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Gene Technology Ethics and Community Consultative Committee (GTECCC) Discussion Paper: Environmental Ethics as it Relates to Gene Technology in Australia

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Summary


This paper arises out of discussions by the Gene Technology Ethics and Community Consultative Committee, which provides advice on ethical issues and on matters of general concern to the community to the Gene Technology Regulator in relation to genetically modified organisms, and its predecessor, the Gene Technology Ethics Committee.

In reflecting on what people think about gene technology, the question arose as to what people think about the potential harms (or benefits) of gene technology for the environment, and what our duties are toward the environment. We then broke this issue down into two interrelated questions: (1) what ethical values do members of the public hold with regard to the environment, and (2) what does the Gene Technology Act 2000 (the main set of laws which governs gene technology in Australia) say with regard to these values?

The first question has proven extremely difficult to answer, given the current state of information about what values people actually hold. We do know from philosophical literature on the subject of environmental ethics that there is a range of possible views and positions which therefore are reviewed in this paper. From this, it is clear that there is widespread disagreement about how much protection to give to the environment and at what cost to other values which we view as important.

This paper also outlines the relatively limited treatment of environmental ethics and values within the Gene Technology Act 2000 , including how environmental protection should be defined, or even how we should define the environment itself. Hence it is clear that the Gene Technology Act 2000, as with much of environmental law, is not based on a clear, coherent set of ethical values. This paper has revealed that there should be ongoing investigation of community values in this area, and feedback of this information in the future as the Gene Technology Act 2000 is implemented and revised.

Acknowledgements


GTECCC would like to recognise the work of the following people in the development of this paper:
      The members of the environmental ethics working group-Ms Judy Jones ex officio member, Associate Professor Rachel Ankeny and Associate Professor Vaughan Monamy. and
      Chair of GTECCC-Professor Don Chalmers.

Background to paper


At the 10th meeting of the Gene Technology Ethics Committee (GTEC: 15 November 2005) a working party was formed to examine various ethical approaches to gene technology with an emphasis on how environmental ethics is distinct from medical ethics. GTEC deemed this issue to be a high priority as the Gene Technology Act (2000) looks at the protection of the environment but, at that time, GTEC had not considered exactly what that statement meant (Minutes of 10th meeting).

Two secondary questions were posed:
    1. What can ecocentric ethics bring to gene technology? and
    2. What status do environmental goods have in ethics?
A discussion paper was prepared by Vaughan Monamy that addressed both these questions so that GTEC could use it as a basis for determining how environmental ethics differed from medical ethics.

Following discussion in early March 2006, GTEC asked the Working Party (originally Assoc. Prof. Monamy and Assoc. Prof. Rachel Ankeny but with the addition of Ms Judith Jones) to further examine issues on two levels:
      GTEC’s duty as defined by the Act, and
      The wider context of environmental ethics as it related to gene technology.
    To this end, Judith Jones added a substantial section to the draft paper. The committee also suggested that the Working party investigate the value of the document in terms of supporting the National Framework for the Development of Ethical Principles in Gene Technology (National Framework: GTEC 2006).

    The draft paper was discussed at the first meeting of the Gene Technology Ethics and Community Consultative Committee (GTECCC) in May 2008. GTECCC agreed that the draft paper should be further developed. At its second meeting (February 2009), after considerable discussion, GTECCC considered the paper in its current form to be complete for the primary purpose of providing information to the Regulator and members of GTECCC. The paper was presented at the Australasian Association of Bioethics and Health Law conference, Adelaide, July 2010 where comments on the paper were invited.

    What follows is the revised draft that takes into consideration input from conference attendees and from subsequent discussion between the authors Judy Jones, Rachel Ankeny and Vaughan Monamy.


    The Objectives, Scope and Organisation of this Paper


    This paper seeks to:
        Examine the main schools of philosophical thought and other approaches to environmental ethics which may be applicable to gene technology and
        Examine environmental ethics currently applicable to the Gene Technology Act 2000 and to implementation of the Act.

    Since each of these enquiries is potentially vast, boundaries have been set. Part One provides an overview to various approaches in environmental ethics which raise issues related to a range of gene technology activities (including what may be outside the current scope of the Gene Technology Act 2000, which is primarily anthropocentric in its focus). Part Two commences with interpretation of section 56 which creates the primary statutory obligation on the Gene Technology Regulator not to issue a licence unless satisfied as to risk management. From this flows consideration of other core concepts of the Gene Technology Act 2000, such as the Object of the Act (section 3), the definition of ‘environment’ and other key concepts within the legislation. It also considers the Risk Analysis Framework (RAF: April 2009) as a core document of relevance to implementation of the Gene Technology Act 2000 (primarily intentional release). This analysis can be expanded subsequently to include other aspects of the Gene Technology Act 2000 and implementation if desired.

    Why Consider Environmental Ethics in Relation to the Gene Technology Act 2000 ?


    The Gene Technology Act 2000 is sometimes viewed simply as another example of a statutory scheme that provides for environmental protection. However, closer comparison of the Gene Technology Act 2000 with other regimes for environmental impact assessment reveals that the Gene Technology Act 2000 has some fundamentally different features when compared to other environmental laws that are also aimed at (different forms of) risk regulation. This raises a very important question; are the features of the Gene Technology Act 2000 so fundamentally different to the features of mainstream environmental risk regulation that the Gene Technology Act 2000 ought to be considered to express a unique environmental ethic or a unique set of values, at least for an ‘environmental law’?

    The lack of articulation of the values embedded in environmental laws
    One important point to note at the outset is that environmental laws, since the 1970s, have operated without a precise or consistent articulation or statement of either the values embedded in those laws or the motivation behind their enactment. Moreover, even when the values are prima facie apparent, the values may perhaps be in conflict and only resolved by decision-makers exercising discretionary powers.

    Furthermore, much environmental law scholarship (and scholarship on the Gene Technology Act 2000 is no exception) has focussed on the content and operation of those laws with only scant attention paid to the values or any environmental ethic underlying them. Tarlock (2004) considered that “…there is no longstanding social consensus about the central question of modern environmentalism – the ‘correct’ human stewardship relationship to the natural world” (Tarlock, 2004, pg. 223).

    Disagreement exists on how much protection to give the environment and at what cost to other values (Flournoy, 2003). It has been argued (e.g., Flournoy, 2003) that there are good reasons for pursuing a refinement of our understanding of the ethical bases for environmental law including assistance with public decision-making where there are ethical choices to be made.

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