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Bioethics
By
Darryl Macer
  
Keywords:  Ethical aspects; Public acceptance. 
Correct citation: Macer, D. (1997), "Bioethics." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 32, p. 2­5. 

Ethical questions have surrounded the development of biotechnology from the start. On the national and international level, bioethical committees have been set up to clarify boundaries of what is acceptable in biotechnology development and application. The care with which bioethics are addressed is likely to have an influence on the marketability of products derived from biotechnology, since it will finally be the consumers that decide on the prospects of the biotechnology markets.

"Bioethics" means the study of moral choices arising from human involvement with life. Bioethics includes an assessment of benefits and risks related to human interventions, especially new technologies, and looks at balancing pursuit of individual autonomy with the duties of justice. Bioethics demands that technology assessment be thorough, and include assessment of the impact upon societies and individuals.
Bioethics is at stake since the first time human made a choice which did go beyond what is instinct. When the choices began to be analyzed and prescriptive ideas were formed, as in religion and moral codes of behaviour, there was bioethics. Therefore, all human societies have come through this process. Bioethics exists in all societies, and is in that sense universal. Cross cultural bioethics examines whether the range of ethical questions is universal. It does not mean that identical answers to these dilemmas are formulated. Interpretations of human responsibility differ along the cultures towards questions such as do animals have souls.
The next question becomes how wide are global variations in values and thinking about bioethics? It appears that the differences between individuals within society are bigger than between societies. In 1993, we carried out an International Bioethics Survey among the general public in Australia, Hong Kong, India, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, The Philippines, Russia, Singapore and Thailand. This mail­response survey focused on how people think about life, nature, and selected issues of science and (bio)technology. The diversity of views was generally similar within each country, as has also been found in other surveys in countries in Asia, Europe and America. Although there is unfortunately a lack of data from Africa, the data suggest that there is an universal diversity of individual opinions across a common range of opinions.
Another universal phenomenon in the survey is that people are supportive of science and technology in general. Many people appear to balance benefits and risks related to new directions in science and technology, showing discretion over the use of genetic engineering for enhancement in agricultural applications, and realistic reasoning in responses to the questionnaire. People may approve applications if they see benefits, not only to themselves but also to the environment and other people. The general support for products of genetic engineering like disease resistant crops or tastier tomatoes, seems to be high, especially if these are claimed to be more healthy. When specific details of an application were given there is generally greater acceptance, suggesting people have some discretion.

Do we need genethics?
Biotechnology, and especially genetic engineering, the part of biotechnology that involves design of DNA or organisms, has raised many ethical considerations. As with technology in general, most people regard genetic engineering both as a technology that can bring benefits to society, and as a technology associated with risks. This has led some to introduce the term "genethics" referring to new ethics that would be needed to cope with the suggested clash between modern genetics and human values.
It can be questioned, however, whether the character of genetic engineering is so unique that it justifies a separate term to identify the bioethical dilemmas associated with it. A specific character of genetic engineering is that it easily crosses the boundary of species. However, in nature even transfer of genes between kingdom's of organisms does occur, albeit far less frequently. Transfer of genes by genetic engineering follows "intention", which is absent in nature. However, intention as such is not new since it is also present in traditional plant breeding. Specific ill effects of genetic engineering to the organism or environment can be studied through field trials and experiments. Human beings have partly controlled nature for their own benefit, such as in agriculture, for millennia. It can be argued therefore that modern biotechnology does not need specific ethics distinct from traditional biotechnology, but it does demonstrate the need for a revival of the discussion on ethical values in the interaction between society and technology, and on the responsibility of scientists.
 
African bioethics
African ethical and metaphysical ideas have, over the ages, been shaped and coloured by its ecological, biological and cultural diversity. In contrast to the Western anthropocentric­individualistic outlook, the pre­colonial traditional African metaphysical outlook is ecological/biological­communitarian. Within the African worldview, the distinction between plants, animals and inanimate material, between the sacred and the profane, matter and spirit, the communal and individual is a slim and plastically flexible one. Similarly, metaphysical conceptions, ethics, customs, laws and taboos form a single continuum.
Bioethics in the narrow sense, focuses on ethical dilemmas and controversies arising from modern western medicine, biomedical research, genetic engineering and attendant technologies. At first sight, the traditional African bio­sensitivity furnish an ideal context to consider and tackle bioethical issues. Because of the African non­exploitative attitude towards nature, the Western bioethical concerns that question the attitude of the industrial revolution "to dominate and exploit the rest of creation" will find a conducive atmosphere in Africa. 'Modern' Africans are liable to receive with an air of novelty bioethical ideas from the West, which are abundantly present in their traditional systems and practices of which they are not aware.
The dominance of western culture and legacy of colonization have, so far, combined to ensure that Africa remains a marginalized mere consumer of western ideas and products. The western world has the penchant for presenting its vision, ideas, convictions and practices as universal imperatives of rationality or morality which ought to be binding on all. Biotechnological activity and research in most parts of Africa is currently undertaken mostly by or with the financial and technical support of western organizations, most of which tend to favour minimal involvement with indigenous expertise. One consequence of this situation is that biotechnology is carried out without an appropriate cultural and ideological background, in the absence of appropriate national policies and rationalization and without any associated consideration of its ethical implications. Interested Africans must tackle these questions, but it would be very difficult before the advent of genuine democracy to most of Africa.
Godfrey B. Tangwa

Board member of the International Association of Bioethics and senior lecturer in philosophy, University of Yaounde, P.O. Box 13597, Yaounde, Cameroon. Fax (+237) 232 104; E­mail gbtangwa@cam.healthnet.org 
 

Bioethics and consumer acceptance
One of the questions for the coming few years is the adoption and acceptance of food made from genetically modified organisms. In this respect, modern biotechnology can learn from differences in acceptability of other food items worldwide. People's choices of food are not only on price or taste. For example, vegetarianism can arise from moral, religious or dietary reasons. Religious taboos as found in Buddhism and Hinduism upon eating meat have shaped agricultural practices, as have the bans on eating pork in Islam and Judaism. Notwithstanding the moral and religious diversity in almost all societies, general food habits are usually not maintained by legal bans. It is rather consumer choices that influence market availability. Recently individual moral choices or health diets have led to adoption of vegetarianism in societies without such religious traditions.
Enabling people choices of the products they consume can be supported by the labelling of products made from organisms modified with genetic engineering. Labelling is currently under discussion in the European Union. Negative labelling, i.e. a guarantee that the consumer product is not derived from genetically engineered varieties, is occurring in Europe and Japan in the case of soya bean products. Negative labelling has been prohibited in the USA in the case of rBST­free milk. Labelling is consistent with bioethics, as long as the labelling represents truthfully what is in the product. Rather than being afraid of labelling, all products could be labelled with information that enables consumers to chose according to their own ethical principles.
Enabling individuals to make their own bioethical evaluation about biotechnology has implications for national policy in technology assessment, education, information campaigns, and openness about where and what decisions are taken. Scientists, industry, and government have special responsibilities together with the media in providing understandable information to the public.

Governmental regulation or professional codes
There are several possibilities to approach prescriptive bioethics. One way is to develop national governmental regulation about ethical limits in biotechnology development and application as, for example, exist in Austria, New Zealand and Russia. Another approach is the development of ethical codes by the sector itself. Some academic societies, such as the Movement for Universal Scientific Responsibility (MURS) in France or Japan, have enacted codes of ethics to give practical guidance on some common problems, in the same way as medical doctors have followed a Hippocratic Oath or related medical codes for centuries. Ethical codes, as a list of principles, are not sufficient as guidance for individual researchers for practical life, and have to be backed up by additional discussion or training. Moreover, ethical codes lack sanctions. The Royal Society in New Zealand, for example, has an ethical code, but if member scientists break with it, they will be dismissed, but membership is not compulsory to the scientific profession.
 
Bioethics workshops at Purdue University

In May 1997, Purdue University held its second of three bioethics workshop for faculty members in the life sciences. The five day workshop included sessions on moral theory, critical thinking, and pedagogy, as well as more specialized sessions on topics in applied ethics. The purpose of these workshops is to give scientists an enhanced ability to incorporate ethics and ethical issues into their science courses.  Each participant agrees to incorporate at least three class hours devoted to ethical issues in at least one of their courses.
Participants are provided with a copy of James Rachel's "Elements of Moral Philosophy", which provides a  succinct and sophisticated overview of moral theory and terminology, and deals with the main issues that faculty members can expect to be challenged with in class:  the relation between ethics and science, ethics and science, and moral relativism. In the pedagogical part of the workshop, participants were given several case studies, and discussed what sort of information students would need in order to think about moral issues. Participants were enabled to adapt general techniques to their own disciplines:  e.g. developing case studies that are relevant to their own course content.
The workshop included a range of presentations by guest speakers on topics such as world hunger and obligations to developing nations; animal rights, and questions about genetic engineering and cloning. Follow­up meetings for the next three years will include lectures on applied ethics by invited speakers and panel discussions by alumnae about their experiences incorporating ethical issues into the science curriculum
The 27 faculty participants represented a wide range of disciplines, including botany, biology, nursing, and veterinary medicine. The workshops are funded by Purdue University and the National Science Foundation.
Lilly­Marlene Russow

For more information:
Lilly­Marlene Russow, Department of Philosophy, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana 47907, USA. Phone (+1) 765 494 4290; Fax (+1) 765 496 1616; E­mail lmrussow@purdue.edu 
 

National versus international bioethics
To express the need for international approaches in prescriptive bioethics, including education and guidelines, several arguments are used:
Human beings in all nations share the same biological heritage and destiny;

Some argue that international bioethical guidelines or declarations preferably emerge from national regulation. The prospect of international regulation could be improved if it would learn from the successes and failures of national attempts at regulation. On the other hand, many nations will not develop their own regulations. The international community also has an ethical interest in protecting biodiversity, crop production from disease and emergence of resistant pathogens, and ecosystems, among many biological resources. Transnational agreements to protect common interest from future technological advances are precedented by law of the sea, the law against ocean dumping, the conventions against biological and chemical weapons, the laws against militarization of space and the international atomic energy authority, the declarations of human rights and conventions aimed at combating ozone depletion and at protecting biodiversity.
The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) started an International Bioethics Committee in 1993 with the goal of developing an International Declaration on the Human Genome and the Protection of Human Rights. Individuals from 40 countries participate in a free forum, i.e. ideally without official positions of government or other fixed positions. In late 1997 the final version of the Declaration should be approved by the 187 countries of the General Assembly of UNESCO, and in 1998 by the General Assembly of the United Nations. The declaration merely focuses on human applications of genetic engineering, but hardly addresses other fields.
Apart from the initiative of the UNESCO, the OECD, European Parliamentary groups and industry associations have given opinions, reports and statements related to bioethics. Most of these focus on the bioethical issues of food safety or environmental risk assessment, but some, such as the Group of Advisors on the Ethical Aspects of Biotechnology of the European Union, also deal with moral issues.
Darryl Macer

Institute of Biological Sciences, University of Tsukuba, Tsukuba, Ibaraki, 305 Japan. Phone (+81) 298 53 4662; Fax (+81) 298 53 6614; E­mail macer@sakura.cc.tsukuba.ac.jp
Sources
Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics, Eubios Ethics Institute. On­line journal on 31 topics of environmental and medical ethics http://www.biol.tsukuba.ac.jp/~macer/index.html.

Darryl R.J. Macer (1994), Bioethics for the People by the People. Christchurch, New Zealand: Eubios Ethics Institute.

Darryl R.J. Macer (1995), "Bioethics and Biotechnology: What is ethical biotechnology?". In: D. Brauer (ed.), Modern Biotechnology: Legal, Economic and Social Dimensions. Biotechnology Volume 12. Weinheim, Germany: VCH. pp.115­154.

D. Suzuki and P. Knudtson (1989), Genethics: The clash between the new genetics and human values. Boston: Harvard University Press.



Contributions to the Biotechnology and Development Monitor are not covered by any copyright. Exerpts may be translated or reproduced without prior permission (with exception of parts reproduced from third sources), with acknowledgement of source.

 


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