UN panel studies medical ethics in the age of genetic engineering

UN panel studies medical ethics in the age of genetic engineering

Medical ethics in the era of genetic engineering dominate the agenda of a three-day meeting of a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) panel which opened in Paris today.

“The ethics of science and technology is now one of UNESCO’s top five priorities,” the agency’s Director-General, Koïchiro Matsuura, told the opening session of International Bioethics Committee (IBC). “By reconfirming this priority for the two years to come, UNESCO has demonstrated its determination to accompany scientific progress with a process of ethical reflection drawing on the cultural, judicial, philosophical and religious bases of all human communities.”

The session’s agenda includes a preliminary draft of an International Declaration on Human Genetic Data, due to be presented to UNESCO’s General Conference in October; a report from an IBC working group on the possibility of elaborating a universal instrument on bioethics; an evaluation of the impact of the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights; and an overview of IBC’s work since its founding 10 years ago.

Referring to the discovery 50 years ago of the double helix structure of DNA, which the panel is also commemorating, UNESCO said in a press release: “The human and social implications of such power are sometimes terrifying. How can we protect ourselves against possible abuse of the powers of biomedical research such as reproductive human cloning, for example?

“And how can we make sure that progress resulting from these new capacities will benefit everyone? Ethical reflection that goes far beyond traditional medical ethics has become a necessity,” it added.

IBC tracks the progress of scientific research, particularly genetics, and defends the principles of dignity and individual liberty against the threat of unethical practices in biomedical research or its applications.

It is the only consultative body in the UN system that focuses systematically on bioethics. Its 36 members, appointed by UNESCO’s Director-General for a four-year term are independent and act in their personal capacity. Culturally diverse, the members are all eminent actors in a broad range of disciplines: doctors and geneticists work side by side with chemists, legal experts, anthropologists, philosophers and historians.