It’s Time for a National Bioethics Commission in Nigeria

As a country, Nigeria has developed what may be called a dangerous national attitude to scientific innovations and inventions. This attitude is expressed in the fact that Nigeria is quick to copy scientific and technological breakthroughs without copying the necessary safeguards adopted by other nations to protect them from unwanted consequences of the breakthroughs. The truth of this can be seen in the environmental degradation ravaging oil producing communities in the Niger Delta without any known national strategy to curtail them.

As expected, Nigeria has keyed into the adoption and utilisation of scientific researches in the health sector, this time again, without the corresponding effort to adopt the protective mechanism deployed by other nations to guard their citizens against the harmful effects of these researches. I will demonstrate this point with near absence of national governance on In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) practice in Nigeria. During In Vitro Fertilization, fertilization is made to occur outside the womb of a woman. The process begins with the extraction of a male sperm and female egg. The sperm and the egg are then mixed to achieve fertilisation. The fertilised egg is monitored within a space of time between three to five days, during which medical experts assure themselves of its viability. On conviction of the viable status of the fertilised egg, the same is implanted into the womb of a woman who then goes through period of pregnancy at the end of which she gives birth to bouncing baby boy or girl, as we say in this clime.

The beauty of IVF has made it possible for many childless couples to have their own children, allowed others the opportunity to select the sex of their children, and granted sick parents the chance to produce healthy children. But the story of IVF does not end with these beautiful stories. It comes with a lot of issues which if not well-managed will jeopardise the entire IVF system. First, a good number of the eggs and sperms needed for IVF treatment come from donors. But in the proper IVF treatment the term donor is quite expansive and can also mean seller. In the domain of some rogue practitioners, the eggs and sperms are either obtained by trick or through outright stealing, and then resold to unsuspecting couples. Second, there are some health and psychological complications associated with extracting eggs from a female “donor” that it becomes necessary to inquire into how these complications are resolved when they arise. But the most important question is whether the donors are made aware of the entire complications that can emerge as a result of egg donation. Third, in the event that a conflict emerges between the parties involved in the donation circle how is it going to be managed or resolved?

The above questions are not in any way exhaustive, but they are representative of the type of questions that can arise as a result of IVF treatment, and other development in the health sector that are consequence of biotechnology research. In other countries, these questions are taken seriously. Those societies take care to ensure that no one individual is injured in the course of solving the problem of another. Thus, the generally accepted instrument of guaranteeing this globally is through the national bioethics committee. The committee’s major role is to ensure that at no time will a human person be reduced to an experimental tool or exploited as a thing. It always recognises that man is a being of dignity and ensures that all individuals involved in the health chain of a country treat him as such. The committee, often consisting of global experts in health and ethics (medicine, law, genetics, philosophy) are eminently qualified to take care of this.

It is therefore disheartening that Nigeria is yet to subscribe fully to the global practice of bioethics twenty-five years after UNESCO created the global prototype known as the International Bioethics Committee. We lost the initiative to other African countries that have since taken off with the practice and are therefore reaping the benefits that come with a national bioethics committee. I believe that the national tragedy in our hands resulting from the abuse and misuse of certain drugs will not have risen if we have subscribed to the National Bioethics Committee regime. I also believe that the previous crisis that was as a result of Pfitzer tasting of its drugs on Kano infants in the 1990’s wouldn’t also have happened if we had a ready watchdog in the form of National Bioethics Commission.

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