26.01.2017 - Social and Human Sciences Sector

What exactly is bioethics? How is it linked to our everyday lives? Interview with Eugenijus Gefenas

Eugenijus Gefenas © UNESCO / I. Marin

In this interview, Mr Eugenijus Gefenas (Lithuania), Chairperson of the Intergovernmental Bioethics Committee (IGBC), explains what bioethics encompasses and why UNESCO is a unique place for the development of bioethics and ethics of science and technology.

I would rather talk about a few characteristics of bioethics to explain the discipline.

First, I would see bioethics as problematic decisions on human life and health. This applies to both an individual level and a collective level—individual human beings and humankind as a whole. An important thing to keep in mind is that we are talking about complex and problematic issues, meaning that we do not have one good interpretation or solution to the problem.

Usually these problematic decisions lead to conflicting and controversial views. For example, if we are talking about the end-of-life decision, there is a discussion about human dignity at the end of life. Some countries would introduce euthanasia programs thinking that people’s suffering can be unbearable. However, there are opponents and proponents to this issue. In a way when we talk about bioethics, we always deal with controversial choices and dilemmatic situations. We must choose one scenario that is “less bad” than the other one. We are not talking about good scenarios very often.

Another characteristic when we talk about bioethics is the multidisciplinary factor. There are different disciplines related to this discussion on problematic issues. For instance, it is important to involve doctors in the conversation, because they will describe the scientific facts and the consequences of following one or another scenario. We also need lawyers for legal aspects and philosophers who will reflect on different values, and conflicting points of view. This reflects the need for a multidisciplinary approach.

Lastly, it is important to acknowledge the plurality of world views involved in the deliberation of a problematic issue. This is reflected in UNESCO’s Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights, which describes the functioning of national bioethics bodies as pluralistic ones. This means that they are not confined to one religion or philosophy. So, in instances where there could be disagreements because of some religious perspectives, the problematic dilemmas of bioethics may be approached from a certain bias. In this organization however, and probably in most European countries, the bodies representing those reflections for bioethics are emphasizing different views.

To summarize bioethics and make a long story short:

  • Bioethics refers to the subject area and problematic areas of human life and healthcare. With an understanding that this applies not only to the doctor-patient level but also broadly to public health and humanities, as well as to ecological problems like climate change.
  • Then, we have a multidisciplinary approach—different approaches to those problematic situations. It is important to have people from science, social sciences and humanities. Their perspectives are very relevant and it’s a combination of common work.
  • Finally, it is very important to have plurality of world views to reflect many possible ways of interpretation and potential solutions.

These key characteristics make up the discipline of bioethics.

Why do you think that it is important for UNESCO to work in bioethics and ethics of science and technology?

I think that it is critical to deal with the sensitive moral issues related to life sciences and technologies. And the more organizations cover this perspective the better. For UNESCO, it’s very relevant because UNESCO is an organization that stands for sciences and culture. So, in its essence, it is a multidisciplinary organization which covers very different fields of our lives. That is why I think the combination of sciences and humanities, and sensitivities to cultural issues, makes UNESCO a very proper place for a discipline such as bioethics.

Also, this is the only organization where we can have a global perspective on bioethics. This is very important for developing countries, because these are the places where bioethical reflections could be transferred as they don’t always have sufficient resources to do so.

And, lastly, we have the Assisting Bioethics Committees (ABC) programme to assist the establishment of national bioethics bodies in different countries in addition to the instruments prepared by UNESCO advisory bodies, IBC* and COMEST*. These show the direction of those reflections to all the countries of the world, particularly to the developing ones.

These are just a few of the main reasons why UNESCO is a unique place for the development of bioethics and ethics of science and technology.

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* International Bioethics Committee (IBC)
* World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST)




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