IHEU recently applied successfully for a grant of US$150,000 from the Appignani Foundation in the United States to establish a Humanist Center for Bioethics. To be based at 777 UN Plaza in New York city, the IHEU-Appignani Center for Bioethics will focus on creating an awareness of issues relating to Bioethics at the UN and also develop a programme for lobbying. IHEU’s Executive Director Babu Gogineni explains the rationale and the ideas behind the Center.
Bioethics at the UN
In November 2003, a draft text was introduced at the UN aimed at banning any form of human cloning. The text was sponsored by Costa Rica, Spain, the US, and
some 60 other countries. It is claimed that over 100 countries would have supported this resolution if it was put to the vote. Closely reflecting the views of the Vatican (articulated at the UN by the Papal Nuncio Archbishop Celestino Migliore), the draft text at the UN called for a legally binding Convention which would oblige nation states to prohibit the research, development or application of any technique aimed at human cloning. Human cloning, whether reproductive or therapeutic, was ‘unethical, morally repugnant and contrary to due respect for the human person’.
The UN General assembly’s legal committee narrowly voted by a majority of one in favour of delaying any decision to ban for two years. Now the matter will come
up for vote in 2005 and Humanists and others must be prepared to meet the threat through appropriate lobbying and mobilization of public opinion so that a religiously inspired doctrine will not decide the fate of future scientific progress in biology.
Not just at the UN …
Religious doctrine spread by priests, conservative ignorance fired by tabloid newspapers and Luddite paranoia are combining to derail progress through the
spread of prejudice and false information. A recent survey shows us that this is a worldwide menace. Historically this lobby battled against the first
hybridization experiments, attacked vaccination and other major medical scientific advances like in vitro fertilization, still bitterly opposes the theory of evolution, rejects genetically engineered crops, and peddles lies about the spread of AIDS and the ‘risks’ of using condoms. Now, it has turned its attention to cloning.
All fundamentally new scientific developments will raise important ethical issues which need to be discussed rationally, and with human benefit as the key measure.
However, the success of the conservative lobby is such that these important issues cannot receive serious public debate. For example, UNESCO organized a World
Conference on Science, ‘Science for the 21st Century’, in Budapest in 2000. At this Conference, UNESCO deliberately excluded clinical medicine and engineering from its remit in order to keep its science ‘pure’! Having failed to open these issues to serious debate, today both UNESCO and Council of Europe Conventions ban both the use of stem cells for reproductive human cloning and the creation of human embryos for research purposes.
Research into cloning will enable stem cell therapy for the most severe and debilitating illnesses in man, like cancer, diabetes, spinal cord injury, kidney disease, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. Any legislation prohibiting or impeding experimental and therapeutic cloning will severely damage prospects of progress in this area.
If genetically engineered or genetically modified (GM) crops are discouraged, the prospect of ending world hunger in the future will recede even further.
Opponents to GM crops argue that humans should not ‘play God’ and that we should not ‘interfere’ with nature. Infectious GM puritanism has led some starving African countries to reject free gifts of maize from the US because it was genetically modified! GM maize has been consumed in the US for a few decades now without any demonstrable catastrophic effects. The African countries continue to starve.
The Human Genome Project has now decoded all the 30,000 or so genes in human DNA. Soon, it will be possible to identify the predisposition of an individual to various genetic diseases long before they manifest themselves. Preventive measures can now be contemplated, though genetic manipulation is only in its infancy as yet. But such information has serious implications for an individual’s privacy, for insurance companies, for employers and even for the police.
Progress in our scientific understanding of life, development of human values, and advances in ethical concepts and morals have enabled us to take liberal views of abortion, voluntary euthanasia, and human treatment of other forms of life. However, this has not been uniform or universal. If social attitudes do not change in tune with scientific progress, then the very future and progress of human welfare, of individual choices and other human liberties, will be severely compromised.
This is particularly the case where modern biology is concerned.
The debate on many bioethics issues has been dominated by the religious right, and it is absolutely essential that the Humanist perspective be represented properly and that it be heard. At present, while we do the best we can, through the efforts of our colleagues and our partners at the international institutions, our efforts are nowhere near matching the power of the conservative lobby.
In areas such as genetically modified food, the debate has been between the anti-technology environmentalists and Green activists, and corporate business. Bioethics
needs input from the rational, scientific, humanist,atheist, ethical perspective. Yet the Humanist voice which alone is capable of providing a human-centred approach and a forward-looking ethical perspective has been largely feeble, and needs strengthening. The crucial developments of today can determine the course and direction for humanity for the next 100 years.
What We Propose to Do
What is needed is the creation of a well-coordinated panel of voluntary, bioethics and legal experts from all over the world to advise IHEU on these issues, which are to be dealt with at the UN. The broad ethical framework for reflection on such issues already exists, and IHEU has long had a Brussels-based Bio Ethics Network.
IHEU can make an important contribution to the evolution of public policy on these matters by reaching out to the general public, and by lobbying policy makers both at national levels through its member organizations in 37 countries and through lobbying at the UN level. This is a tremendous resource for the Humanist community.
As the only umbrella Humanist organization recognized at this high level by the UN, IHEU has the right to attend all UN Conferences on issues dealt with by ECOSOC, a principal organ of the UN, which will also be dealing with bioethics and other ethical matters. IHEU also has the right to make its viewpoints known through written submissions to ECOSOC Commission meetings, and also the right to speak at the UN’s ECOSOC sub-Commission meetings.
The remit of the Center will be to coordinate with the already existing IHEU Bio Ethics Network based in Brussels, work with a voluntary network of experts, produce resources for the media, help provide input for the creation of official Humanist positions, undertake a detailed study of the implications of these developments in the context of existing statements on Humanism (manifestoes and declarations), lobby at the UN, and draft and comment on model legislative proposals as part of lobbying activity. The Center will establish working relationships with organizations concerned with bioethics, such as those involved with the Human Genome Project, and their Ethical, Legal, Social Issues (ELSI) programme. IHEU will identify friendly countries and aim to influence policy decisions by lobbying governments – for example countries like Britain, Argentina, Japan, South Korea, Mexico and Russia – which voted against the American proposal to ban cloning. Through its web presence and projected activities the Center will raise the awareness of the ethical implications of the developments relating to the human genome, cloning, and stem cell research.
With targets set for three years and within the limitations of a small Center, the IHEU-Appignani Center for Bioethics will attempt to influence policy decisions related to all aspects of modern biological developments and their ethical implications, and to raise awareness about bioethics in a Humanistic way.
IHEU is also seeking input from its member organizations and other associates as regards the work of the Center. Through its role as the umbrella organization of humanist, rationalist, atheist, ethical, cultural and laique organizations across the globe, IHEU can hopefully help to counter the agenda of the conservative lobby, in the interests of human welfare.