Human Vulnerability and Personal Integrity

The aim of the experts of the International Bioethics Committee (IBC) of UNESCO is to identify particularly vulnerable persons and to enjoin governments and institutions to exercise great vigilance in protecting them.

Are we all equally entitled to meet our basic needs related to our health and well-being? Definitely yes.

But are we all equally and permanently able to meet all those basic needs? Obviously not.

For the simple reason that we all at some point in our life are subject to conditions that directly or indirectly impinge upon our capacity to live as free and autonomous individuals whose health and well-being is properly taken care of. And some people are more prone to suffer from those conditions than others. They are therefore more vulnerable than others.

For example, let us take the case of that old diabetic patient who was in need of an urgent leg amputation, but who passed away after five months of perpetual postponing of surgery as a result of a policy discriminating against older patients when allocating scarce resources. This man’s natural condition – the fact that he was old - affected his priority to receive relevant and timely health care. His vulnerability also stemmed from his lack of medical knowledge and proper information which prevented him to defend his basic rights or seek for alternatives.

A child or a physically or mentally disabled person is prone to be vulnerable as his “natural” condition reduces his capacity to protect himself, his health and his well-being, and increases his chances of being exposed to suffering.

For other people, vulnerability might be connected to the geographical, social or political environment they live in. Like in the case of that young woman whose cerebral tumour was not diagnosed early enough because her insurance did not cover MRI. Her economic disadvantage, and again her lack of knowledge and experience in the medical field prevented her from receiving a critical and timely diagnosis, thus impinging on her right to receive appropriate health care.

If vulnerability can thus be increased by particular context-related circumstances, it is also an intrinsic ingredient of the human condition, which means that we are all bound to be vulnerable at some point in the course of our life.

Article 8 of the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights adopted by UNESCO in 2005 is devoted to this very issue of human vulnerability. Advances in the fields of scientific knowledge, medical practice and associated technologies have opened the way for many new and powerful capacities for the safeguarding of human welfare, but they have also created mechanisms of exploitation and degradation which can take advantage of natural and context-related vulnerabilities.

The debate on the issue of vulnerability will eventually sensitize all levels of society and call on each one of us to fulfil the fundamental obligation we have to look for one another, and in particular for the most vulnerable ones, keeping in mind the fact that, at some point of our lifes, we could be in those shoes as well.

Back to top