Saturday, October 22, 2005

"Sparks fly over UNESCO bioethics pact"

Read David Dickson's full article in SciDev.Net.

"The governing body of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has approved a controversial declaration setting out guidelines for protecting individuals against potential harm from bioscience developments.

"The text, adopted this week (19 October) in Paris, has sparked a huge debate. It is widely seen — by both supporters and critics — as a vehicle for persuading developing countries to adopt policies outlawing research involving human embryos, itself part of a wider campaign against human abortion..........

"At the heart of the document, however, is language that addresses — usually implicitly — the use of embryos in research. This is particularly significant for developing countries, given that a number of them — such as China, India and South Korea — are developing sophisticated capabilities in areas such as stem-cell research that might use human embryos.

"This part of the text, and the declaration's stress on the need to defend 'human dignity', for example, have been widely welcomed by conservative religious groups deeply opposed to abortion or embryo research. So too has the statement that 'the interests and welfare of the individual should have priority over the sole interest of science or society'.

"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.'.......

"Many in the professional bioethics community have been less impressed. They argue that the recommendations in the declaration are too vague, and seek to impose unwarranted ideological constraints on areas of research that could have important medical and social benefits.

"It is remarkable that a policy document that is clearly untenable in crucial areas has been approved by the UNESCO general assembly," says Udo Schuklenk, co-editor of the journal Developing World Bioethics, which recently published several articles attacking a draft of the declaration.

"He adds, 'What is problematic, to me as a professional in the field of bioethics, is that as professionals we might be tainted by a document that so clearly should not be called 'bioethics' in the first place.'

"Richard Ashcroft, reader in biomedical ethics at Imperial College London, is similarly concerned. He says it is strange that the document was adopted without being amended after near-universal criticism of the draft declaration by academics."

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