is no debate, at least not public debate. While not usurping the legitimate role of politicians and governmental policymakers in the framing of policy and in leading the decisional process, the current lack of visibility and transparency on the contentious, fundamental quality of life issues constitutes an affront to Canadian citizens. Our collective moral failure to address these issues in a structured and rational process is the ultimate proof of tunnel vision.

This failure to actively inform and consult the public cannot be remedied by simply providing more information. Scientists themselves while responsible for the production of the knowledge cannot be solely accountable for the (ab)uses of ensuing technologies. While increasingly sensible to the social implications of their work, they must be free to actively and creatively pursue knowledge. Furthermore, greater public trust in the outcomes and direction of scientific research and in the regulatory system is severely hampered by the “dread factor” that is a perceived lack of control and of ongoing oversight of the consequences of such scientific freedom and innovation. Public perception of risk even when not objectively substantiated should not be ignored. The intermingling of facts and values can only be legitimately recognized and remedied by putting into place procedural mechanisms such as regional fora, media debates, websites and public referenda, etc. that are both participatory and consultative. The failure of Bill C-47 on reproductive and genetic technologies was due to its highly prohibitive and criminal law approach. This is symptomatic of bureaucratic ideology presuming what the public wants or what the public needs.

The personal and political cost of engaging in an ongoing open dialogue with the nation will be high. There is no doubt that much courage and patience will be called for, especially in the early phases where the public adjusts to a more democratic process and strident advocates polarize the initial debate. Abdicating such responsibility to the scientists or simply cleaning up or compensating or legislating post hoc however, will only further undermine public trust in the political process to say nothing of the credibility of our nation's leaders and governments.

Biotechnology and Bioethics cross party lines and provincial and national boundaries to say nothing of genomes and generations. The challenge is to construct a framework and a process that is equally dynamic.

Public policy means just what it says  – public and policy-oriented. Beginning with the premise that the great majority of citizens are morally responsible beings with an interest in their society, in scientific advances and in the future of humanity, the specter of “exposure” to that same public should not be frightening. After the first round of polemic and phobia will come a clarification of the facts. After such clarification will come a more sensible and balanced debate respecting diversity and difference especially in a multicultural nation such as Canada. After a more public and transparent airing of the facts and issues, after the provision of information by neutral government sources and the media, two choices remain: the Swiss model of public referenda (free from party politics) when public opinion considers it necessary, or, a healthy parliamentary debate based on a free vote. Biotechnology and BIOethics cross party lines and provincial and national boundaries to say nothing of genomes and generations. The challenge is to construct a framework and a process that is equally dynamic.

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