Ethics in biotechnology
Keywords:  Ethical aspects; Labelling.
Correct citation: nn. (1997), "Editorial: Ethics in biotechnology." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 32, p. 2­3. 

Moral principles differ among cultures, and, within cultures, among individuals. This questions the need and possibility of regulating biotechnology on moral grounds. If individuals differ so much in their ethical concerns towards biotechnology, does this not prove that morality is more a matter of taste than reason, that one's ethical position is just arbitrary, and that there is no objective ground on which to base moral judgements or to approach moral disagreements? From this perspective, bioethics is put on the same footing with emotional or conservative resistance towards change.

On the other hand, every individual has particular moral ideas about what is just or unjust which are not considered to be just a matter of feeling or taste. It is no surprise that ethical questions are raised in relation to biotechnology, since the new technology deals with the most basic material structures of life: DNA. Because modern biotechnology, especially genetic engineering, gives humankind new tools to intervene in nature, people have asked questions as to how far humans ought to go in research and applications of modern biotechnology.

Most of the discussion on bioethics and biotechnology, at least in the West, is in the context of the application of biotechnology on human reproduction, gene therapy, and prospecting DNA sequences. Gene transfer and more recent cloning of vertebrates has led to new debate about the ethics of animal biotechnology. Bioethics in plant biotechnology is less developed as far as the fundamental relationship between human and nature is concerned. However, issues such as biosafety, intellectual property rights and biodiversity have ethical dimensions as well, and receive ample attention in plant biotechnology.

There are several approaches towards ethics, which can broadly be divided into normative and non­normative. The non­normative approaches describe and analyze morality without taking moral positions. One of the non­normative approaches is descriptive ethics, which is the factual description and explanation of moral behaviour and beliefs in a society, especially employed by anthropologists, sociologists and historians. This approach is reflected in the studies on consumer acceptance and public attitudes towards biotechnology. In this Monitor issue we pay attention to the so­called Eurobarometer studies on consumer acceptance in Europe, the bioethical debates in European countries, and the International Bioethics Survey carried out by Darryl Macer.
The second non­normative approach in ethics is metaethics. Metaethics examines the structure or logic of moral reasoning, including the justifications and inferences. This approach critically analyses whether positions in bioethical debates are in coherence with the principles on which they are said to be based and consistent with the way in which other comparable ethical dilemmas are dealt with.
Prescriptive ethics is a normative approach. Normative approaches in ethics involve taking moral positions. Prescriptive ethics attempts to formulate and defend basic principles and virtues governing moral life. In its applied form, prescriptive ethics are reflected in ethical regulation of modern biotechnology as is dealt with in the article of Macer. Another form is its materialization in codes of conducts such as EuropaBio's Core Ethical Values, which are analyzed critically in this Monitor issue.

One of the central issues of ethical regulation is on what moral principles regulation could be based. Proponents of relativism believe that moral beliefs and principles only relate to individual cultures or individual persons: concepts of right and wrong are meaningless when separated from the specific contexts in which they arise. The only acceptable universal element is that individuals in all societies have moral conscience, i.e. a general sense of right and wrong. Others argue that although there is disagreement about ethics of particular situations and practices, the disagreement about fundamental moral standards is far less. Moreover, it is argued that a universal set of human needs would lead to the adoption of similar or even identical principles in all cultures. Even if individual or cultural beliefs vary, it does not follow that people ultimately or fundamentally disagree about moral standards. Maybe the best known historical precedent of an international consensus on moral concerns is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Similarly, the International Bioethics Committee of UNESCO is now developing an International Declaration on the Humane Genome and Human Rights, in order to preserve "the dignity of individuals and their rights and freedoms" in the context of the progress of molecular biology and genetics.

Whatever one thinks of the regulation of biotechnology on moral grounds, one has to recognize that bioethics has become an issue of direct political importance. A 1996 survey among European citizens shows that a crucial element in the acceptance of biotechnology is whether the consumer finds biotechnology, or particular applications of it, morally acceptable. North American and European private biotechnology companies have proven to be aware of the potential commercial implications of ethical concerns. With the formulation of their own ethical guidelines, private industry seems to take ethical concerns more seriously, and not just as emotional or irrational reactions to a new, unknown technology.

However, whether the "rights and freedoms" of individuals will be served by the first attempts of ethical self­regulation remains to be seen. Labelling, a current issue in the European Union, might be an illustative case. To leave individuals the option whether or not to buy biotechnologically derived products is a kind of a minimum approach towards bioethical concerns, disregarding the ethical theory one embraces. These individual choices can only be respected if the individual consumer is treated as an autonomous citizen, who is provided with objective information on the consumer products and has several alternatives to choose from. It is therefore surprising that private industry still hesitates to implement labelling of biotechnologically derived products.

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