|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 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 email@example.com
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.
For more information:
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;
Institute of Biological Sciences, University of Tsukuba, Tsukuba,
Ibaraki, 305 Japan. Phone (+81) 298 53 4662; Fax (+81) 298 53 6614; Email
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.
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