The Need for Bioethics is Universal
Georges B. Kutukdjian
Keywords:  Ethical aspects; United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). 
Correct citation: Kutukdjian, G.B. (1997), "The Need for Bioethics is Universal." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 31, p. 24.

Suman Sahai qualified the present debate in India on bioethics as "spurious and somewhat bogus" (Monitor No. 30). Borrowed ethical arguments from the industrialized countries should not limit developing countries from reaping the benefits of science and technology. However, according to Georges B. Kutukdjian, the need to balance benefits against the social and cultural costs is relevant to all societies. Developing countries should continue to contribute to the international debate on bioethics.

Bioethics implies new thinking on changes in society induced by scientific and technological innovations. It fuels a public debate on societal choices and on ways of guaranteeing the informed participation of citizens. The growing awareness of the human and social implications of progress in the life and health sciences is certainly one of the most significant developments at the close of the 20th century. Thanks to the discoveries in the fields of genetics, neurosciences and embryology, humanity has acquired the power to transform the processes of all living species, including its own. Public and private decision makers increasingly recognize the potential impact of this new power. Scientists themselves see the debate on bioethics as an integral part of the development of scientific knowledge: a genuine need for bioethical thinking to accompany scientific research (not hamper it) and anticipate its applications (not ban them).
Bioethics is derived from a dual need:

If a concept emerges in a given society, it does not mean that it is only relevant to that society. This is clearly demonstrated by the concept of inalienable human rights and freedoms. This concept not only pertains to societies in which it emerged, but concerns universal principles and values that are identifiable to humanity.
Nowadays, the application of biotechnology cannot be restricted to national boundaries. Therefore, bioethics inevitably have an international dimension, which does not mean that the national dimension can be overlooked. In this context, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and other international organizations have been focusing on several issues pertaining to genetics and genetic engineering. For example, the 93rd Inter-Parliamentary Conference in Madrid in 1995, at which parliamentarians from over 100 countries gathered, considered bioethics a key for the protection of human rights. The Conference "[c]alls on governments and parliaments to provide their citizens with exact information on issues relating to bioethics, particularly in the field of human biology and medicine, and encourages an ongoing debate on these issues". Equally, the 1996 Summit of the Heads of States and Governments of the Organization of the African Unity (OAU) in Cameroon emphasized the importance of bioethical issues.

A growing number of countries, such as Bulgaria, Cuba, Ecuador, Egypt, Lebanon, Moldavia and Tunisia, are setting up national bioethics advisory committees to examine bioethical questions in a manner relevant to their societies and their priorities. These discussions cannot be discarded as "spurious and bogus". Their aim is precisely to contribute in a creative and comprehensive way to the international debate. It is certainly for this aim that the National Academy of Sciences of India organized a symposium on "Genome Research: Ethical, Legal, Social and Economic Issues" in Goa in May 1997. This Symposium not only reviewed the issues raised by genomic research in the light of their relevance to India, but assessed them from a international perspective.

Surely no one would hold the view that the principles of precaution; benefits versus risk assessment; security; proportionality; transparency and trust; and information of the consumer and the public in general, are irrelevant to the societies of the South. This would tend to assume that the nations of the South should be less concerned with the future of humanity. Nevertheless, this view could be inferred from Sahai's statement that such a debate is "rhetorics borrowed from the West".
The scientific communities of the South, North, East and West are demonstrating a keen sense of responsibility and solidarity to seek a necessary balance between the possible (scientifically) and the acceptable (ethically). The level of acceptance of a technology in a society is of paramount importance in terms of the social and cultural costs of that technology, let alone in economic terms. Relations between science, technology and the future of humanity are closely intertwined. These relations will have a decisive impact on sustainable development, population growth, energy consumption, environmental protection, etc. and thus on world equilibria. By taking into account the cultural diversity and different sensitivities throughout the world, bioethics strives to flesh out the idea of universalism. This concept, which is at the root of human rights, is crucial to bioethics.
Georges B. Kutukdjian

director of the Bioethics Unit of the UNESCO in Paris, France.

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