"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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.