On 9 August 1994 the German legislature revised the German Drug Law (AMG). Included in the revision is a passage requiring, for the first time, that the sponsors and investigators of clinical studies involving human subjects first obtain the approval of an ethics committee before carrying out such studies. According to the legislation, which takes effect on 17 August 1995, approval is to come from 'an independent ethics committee, set up and administered according to state law [emphasis added]' (1). Although it is clear according to the text that the 16 federal states have been empowered to establish ethics committees within their jurisdictions, this does not mean that the state governments are free to transfer exclusive authority in the matter to their respective medical associations, a step that would effectively abolish Germany's private ethics committees. First, the legislation does not rule out the authorization of private ethics committees. Second, as legal scholars attest, the exclusive control of ethics committees by the medical associations would constitute an illegal monopoly. Third, it is arguable that medical-association ethics committees fail to meet the one prior federal requirement, that of independence. There is a great deal of confusion in Germany today about which kinds of ethics committees (public and/or private) the states will sanction before 17 August 1995. In an attempt to sort things out we present a brief explanation of how ther came to be two kinds of ethics committees in Germany, review the legal battle between the two over the issue of authorization, point out how the German legislature, in passing the recent bill, has missed an opportunity to clarify the issue and, finally suggest why the administration of ethics committees by the medical associations may be incompatible with the requirement that ethics committees be independent.
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