Academic journal article Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Biomedicine and International Human Rights Law: In Search of a Global Consensus. (Theme Papers)

Academic journal article Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Biomedicine and International Human Rights Law: In Search of a Global Consensus. (Theme Papers)

Article excerpt

Abstract Global challenges raised by biomedical advances require global responses. Some international organizations have made significant efforts over the last few years to establish common standards that can be regarded as the beginning of an international biomedical law. One of the main features of this new legal discipline is the integration of its principles into a human rights framework. This strategy seems the most appropriate, given the role of "universal ethics" that human rights play in our world of philosophical pluralism. In addition to the general standards that are gradually being established, a widespread consensus exists on the urgency of preventing two specific procedures: human germ-line interventions and human reproductive cloning.

Keywords Bioethical issues; International law; Treaties; Human rights; Gene therapy/ethics; Germ cells; Cloning, Organism/ethics; Consensus (source: MeSH, NLM).

Mots cles Enjeux ethiques; Droit international; Traites; Droits homme; Traitement genique/ethique; Cellule germinale; Clonage humain/ethique; Consensus (source: MeSH, INSERM).

Palabras clave Discusiones bioeticas; Derecho internacional; Tratados; Derechos humanos; Terapia de genes/etica; Celulas germinativas; Clonacion de organismos/etica; Consenso (fuente: DeCS, BIREME).

Bulletin of the World Health Organization 2002;80:959-963.


"The struggle for human rights is like an overflowing river that floods down across the valley making the fields ever more fertile" (1). With this simile, an Italian academic illustrates the expanding force of the human rights movement, which tends to cover all new areas in which the dignity and freedom of the human person is in need of protection. Probably the most recent field that needs to be "fertilized" by the principles of human rights is medicine, especially genetics. Rapid advances in this area present new and complex ethical and policy issues for individuals and society, and a legal response is needed to avoid misuse of the new technologies.

The new challenges are so formidable and far-reaching that individual countries alone cannot satisfactorily address them. As science becomes increasingly globalized, a coherent and effective response to the new challenges raised by science should also be global. In addition, domestic regulations in this area can be easily circumvented just by crossing state borders. This is why international cooperation is needed to harmonize legal standards and to establish appropriate mechanisms to ensure that such standards are effectively implemented.

Certainly, the search for common responses to the new bioethical dilemmas is an arduous task. One may even get the impression that it is impossible to reach substantive agreement on such sensitive issues between countries with different sociocultural and religious backgrounds. Fortunately, however, the situation is not as desperate as it might seem. The enterprise of setting common standards in the biomedical field, although difficult, is possible because international human rights law presupposes that some basic principles transcend cultural diversity. Of course, the major challenge is to identify those universal principles with regard to biomedical issues, but it is possible through promotion of an open and constructive dialogue between cultures. This would explain why international organizations, in which different cultural traditions and values are represented, seem to provide the ideal arena for the discovery of such common criteria.

This situation has been perceived by some international bodies--particularly the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Council of Europe--that have made significant efforts over the last few years to reach a consensus on some basic principles relating to biomedicine. The recent regulatory activity on human rights and biomedicine of both bodies was preceded and inspired by the initiative of various international organizations. …

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