Ministers tackle international implications of bioethics

22 October 2001 - Ministers of Science are meeting at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris today and tomorrow during the Organization’s General Conference to reflect on the international implications of recent developments in bioethics.

During a two-day round table organized by the International Bioethics Committee, Ministers of Science of UNESCO’s 188 Member States (Yvonne, create link to : http://www.unesco.org/ethics/en/news/RT_BE_Intern_Impli_Prog_E.htmen/news/RT_BE_Intern_Impli_Prog_E.htm) will examine the basic concepts and principles of bioethics; current issues; institutional and regulatory norms and systems, including the rationale for a universal text on bioethics; and consciousness-raising and public debate.

The paper serving as the departure point for discussions places the round table in context. ‘The need to think through the ethical implications of scientific research and to anticipate its applications is felt throughout the world’, it states. ‘The Declaration and Science Agenda highlighted the ethical dimension of the present-day development of science and technology’.

The discussion paper affirms the special responsibility of States ‘not only in respect of bioethical reflection but also in the drafting of any legislation that may stem therefrom... They cannot but observe the growing number of practices that extend beyond national borders’.

Thought will be be given to the desirability of a universal text covering all the issues relating to bioethics. If such a text would have the advantage of laying down a common framework, the question remains of how to enforce such an instrument.

The round table will ask such probing questions as: is there a common understanding and agreement about free and informed consent? What are the scope and limits of the autonomy of the person? Should these principles and others such as privacy be revisited?

UNESCO has already examined some burning issues in bioethics, such as genetic testing and screening, human gene therapy, genetic counselling, human cloning, research on embryonic stem cells.

Several scientists around the world have already announced their intention to proceed with human cloning, among them Drs Antinori in Italy and Panos Zavos in the USA. In an interview with the French daily newspaper Libération on 18 October 2001, Dr Zavos even went so far as to claim that ‘we will no doubt have cloned the first human embryon by Xmas’. The cloning would not be realized in the USA, he added, but ‘somewhere in the Mediterranean basin’.

What other issues need priority attention in bioethics by the international community? Organ, tissue and gamete donation? Or the participation of humans in experimental treatment with or without therapeutic benefits or in research? And what about the use of genetic tests for non-medical purposes. Where do genetically modified organisms fit in in the order of priorities, and food and environmental safety?

For further information, go to: www.unesco.org/ethics