Portugal was one of the first European countries to feel the need for a national bioethics committee, in the wake of several civic and institutional movements that had arrived in Portugal in previous decades.
A decisive contribution to the creation of the CNECV was made by the "Commission for the Legislative Framework of New Technologies", a committee of ad hoc experts set up in 1986 and operating within the Ministry of Justice to assess and propose a legal framework for the use of Medically Assisted Procreation techniques. After 14 months of work, the Commission also prepared a proposal for the institution in Portugal of a "National Bioethics Council (CNB)", with the mission of defining guidelines and issuing opinions on "the moral problems raised by scientific progress in the fields of biology, science or health". The creation of a national entity of a permanent nature would be discussed in Parliament already in the following legislature, but definitely influenced by the conclusions of this commission.
In 1989, two initiatives were presented to Parliament: Draft Law 420/V (PS) "Creates the National Council of Ethics for the Life Sciences" and Draft Law 125/V of the Government "Creates, with the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, the National Bioethics Council". Decree 243/V would be promulgated on 24 May 1990, culminating in Law no. 14/1990, of 9 June, which established the first legal regime of the CNECV.
With the inauguration of the members of its first mandate on 31 January 1991, the CNECV began its mission of systematically analysing and providing independent and expert advice on "moral problems raised by scientific progress in the fields of biology, medicine or health in general".
The CNECV was originally attached to the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, although with the status of an independent, consultative and multidisciplinary body, like the also pioneering French Comité consultatif national d'éthique pour les sciences de la vie et de la santé. In 2009, the approval of a new legal regime (Law 24/2009, of 29 May, in force in its current wording) established the CNECV as an independent administrative body, a figure provided for in article 267 of the Constitution of the Republic, making it migrate with increased responsibilities from the sphere of government to the Assembly of the Republic, the original premise of the 1987 draft laws.
While maintaining its main mission of ethical analysis and reflection and adding the area of "life sciences" in line with its name, the CNECV saw its competences recognised in the new law, which, in any case, it was already providing:
- The issuing of own-initiative opinions and reflections;
- National representation in international meetings of similar bodies;
- The dissemination of its activities, with its own editorial capacity being recognised.
As of 2009, the President of the CNECV is elected by its peers (under the previous law, he/she was directly appointed by the Prime Minister) and there is also an elected Vice-President. From the beginning, the Bar Association and the Medical Association appoint counselors. And so have the Biologists' Association since 2003, the Nurses' Association since 2009, the Pharmacists' Association since 2015 and the Portuguese Psychologists' Association since 2020.
Over three decades of activity, the CNECV has issued more than a hundred opinions and study documents, organised twenty-two seminars attended by national and international experts, published dozens of books and participated, through the availability of its members, in dozens of meetings around the world. At the same time, the reflection of the first mandates focused more sharply on matters of clinical ethics or biomedical research, with the CNECV progressively broadening the scope of its reflection, in an openness to new questions and knowledge.