| UNESCO’s General Conference, gathered in Paris for its 33rd session, adopted on 19 October 2005 the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights. The text, adopted by acclamation, “addresses ethical issues related to medicine, life sciences and associated technologies as applied to human beings, taking into account their social, legal and environmental dimensions.”The Declaration meets a genuine and growing need for international ethical standards in this area. This need is due to the proliferation of practices that go beyond national borders, often without a regulatory framework: biomedical research projects and experiments carried out simultaneously in different countries; importing and exporting of embryos, stem cells, organs, tissue and cells; and the international transfer of tissue and DNA samples and genetic data.
The text adopted today provides a coherent framework of principles and procedures that can guide Member States in the development of national policies, legislation and codes of ethics. Wherever such an ethical framework is lacking, the Declaration will incite and assist in filling the gap. While it is still up to States to create legal texts and instruments appropriate to their cultures and tradition, the general framework proposed by the Declaration can help “globalize” ethics in the face of the increasingly globalized sciences.
The first principle established by the Declaration is the respect of human dignity and human rights, with an emphasis on the following two points: “The interests and welfare of the individual should have priority over the sole interest of science or society.” and “If the application of the principles of this Declaration is to be limited, it should be by law, including laws in the interests of public safety, for the investigation, detection and prosecution of criminal offences, for the protection of public health or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. Any such law needs to be consistent with international human rights law.”
Several other principles are set forth. Some are already well-established – informed consent, respect for privacy and confidentiality, non-discrimination and non-stigmatization – but the notion of social responsibility is new. It stresses that progress in science and technology should promote the well-being of individuals and of humanity, notably by improving access to quality health care and essential medicines as well as to adequate nutrition and water. The principle of sharing benefits is also affirmed (different forms of sharing are proposed), as is the safeguarding of the environment, the biosphere and biodiversity.
The Declaration also covers the application of these principles, calling for “professionalism, honesty, integrity and transparency in decision-making” as well as the creation of independent, multidisciplinary and pluralist ethics committees. Referring to transnational practices, it specifies: “When research is undertaken or otherwise pursued in one or more States - the host State(s) - and funded by a source in another State, such research should be the object of an appropriate level of ethical review in the host State(s) and the State in which the funder is located.”
The Declaration was developed over two years: the International Bioethics Committee (IBC) devoted one year to formulating a draft, in consultation with Member States and specialized organizations, and it took another year of governmental experts’ meetings to develop the definitive version.
The Declaration is the third standard-setting text on bioethics to be developed and adopted by UNESCO. The first, the 1997 Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights, was adopted by the United Nations’ General Assembly in 1998. It was followed by the International Declaration on Human Genetic Data in 2003 that sets ethical standards for collecting, processing, storing and using human genetic data contained in biological samples (blood, tissue, saliva, sperm, etc.).
UNESCO aims to make these texts as effective as possible. Three programmes will promote them: the Global Ethics Observatory (a collection of data bases on bioethics experts and institutions, ethical committees, legal and regulatory texts, etc.), currently being established; a programme to assist bioethical committees, which primarily publishes practical guidelines; and an ethics education programme to list available educational opportunities and reinforce capacities in Member States.
Texts of the three Declarations
|Source||Press Release No. 2005–127|