10.09.2012 - Social and Human Sciences Sector

"What we are talking about is a fundamental human right: health!", 3 questions to... the IBC Chairperson

© UNESCO -Stefano Semplici - President of the International Bioethics Committee (IBC)

Just before the opening of an important meeting in Paris of the international and intergovernmental bioethics committees, Professor Stefano Semplici, Chairperson of the International Bioethics Committee (IBC), specifies the motivations and the objectives of the two draft reports on traditional medicine and the principle of non-discrimination which will be discussed.

Traditional medicine and its ethical implications is one of the most important and complex issues of bioethics nowadays. How the IBC's initiative of drafting a report on this issue has been prepared, and what is the ultimate objective behind it?

A "complex" issue, as you correctly point out, requires the engagement of many resources and competences. Traditional practitioners of different regions of the world have been heard to present their experience and results and 100 specialized research institutes worldwide were requested to fill out a questionnaire designed to collect information. At the same time, we have been working on the basis of exchanges with the colleagues of the Intergovernmental Bioethics Committee and experts from UNESCO's Natural Sciences and Culture sectors, as well as WHO *.

This wide cooperation was necessary to highlight not only the main questions to be addressed, but also the different perspectives and solutions. We are not just trying to work out and eventually finalize a Report. We are trying to draw the conceptual and ethical background of a discussion which is probably set to remain open.

However, it is important not to miss the crucial point. In traditional medicine, as in every kind of medicine, health is at stake. What we are talking about is a fundamental human right: health is obviously essential to life itself, as it is pointed out in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights of 2005. This is both the premise and the goal of the IBC's initiative: access to quality health care is a pivotal issue within the concept of bioethics worked out by the Committee over these years.

In its “reflections on the principle of non-discrimination and non-stigmatization” draft report, the IBC has defined 6 main areas of reflection in one report, while each one of these topics is a great problem in itself. What is the reason behind this combination?

The IBC is entrusted with addressing the main ethical issues related to the progress of medicine, life sciences and associated technologies. The areas that have been pointed out are among those where the unprecedented pace of this progress looks more and more challenging in ethical, political and juridical perspective. However, you are perfectly right: each one of these topics would deserve a specific reflection.

What we are trying to do is to further elaborate the principle of non-discrimination and non-stigmatization, which is clearly stated in the Declaration of 2005, as relevant not only for more traditional issues related to health and health care, but also along the current main streams of scientific research. This is also to provide a kind of "conceptual umbrella" to underline and boost the awareness that new discoveries often entail this risk of discrimination or stigmatization.

In the near future, persons could be discriminated against in new, more subtle and therefore even more dangerous ways. This is also why we need more education and more culture, together with more science.

Poverty is generally considered as one of the basic reasons behind many social, economic and political problems around the world. How do you see the principle of non-discrimination and non-stigmatization in the light of the recent global economic crisis?

The lack of resources makes everything more difficult. This is obvious. Where there is widespread poverty, it is also much easier to find out higher level of illiteracy and a shorter life expectancy, to refer to the key elements of the Human Development Index. The deeper the fault of economic inequalities, the greater the differences in opportunities that are actually available for people, as well as the suspicion against and the stigmatization of all kind of "strangers".

Nonetheless, it is exactly in "difficult times" that we are called upon to reinforce the bonds of solidarity rather than personal interest. It is worth mentioning that the first two principles of the Global Compact itself refer to human rights. The response to the crisis cannot be the withdrawal behind the bulwark and delusive security of separate identities and old and new privileges.

Needless to say, UNESCO has a great role to play, in order to implement the UN strategy of a human rights-based approach as the alternative to all forms of discrimination and stigmatization...

Interview by Khaled Abu-Hijleh

* WHO: World Health Organization

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