At the beginning of this new century, European society has become more aware than even in recent decades of the urgent need to subject current developments in medicine, science and technology to ethical scrutiny in order to ensure that the new potential emerging in many fields of human activity is used responsibly. This is motivated by the ever more rapid development of modern science that penetrates all spheres of human life and leads to a blurring of the borderline between research and its applications. The complexities of the results and consequences of modern scientific understanding and activity require the formation of ethical judgements, both within the scientific community and within society at large. In a pluralist society, such as Germany, the ethical and legal debate incited by ongoing developments in the life sciences and their application in medicine and biotechnology is, understandably, rather complex. In Germany the public awareness of ethical problems in the application of medicine and life sciences on human beings is very high. It can be observed that the German society is rather sensitive concerning bioethical issues and politics supports this attitude: many articles in professional journals as well as in newspapers cover bioethical issues. Conferences and workshops on a professional and an educational level deal with topics on ethics of life sciences and ethics in general. Further many different disciplines contribute with relevant considerations to the process of opinion and judgment formation in bioethics. Thus the interdisciplinary cooperation of researchers from the natural sciences, medicine, law, philosophy, theology, and the social sciences has become indispensable in this field. In addition, the global character of contemporary research, as well as the speed of innovation in the life sciences, necessitate an international dialogue involving, when possible, the pre-emptive consideration of the ethical, legal and social issues at hand. This is the reason why several institutes on science, ethics and law were founded within in the last twenty years, and why the German Reference Centre of Ethics in the Life Sciences (Deutschen Referenzzentrums für Ethik in den Biowissenschaften, DRZE) was established in 1999 to enhance the conditions for the process of moral judgment formation.
The following paragraphs will summarize the main ethical and legal debates on bioethical issues in Germany; specify the focus of leading German centres of bioethics and biolaw; and explain the tasks, services and networking of DRZE.