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A bioethics committee is a group of individuals who act as an advisory committee on issues pertaining to bioethics. Members of the bioethics committee can come from a number of backgrounds, and diversity is actually encouraged to ensure that many perspectives are considered when evaluating issues brought before the committee. Bioethics itself combines medicine, ethics, law, philosophy, theology, politics, and many other issues, and members of a committee on bioethics can include doctors, lawyers, bioethicists, medical researchers, religious officials, and many others.
At facilities which conduct research, the bioethics committee is responsible for evaluating proposed research activities and approving them, recommending changes, or denying them. Bioethics committees were formed in part in response to public outrage about violations of ethics in experimentation, such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, or frivolous animal experimentation which did not add to the overall scientific body of knowledge.
When a research proposal is brought to a bioethics committee, members evaluate the proposal, determining what the research is supposed to accomplish, whether or not it will contribute to the field, whether it is necessary, and how it will be conducted. The committee will weigh ethical issues, deciding if the potential ethical costs and risks of the experiment are worth the benefits. They also determine whether or not the research meets institutional guidelines for research, with most bioethics committees also participating in the process of formulating institutional policy.
Government agencies also use bioethics committees, utilizing such committees to broaden the debate about medical and ethical issues. Members of such committee can assist with the formulation of policy, provide advice about specific legal cases of concern, and so forth.
Science is proceeding at a rate which often outstrips the speed at which people think about ethics and ethical issues. For example, researchers were researching stem cells and their potential before ethicists were talking about the ethical implications of working with stem cells, and which sort of concerns might reasonably contribute to policies guiding or restricting such research. Likewise, the development of life-sustaining technology startled many ethicists who had previously not imagined the ways in which life could be sustained, and had not considered the ethical issues associated with topics like keeping people in comas alive indefinitely. Organ donation has been another controversial topic within the field of bioethics, along with topics such as proper treatment protocols for trans gendered children, medical triage in emergency situations, and euthanasia.
This field can be controversial. Ethics is a challenging field, and one of the reasons for having a diversity of opinions represented on a bioethics committee is to try and consider all aspects of a debate. However, decisions handed down by such committees are not always universally accepted, and committees may even change their mind in the future with the benefit of new information.