Keeping Up with Science

By Caulfield, Timothy | UNESCO Courier, October 1998 | Go to article overview

Keeping Up with Science


Caulfield, Timothy, UNESCO Courier


"Science, itself, cannot supply us with an ethic. It can show us how to achieve a given end, and it may show us that some ends cannot be achieved. But among ends that can be achieved our choice must be decided by other than purely scientific considerations."

Bertrand Russell, 1950

Bertrand Russell's caution on the ethic of science is more pertinent today than ever before. But we still seem far from developing an effective human rights framework to guide the choices we, as a world community, make about the use of emerging technologies. The sheer momentum of science, spurred on by the commercial entities funding research, continues to dominate our decisions. Can human rights instruments give us the direction we need? Perhaps not.

The response of legislators to the ongoing "genetic revolution" illustrates the shortcomings of current regulatory approaches. The Human Genome Project, an international effort to sequence and map all the human genes, is probably the most scrutinized scientific endeavour in history. Most of the participating nations have set aside part of their science budgets to address the ethical, legal and social issues involved. Yet this analysis has resulted in only a few formal genetic policies with any real legal teeth.

Domestic law has always struggled to keep pace with the advance of technology. The problems are amplified in the arena of international human rights law with its plurality of cultures, beliefs and values. Only the most basic principles are likely to survive the polarized debates. As exemplified by the UNESCO Declaration on the Protection of the Human Genome, the substance of many of the final documents seems to hinge on the interpretation of amorphous terms like "human dignity".

There are also more specific reasons why it is difficult to create effective human rights "rules" including: the daunting task of writing scientifically meaningful regulations and the fact that the social norms which compel the implementation of safeguards evolve almost as quickly as the technology (consider in vitro fertilization).

The regulatory issues raised by Dolly, the first cloned mammal, highlight these challenges. For example, a number of the pre-Dolly laws prohibiting human cloning, such as Great Britain's, addressed embryo splitting technology. As a result, a rigid application of such provisions would miss the nuclear transfer technique used to create Dolly. …

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