What Does It Mean to Take an Ethics+ Approach to Global Biobank Governance?
This article re-examines and fundamentally re-assesses the symbiotic relationship between law and ethics in the governance and regulation of biobanks as a global phenomenon. Set against the two decades of experience of set-up, management and most recently granting access to biobanks to promote advances in human health, it is argued that the boundaries—and so the legitimacy—of the respective roles of ethics and law have become blurred and, potentially, blunted. The caricature of law as a tool of command and control—resulting in compliance culture—is well recognised in regulation studies, but parallels with this can now also be seen within certain ethical regimes pertaining to biobanks and human health research more generally. At the same time, the ethical content of certain legal responses to biobanks can be lacking, as some legal systems seek to regulate biobanking in inflexible and unreflective ways that potentially undermine the entire enterprise. This can result in a net failure to capture adequately particular features of biobanking that make this field so potentially rich in terms of ultimate social value and human benefit. The argument is made that the interconnected, yet distinct, nature of the contributions of law and ethics must be better understood in this setting. The central message is unapologetically sceptical about the role of law in regulating biobanking, except when we see law as process. Rather, the position is advanced that more work is required to develop governance regimes that are ‘Ethics+’ : that is, rooted in the core values and principles at stake while able to adapt and accommodate the inevitable changing landscape of biobank research and practice. While ethics are always a necessary component of a robust and defensible regimes of health research, the notion of Ethics+ directs our attention to processes in which ethical discourse and engagement can be optimised to respond to particular features of biobanks and their operation.
KeywordsBiobanks Ethics Law Governance Regulation Process Processual Liminality
This article is the product of a Wellcome Senior Investigator Award entitled ‘Confronting the Liminal Spaces of Health Research Regulation’ (Award No: WT103360MA).
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