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Subproject 7: Competing for sovereignty in cooperative committees: Bioethical debates and the development of a regulatory policy for the life sciences in Germany in the 1980s

This project explores the social, political and scientific negotiations concerning the risk assessment of the modern life sciences in the context of emerging bioethical discourses and their institutionalisation in Germany in the 1980s. The research focuses on three political and parliamentary committees inaugurated to assess the ethical risks and conflicts, as well as the social and economic benefits of the newly developing research fields in the life sciences.

These committees are: 1) the so-called Enquete-Kommission on chances and risks of gene technologies (1984-1987), an expert committee set up by the German parliament, 2) a committee on in vitro fertilisation, genome analysis and gene therapy, established by the German Federal Ministry of Justice and the German Federal Ministry of Research and Technology (1984 -1985), and 3) a joined working group of representatives from different states on reproduction research and genome analysis (1986-1988), organised under the leadership of the Federal Ministry of Justice. These three committees represent the first institutional settings to host debates on the bioethics of modern life sciences in the evolving structures of political regulatory mechanisms during the 1980s.

It also takes into account the accompanying public controversies on genetic engineering and embryo research that reached a peak in Germany in the mid-1980s. Tensions between competitive and collaborative modes of interactions are analysed on three different levels: First, the project investigates how actors who met in the committees (e.g. experts from life sciences, medicine, theology, philosophy, politics, and representatives from government and society), negotiated different and competing values. In detail, it will be analysed through which processes a consensus was reached for further political regulatory mechanisms, balancing bioethical arguments, social risks, and scientific and economic impacts of the contested new technologies. Second, by taking the three committees as research cases and looking at their interaction, the project addresses broader historical developments. It explores the discursive dynamics of critics in bioethics and the emergence of competing and conflicting values in public controversies about the life sciences in Germany in 1980s. Through this analysis, the project contributes to contemporary historical research that portrays the decades of the 1970s and 1980s as a moment of general reconfiguration in the entanglement of science, politics, and the public. Third, the project investigates the national specificities of the 1980s developments by comparing the German context with the public and political debates in the US and UK.