Saturday, November 05, 2005

What does UNESCO have to say about bioethics?

The governing body of UNESCO has approved a controversial bioethics declaration concerned with the social, legal, and environmental ramifications of medical and technological advancements and procedures, as they affect human beings. Supporters of the doctrine promote it as an ethical framework for the potential standardization of international practices.

While much of the declaration reemphasizes commonly accepted values, such as informed consent, the new emphasis on social responsibility is inciting much more heated debate. Also contentious are the often implicit references to the use of human embryos. Such advisements are particularly pertinent to developing countries that are advancing the sophistication of their scientific capabilities, such as China, India, and South Korea.

Much of the support for UNESCO’s doctrine comes from thinkers on the religious right, who tend to oppose both abortion and the use of human embryos. Conservatives especially value the doctrine’s focus on the concept of ‘human dignity’ and the importance of the individual’s dignity over the sole interest of the state. An advisor to the US delegation at the Paris meeting wrote on the website Christianity Today, "These resonant assertions of the centrality of human dignity and the limitations of science give us hope and ammunition." The Vatican has also promoted the declaration, which essentially backs an anti-abortion position. In an earlier debate, Vatican representative Francesco Follo said that a bioethical system should respect "man and his intrinsic dignity", warning that medical researchers were being tempted "to treat the human person as simple laboratory material".

While conservatives welcome the seemingly ‘moral’ nature of the declaration, academicians are far less enchanted. Arguing that the language used is dangerously vague, they envision a ‘progressive’ view of science, uninhibited by agenda-backed restrictions. Richard Ashcroft, reader in biomedical ethics at Imperial College London, expressed his concern by calling it strange that the document was adopted without being amended after near-universal criticism of the draft declaration by academics.

This declaration is the third document on the topic of bioethics which has been proposed and approved by UNESCO. The first two were the 1997 Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights, adopted in 1998, and the International Declaration on Human Genetic Data, approved in 2003, which sought to set ethical standards for collecting, processing, storing and using human genetic data contained in biological samples. This is also unlikely to be the last time that religion and science will clash in the conception of an ethical future.

[Thanks, Ana Lita]

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