The CNECV was created in 1990 by the Assembly of the Republic (Law no. 14/90, June 9), to systematically analyse "the moral problems raised by scientific progress in the fields of biology, medicine or health in general" and its implications for Portuguese society. It was initially attached to the Presidency of the Council of Ministers.
The CNECV is a legal person under public law, as a deliberative body of national scope, advisory nature and independent action. The approval in 2009 of a new legal framework gave the CNECV the status of an independent administrative body, with increased responsibilities, operating within the Assembly of the Republic (Law No. 24/2009, 29 May).
The mission of the CNECV, from which its competences derive, is expressed in Article 2 of its legal framework: "To analyse ethical problems raised by scientific progress in the fields of biology, medicine or health in general and the life sciences". With a vision of a reference entity for ethical deliberation within the framework of an enlightened society and participatory democracy, the CNECV adopts as institutional values independence (of its members and of its deliberations, whose strength is based on the reasoning of its arguments), rigour (in the production of robust ethical deliberations, scientifically and philosophically sustained) and transdisciplinarity (both in its composition and in the dialogue and methodology on which its deliberations are based).
The issues raised by medically assisted reproduction, transplantation and experimentation on human beings were among the first topics addressed by the CNECV. However, its reflection, following the development of Bioethics as an autonomous branch of knowledge, has been extended to many other issues, for example in the fields of health and human rights, public policies, environment, biomedical research, disruptive technologies, Big Data, gender issues, beginning and end of life. The CNECV is also responsible for pronouncing on the transposition of international ethical-legal documents into our legal system.
The composition of the CNECV is defined by law, with a view to a pluralistic and representative composition of various sectors of society. The 21 personalities of recognized merit, who ensure technical quality in various areas of training, are elected or appointed by three categories of entities: Assembly of the Republic (6 members); Government (5 members); other entities – academia, professional orders, scientific societies (10 members).
Counselors take office before the President of the Assembly of the Republic for a term of five years, renewable only once. This mandate has always been carried out in an independent manner. This means that the Counselors do not exercise their mandate in representation of the entities that elected or designated them, but in their personal capacity and according to the rules of their conscience.
The work of the CNECV is led by its President, who institutionally represents the Council and executes the deliberations of the Plenary. Each new mandate, the position of President is filled through peer review. The Plenary also elects its Vice-President, who collaborates in the conduction of the work and replaces the President in his/her absences and impediments.
The CNECV is organised with a Coordinating Committee, which is executive in nature and permanent, to support the work of the plenary and the administrative and financial monitoring of the Council. This Commission is composed of the President, who leads the work, integrates the Vice-President and elects two counselors for each category of appointing parties – Assembly of the Republic, Government and other entities. Specialised working groups or commissions may also be created to analyse specific issues.
The CNECV is assisted in the development of its activity by a specialized support service or secretariat, headed by an Executive Secretary. The establishment of this team takes into special consideration the nature and mission of the entity in the specific areas of bioethics.
The Council's reflection is embodied from the outset in opinions, either in response to requests made to it or as own-initiative reflections. The Plenary can also issue positions in response to current questions of major ethical importance and prepare working documents on specific topics.
It is also responsible for presenting regular reports to Parliament on the state of the application of new technologies to human life and the respective ethical and social implications, making any recommendations it deems appropriate.
The CNECV actively contributes to raising awareness on ethical reflection by organising conferences, seminars, cycles of debates or other public sessions, organised independently or in collaboration with other public, social or private entities.
The President of the Republic, the Assembly of the Republic and other entities entitled to appoint members and, with due regard for the competencies of local or specialised committees, public or private centres in which techniques with ethical implications in the fields of biology, medicine or health, such as hospitals or research centres, may request the pronouncement of the CNECV.
The CNECV issues opinions, with complete freedom and impartiality, on the questions put to it or on themes selected by the plenary, according to their importance, timeliness and the impact of their consequences. It may also hear external experts or other entities, which invariably results in greater openness and enrichment of its reflection.
For each topic, rapporteurs are appointed or a multidisciplinary working group set up to draw up a rigorous "state of the art" to support ethical reflection and to provide a basis for discussion of a draft opinion. This report maintains a close conceptual link to its authors and is therefore not put to the vote.
The text of the opinion shall be discussed and put to the vote at the plenary session, either as a whole or, where necessary, point by point, as it reflects the thinking of the Council and the consensus reached, and shall be signed by the President. Any Counselors who wish to explain their vote may do so by means of an individual statement.
The CNECV holds thematic meetings and public sessions open to citizens, as part of its regular activity, as a sign of openness to society's contribution.
Plenary meetings and meetings of the Steering Committee, which are held monthly, are not public, given the confidential nature of the discussions and preliminary documents. Opinions adopted are public and are made available on the website.
The CNECV receives daily contacts from citizens, professionals and various entities, always responding within the scope of its competences. It is also committed to maintaining permanent contact and collaboration with decision-makers, specialists and all citizens, through the public dissemination of its positions. To this end, it has its own website and editorial capacity.
This openness to society includes institutional relations with the media – press releases, interviews, conferences – on opinions or particularly complex or controversial subjects, with a view to shedding light on the main ethical issues at stake and making the Council's recommendations clearer.
The CNECV is a strictly consultative body, whose opinions or recommendations are ethical proposals and have no binding force, particularly on legislative initiatives in which its opinion is requested. Through its reflection, the Council aims to participate in the indispensable process of generating knowledge and creating an intellectual, ethical and civic ecology that is favourable to independent, inclusive and tolerant reflection and to the design of public policies that meet the ethical values in which society believes.
The CNECV regularly represents Portugal at international meetings of similar bodies, such as the Forum of European Ethics Councils (NEC Forum) and the World Summit of Ethics and Bioethics Councils and Committees (Global Summit). It also participates as a member or as an observer in the most important national and international events of relevance to bioethical reflection, such as the World Congress on Bioethics, the meetings of the European Group on Ethics of the European Commission or the Council of Europe, or the meetings of the bioethics committees of the World Health Organization and UNESCO.