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Anticipating the bioethical dilemmas of the 21st century

To mark the 20th anniversary of UNESCO’s Bioethics Programme, experts from different parts of the world converged at its Headquarters in Paris on 6 September 2013. Their task was to reflect upon past achievements and to anticipate the future of global bioethics in the next 20 years, and the role UNESCO should play in it.

UNESCO’s Bioethics Programme was established two decades ago, when the progress made by scientists in deciphering our genetic makeup opened our eyes to the fundamental unity of all members of the human family, and at the same time raised the possibility of unscrupulous use of this new knowledge.

The result has been the birth of global bioethics dedicated to channeling the progress in health and life sciences towards enhancing human welfare. UNESCO has produced legal instruments unique at the global level, such as the International Declaration on Human Genetic Data and the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights, and has established the first global, multidisciplinary, and multi-cultural deliberative body in bioethics – the International Bioethics Committee.

What will be the major bioethical challenges in the next twenty years? For some, the answer lies in the growing inequities in the distribution of resources to the need to fight for the equal access of all to the benefits of science and technology, especially in the area of health. As one expert put it, bioethics was born as a response to the rapidly growing power of medical science and technology, but today, the major bioethical challenge is the power of money.

Some experts identified the tension between scientific freedom and efforts to control and regulate science and technology as the major bioethical challenge of the future. Still others noted the persisting relevance of fundamental bioethical dilemmas about identity and individuality, the difference between procreation and manufacture, the relationship between the generations, and the obligation to seek remedies to diseases affecting us and our fellow human beings.

It was also noted that the governance of scientific and technological innovation is being shifted outside the remit of public sphere. While acknowledging that the current international system is based on the idea of sovereign states as primary duty-bearers to uphold the human rights of their citizens, the experts recognized the increasingly transnational and privatized nature of scientific innovations, and urged UNESCO to find ways to bring the non-State custodians of scientific knowledge, such as private companies, professional organizations, NGOs and research institutes, under the ethical governance framework.

Traditionally, bioethics has been a reactive field of knowledge, reacting to the scientific and technological breakthroughs post factum, mitigating their negative effects and ensuring that they do not occur again. The task of bioethics of the 21st century, according to the experts, will be to greatly enhance the anticipatory approach of the discipline.

All participants agreed on one point – that science in the 21st Century will profoundly change the way we live. The rapidly expanding knowledge in every area of inquiry, and especially in life and biological sciences, is continuously pushing the limits of what we can do. However, science has no inherent ethical direction – it is mute on the question of what we should do. Therefore, in order to ensure the very existence of human beings and the planet, bioethical reflection should continue to be a close companion of scientific enquiry and technological innovation.