What is the point of an ‘Advisory Committee’ that does not advise?

By David Mullins

The fact that the dog did not bark is of course the famed and curious incident referred to by Sherlock Holmes in the Conan Doyle story, The Adventure of Silver Blaze. The same curiosity might fairly apply to the operation of the National Advisory Committee on Bioethics.

Established in March 2012 by then Minister for Health, Dr James Reilly, the task of this Committee is to advise the Minister on the ethical and social implications of scientific developments in human medicine and healthcare. In particular, this includes: “Providing advice in the form of expert reports on priority issues of national significance as requested by the Minister and providing recommendations and assistance towards the development of healthcare policy and associated legislation.”

Given such a remit, we might think it reasonable that at least one expert report on the issue of abortion might have been requested by the Minister from the Advisory Committee.

In actual fact, Minister Harris confirmed this week that the National Advisory Committee on Bioethics last met on 24 September 2015. This is a striking admission given how we have just emerged from a national debate on an issue that is quite often one of the most contentious areas of bioethical reflection and an area that the Advisory Committee seemed eminently qualified to analyse.

For all intents and purposes it appears as if Minister Harris, and prior to him, Minister for Health Varadkar, decided to ignore the existence and the role of their own governments statutory Committee; a Committee that was specifically established to provide them with a wide ranging ethical perspective. To jump ahead of any objectors, it should be stated that this would not have precluded the possibility of allowing the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth to do its work. However, a report from the decidedly less political Advisory Committee would have fed into this process in such a way that would have been beneficial in terms of having a clear ethical analysis at the outset.

In fairness to the Advisory Committee, it cannot by itself initiate a process leading to a report. As noted above, its terms of reference limit it only to an examination of priority issues “as requested by the Minister.” That puts the spotlight squarely back on the political realm and especially the Minister for Health of the day.

The last report of the Advisory Committee came after a request in March 2015 to explore the ethical issues relating to the use of nudging (namely the application of behavioural science to subtly guide choice in certain directions) in order to influence people’s behaviour and encourage the adoption of healthier lifestyle choices. Its Report can be found here.

Since then more than three years have passed and the role of the Committee seems to have fallen into utter irrelevance. Indeed Minister Harris also confirmed this week that the Committees next project has yet to be determined and that a specific date for its next meeting has not even been selected. This is extraordinary given how this government has indicated its clear intent to embark on an all-out assault on other areas of significant bioethical concern such as the rights of conscientious objectors and prohibition of assisted suicide.

At the very least it is important for the Advisory Committee, if it seeks to retain any credibility, to come out and make clear whether or not it has effectively been politically neutered by its ministerial master.

To do nothing is to ensure its imitation of the dog in the night who kept quiet when it should have barked.