UCL Faculty of Laws


Bioethics Governance (LAWS0156)

This module aims to give students the opportunity to explore key issues and principles in the governance of bioethical issues

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Bioethical issues are both controversial and important. They present challenges both of substance and process. They raise important questions about the nature of societies; their tolerance of moral pluralism, their approaches to political authority and the values that underpin their conceptions of the public good.

They also raise important issues about regulatory tools, including the nature and role of law. This course draws on both the research and practical experience of the Convenor, who has served on a wide range of ‘public ethics’ bodies, including as chair of the Nuffield Council of Bioethics (the nearest that the UK has to a national ethics committee), the Health Research Authority and the Human Genetics Commission.

The course aims to give students the opportunity to explore key issues and principles in the governance of bioethical issues in liberal democracies through a combination of conceptual analysis and the examination of case studies. It considers some key problems in the definition and theory of bioethics, including its nature and scope, and critically examines the question of whether it is a discipline in its own right or a field of study.

The course also examines bioethics as a governance practice, whereby issues are deliberated and sometimes regulated using social institutions (e.g. commissions, courts, licensing bodies). This is a practice that raises important questions about authority and the ‘enforcement of morality’ in a pluralist society. As well as appraising such approaches, the course also explores whether bioethics governance may have extended its reach too far, whether into private morality or into areas that should be governed under a different paradigm.

Case studies are used to explore a range of governance options and assess their strengths and weaknesses. These are drawn principally from the UK, with selected international comparisons. Thematic Issues include questions of globalisation (are principles and practices universal or country specific?), legitimacy (limits on state authority in areas of moral controversy); democracy (representation, deliberation); constitutionalism (Parliamentary sovereignty, separation of powers), the politics of evidence and ‘expertise’.  

Regulatory options considered include prohibition, market regulation, licensing, structured decision-making, professional norms, test-case litigation, and judicial oversight.

Module syllabus

This module is subject to change.

  1. What is bioethics? Why ‘Bioethics Governance’?
  2. Key Concepts in Bioethics
  3. The work of National Ethics Committees (two weeks)
  4. A brief history of research governance
  5. Abortion Law as Bioethics Governance – Private ethics and public parameters
  6. Governance by licensing authority I
  7. Case Study: Governance by licensing authority II
  8. Case Study: Mitochondrial Replacement & Bioethics Governance – history in the making?
  9. Bioethics Governance in UK
  10. The ‘legitimacy’ of bioethics governance
  11. The ‘authority’ of bioethicists
  12. Public Bioethics, Public Participation and the Roles of Evidence
  13. Public and Academic Discourses: The Case of ‘Naturalness’
  14. Case study – Nuffield Council on Bioethics
  15. Case Study – Assisted Dying I: Parliament, Prosecutors and Courts
  16. Case Study – Assisted Dying II: the nature of argument in public ethics
  17. Professional Regulation, including conscientious objection issues
  18. Anticipatory Governance. Ebola & Pandemic Planning
  19. Markets and Morals

Recommended materials

Module reading lists and other module materials will be provided via online module pages, once students have made their module selections upon enrolment.

This a new area, not previously brought together into a single analysis and there is no single text. A useful overview can be found in the UNESCO document, National Bioethics Committees in Action (UNESCO 2010), which is downloadable from http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0018/001895/189548e.pdf.

Preliminary reading

Key information

Module details
Credit value:30 credits (15 ECTS, 300 learning hours)
Convenor:Jonathan Montgomery
Other Teachers:None
Teaching Delivery:20 x 2-hour weekly seminars, 10 seminars per term, Term One and Two
Who may enrol:Any UCL Master’s student
Must not be taken with:None
Qualifying module for:LLM in Law and Social Justice;
LLM in Public Law
LLM In Human Rights Law
Practice Assessment:Opportunity for feedback on one optional practice essay per term (two in total)
Final Assessment:Essay (100%)