Image of Photo of Professor David Archard

Bioethics in China today

The China Forum lecture on Tuesday 23 May 2023 was given by Professor David Archard, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Queen's University Belfast, Chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, and Honorary Vice-President of the Society for Applied Philosophy

Professor Archard explained his background as a practical ethics philosopher and his role at the Nuffield Council on Bioethics (‘NCoB’). The NCoB is the leading independent national ethics body in the UK and has published major papers on public health, gene editing in humans and in farm animals and focuses on policy output in a number of priority areas such as reproduction and family, mind and brain, environment and health.

Bioethics is a relatively new field, originating in the 1970’s. It is driven by developments in science and is more tied to law and regulation than other aspects of practical ethics. It has helped develop ideas on the ethics of bilateral concerns, such as consent between doctor-patient and researcher-subject, into the broader concerns of public health policy and regulation of scientific development in a global context.    

In 2021, as part of the Rule of Law project, the British Embassy in Beijing approached NCoB with a proposal to collaborate with Chinese scholars and policy figures advising the PRC government on bioethics law. The intention was that those framing the law in China should benefit from the experience of bioethical regulation, ethics, law and policy in the United Kingdom. To date, this collaboration has comprised two workshops – one on genome editing, and a second on issues in reproduction.

Professor Archard described how there was broad methodological agreement between the UK and Chinese participants on bioethics, in contrast to, say, metaphysics, where there are significant differences. This may be because the key concepts of dignity, autonomy and equity are debated extensively in traditional Chinese thought and are therefore not alien. However, the Chinese position has tended to be driven by collective policy rather than consideration of individual rights; for example, in the regulation of individual reproductive choices, such as IVF for single women, surrogacy and abortion, policies seemed to be driven by the falling birthrate, whereas in the UK, it would be driven by questions about whether individuals should be at liberty to secure assistance with reproduction, regardless of marital status or sexuality.

The Q&A session included the following issues: the response of Chinese regulators to the scandal concerning Dr He Jiankui, who was involved in the genetic editing of three human babies; the role of private funding in cross-border scientific research where regulation is weak because of limits on jurisdiction; the absence of a strong religious voice in debates about issues such as abortion and end-of-life; how Chinese regulators perform ‘horizon planning’ to identify likely scientific breakthroughs; the differences between the Western scenario of atomised, individual approaches to choices on reproductive rights in contrast with Chinese traditional notions of families created by people who, as members of families, have particular relationships.

Professor Archard also hopes to discuss what bioethics in China and in the UK have in common and where there are differences what we can learn from them.

David Archard is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Queen’s University Belfast, having previously taught at the Universities of Ulster, St Andrews and Lancaster. He has published extensively in applied ethics, political philosophy and philosophy of law, especially on the topics of children, the family, sexual consent, and the public role of philosophy. He has been Honorary Chair of the Society for Applied Philosophy and is its Vice-President. For twelve years he was a Member of the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, and latterly its deputy Chair. He is Chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and a Member of the Clinical Ethics Committee of Great Ormond Street Hospital.