"Corporate Governance and Biotech-Ethics"

Chris MacDonald, Department of Philosophy, Saint Mary's University

Presented at the Canadian Bioethics Society 14th Annual Conference - October 17-20, 2002 


This paper explores crucial issues at the interface of bioethics and business ethics. Biotechnology poses challenging problems not just from the points of view of health-care ethics and public policy, but also from the point of view of corporate ethics. The field of biotechnology is advancing so rapidly that public policy has consistently lagged behind. Further, this area faces a lack of informed public debate and consensus on key questions. In such a context, even well-intentioned corporations may find themselves lacking the moral landmarks crucial for responsible corporate citizenship.

What strategies are available for facilitating ethical conduct in the biotech industry? Organizations such as BIOTECanada, the U.S. Biotechnology Industry Organization, and the European Association for Bioindustries have adopted "Statements of Ethical Principles" outlining their commitment to ethical practice in the field of biotech. But industry-wide codes filled with vague promises are insufficient to the task of sustaining ethical conduct. The goal of this paper is instead to ask how individual biotech companies can incorporate suitable ethical mechanisms into their governance structures. Examples of appropriate governance mechanisms include disclosure and transparency policies, mechanisms to ensure that Boards of Directors are sufficiently independent of senior executives, and policies that foster independent external auditing of both financial and social performance. 

As ethicists grapple with the implications of changes in the way health care is funded and administered, questions of how large institutions - whether private corporations or publicly funded hospitals - govern themselves are likely to become increasingly central issues in bioethics.