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Germany's Ethics Council weighs in on lockdowns

April 9, 2020

As an influential moral authority, Germany's Ethics Council has advised the government and recently called for a debate on ending the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. What exactly is the body and what does it do?

Almost empty Pariser Platz by the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin
Image: Getty Images/M. Hitij

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, many governments have justified their restrictions with a simple explanation: There is no alternative. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and all of the country's 16 state premiers have uttered some version of this phrase.

But Peter Dabrock, chairman of the German Ethics Council, doesn't think much of this rhetoric. This week, the Protestant theologian at the University of Nuremberg-Erlangen said it was not too early to discuss relaxing the lockdown measures, though he admitted that it was too early to actually do away with them.

Dabrock, who heads the body of ethical advisers originally founded 20 years ago by then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, said not to debate the lockdown would leave "the authorities thinking we should not concern ourselves with these matters, which would certainly not strengthen the trust of the population that is so necessary."

Head of the German Ethics Council Peter Dabrock
Head of the German Ethics Council Peter Dabrock lobbied this week for the government to start discussing how to lift public restrictions implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Schmidt

Dabrock's colleague on the council, legal expert Steffen Augsberg, said that there is nothing wrong with lifting individual restrictions and re-imposing them later if the situation in the future requires it: "There is no single correct solution," he said, underlining that walking back decisions when in doubt was not a failure on the part of politicians: "We are all on a common search for the right way."

Read moreOpinion: Economy vs. human life is not a moral dilemma

Influential advisory role

Speaking up on such issues is precisely the council's mandate. The body — which comprises 26 experts from various fields — is tasked with pursuing "the questions of ethics, society, science, medicine and law that arise and the probable consequences for the individual and society that result in connection with research and development, in particular in the field of the life sciences and their application to humanity." In doing so, it seeks to "inform the public and encourage discussion in society" as well as prepare "opinions and recommendations for political and legislative action."

In the past, the council has issued 17 advisory reports on topics ranging from genetic engineering to euthanasia. While the Council cannot enforce decisions, its work does fill a key role of advising politicians and creating public awareness of complex and controversial issues.

Most of the panel's recommendations revolve around ethical questions relating to issues such as the morality of new medical and scientific advances, or the adoption of new technologies in a democratic community. As such, the Council includes Protestant and Catholic theologians, members of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, doctors, biologists, and lawyers — though it sometimes garners criticism for what is seen as an overrepresentation of Christian thinkers within the group.

Read moreGermany's Protestant and Catholic churches predicted to lose millions of members

The German Basic Law: freedom of religion

Politically independent

Originally called the National Ethics Council, the body was renamed in 2008. Half of the members nominated by parliament — the Bundestag — and the other half by the chancellor and her Cabinet. They are then appointed by the president of the Bundestag for the next years.

To guarantee their independence, members are expressly forbidden from having ties to the parliament or government.

The Ethics Council had long been critical of lifting the legal ban on assisted suicide
The Ethics Council had long been critical of lifting the legal ban on assisted suicide, a controversial law that Germany's top court overturned in February 2020Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Jensen

Read more: Germany’s top court paves the way for assisted suicide

Controversy and criticism

Critics have argued that the panel is a paper tiger rather than an effectual body. Nevertheless, the experts' pronouncements have often carried considerable weight at the political level. Very early in the coronavirus crisis, the council advised that hospitals be compelled to report their number of vacant urgent care beds to a central authority — a rule that has since been implemented by the authorities.

However, the council's opinions are often controversial after they are made public. In September 2014, for example, a majority of the Ethics Council said that the ban on incest among consenting adults could be lifted, with nine members dissenting and arguing that it should remain a criminal act. In the end, Germany did not move to change its law criminalizing incest.

In 2012, the panel was ahead of the curve in speaking out for the recognition of intersex people. The Ethics Council said that intersex people were entitled to respect and support from society. They added that these individuals also had the right to be protected against unwanted medical procedures and public discrimination.

Demonstration for intersexuality in Berlin
The Ethics Council has spoken out in favor of defending the equal rights of intersex personsImage: picture alliance/dpa

The council, which meets once a month, maintains lively exchanges with its many partner organizations abroad. When the forerunner of the Ethics Council was founded in 2001, Germany was lagging behind other countries in not having access to continual advice on ethical and moral issues.

Similar advisory bodies have existed in other countries for a long time, for example in Italy since 1990, in Belgium since 1996, and in France since 1983.

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Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau