A publicly appointed panel is to be given the chance to confront medical experts about the issues relating to organ transplantation. The meeting, due to take place next month, comes amid a growing shortage of organ donors.
The two sides are to meet from November 24 to 27 at Berne's Insel Hospital in a so-called "PubliForum" session.
The 30-member public group will be quizzing experts about issues such as when organs should be removed from dying people, how a fairer distribution of organs can be achieved, whether controversial research projects should be supported, and the advantages and the ethics of animal-to-human transplants or "xenotransplantation".
Fielding the questions will be medical and legal experts, as well as psychologists and theologians.
Dr François Mosimann, a surgeon from Lausanne, and a member of the advisory group helping the randomly chosen public representatives to develop their questions, says the event is an excellent opportunity to examine fundamental issues about the human side of transplant medicine.
"There's been a great deal of attention given to the subject, partly because it's technically impressive, but little attention has been paid to questions such as: what is death, who makes the decision about a transplant, and whether people should be able to donate organs while they are still alive.
A key issue is the shortage of organ donors in Switzerland. Mosimann says the problem is becoming more acute, and is not confined to Switzerland.
"I think we have 16 donors per one million inhabitants per year, which is about the European average. In a way, transplantation is a victim of its own success. The better the results, the bigger the demand, but the supply of organs doesn't grow."
Mosimann says the chief reasons for this are medical advances and stricter driving laws, which have reduced the supply of potential donors, so "there aren't so many young donors as 20 years ago".
Danielle Bütschi of the Centre for Technology Assessment, one of the organisers of the meeting along with the Federal Health Office and the Swiss National Science Foundation, says the event aims to broaden the debate about the subject as preparations continue to formulate a new law on transplant medicine.
"We hope to provide some input for the debate in parliament but also for discussion by the public," she says.
Rosemarie Simmen, a former member of the Senate, says that while science and medicine need a certain freedom, a new law is necessary on ethical and moral grounds.
Mosimann says his main hope is that the law will improve the general understanding of transplant medicine among politicians and the man in the street, and that it will make the work of transplant teams easier.
"My fear is that legislation will try to regulate everything and we'll end up with a cumbersome, inflexible text that can't adapt quickly to changes. I think we need a short law."
by Paul Sufrin
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