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Biology Articles » Health and Medicine » Biomedicine and international human rights law: in search of a global consensus » Introduction

- Biomedicine and international human rights law: in search of a global consensus

"The struggle for human rights is like an overflowing river that floods down across the valley making the fields ever more fertile" (1). With this simile, an Italian academic illustrates the expanding force of the human rights movement, which tends to cover all new areas in which the dignity and freedom of the human person is in need of protection. Probably the most recent field that needs to be "fertilized" by the principles of human rights is medicine, especially genetics. Rapid advances in this area present new and complex ethical and policy issues for individuals and society, and a legal response is needed to avoid misuse of the new technologies.

The new challenges are so formidable and far-reaching that individual countries alone cannot satisfactorily address them. As science becomes increasingly globalized, a coherent and effective response to the new challenges raised by science should also be global. In addition, domestic regulations in this area can be easily circumvented just by crossing state borders. This is why international cooperation is needed to harmonize legal standards and to establish appropriate mechanisms to ensure that such standards are effectively implemented.

Certainly, the search for common responses to the new bioethical dilemmas is an arduous task. One may even get the impression that it is impossible to reach substantive agreement on such sensitive issues between countries with different sociocultural and religious backgrounds. Fortunately, however, the situation is not as desperate as it might seem. The enterprise of setting common standards in the biomedical field, although difficult, is possible because international human rights law presupposes that some basic principles transcend cultural diversity. Of course, the major challenge is to identify those universal principles with regard to biomedical issues, but it is possible through promotion of an open and constructive dialogue between cultures. This would explain why international organizations, in which different cultural traditions and values are represented, seem to provide the ideal arena for the discovery of such common criteria.

This situation has been perceived by some international bodies — particularly the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Council of Europe — that have made significant efforts over the last few years to reach a consensus on some basic principles relating to biomedicine. The recent regulatory activity on human rights and biomedicine of both bodies was preceded and inspired by the initiative of various international organizations. The World Health Organization (WHO) (2), the World Medical Association (WMA, which developed the famous Helsinki Declaration on biomedical research), and the Council for International Organizations of Medical Sciences (CIOMS) are perhaps the most important examples.

At present, two international legal instruments in the field of biomedicine are particularly noteworthy: the UNESCO Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights (3) and, at the European level, the Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine, both of which were adopted in 1997 (4). Yet these two instruments are just the first steps towards the elaboration of an international biomedical law: the UNESCO Declaration, which is not a legally binding instrument, focuses exclusively on genetics, while the European Convention, which deals with more general issues, is only applicable in the European countries that ratified it. This is why the current situation offers an appropriate opportunity to reflect on the possibility of a universal instrument on bioethics. Some recent initiatives are already moving in this direction.a

This paper argues for the human rights strategy that characterizes the emerging international biomedical law. It also describes the current consensus on the urgency of preventing two specific procedures: germ-line interventions and human reproductive cloning.

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