In establishing National Bioethics Organisations (NBOs), liberal democracies seek to acknowledge the diversity of strongly held ethical positions and the imperative to engage in public debate about important bioethical decisions. NBOs are typically given a range of responsibilities, including contributing to and stimulating public debate; providing expert opinion on relevant issues for policy deliberations; and developing public policy. The state is now found to have an interest in areas previously thought to be a matter of individual choice. NBOs can provide one way of opening up public debate to allow the diversity of views to be heard in a manner that is well-informed, articulate and responsive to both expert and ‘lay’ public views. We draw on debates in political theory about democratic decision-making and on the policy making roles of some key NBOs. We are particularly interested in examining the capacity of NBOs to meet the democratic ideal of effective participation by the public, or citizenry, especially by those who are directly affected by the policies, in the development of effective public policy. We provide a basic framework for policy development involving NBOs that can begin to meet this ideal, a process of 'contested deliberation'.