Stem cell research, genetic testing, cloning: progress in the life sciences is giving human beings new power to improve our health and control the development processes of all living species. Concerns about the social, cultural, legal and ethical implications of such progress have led to one of the most significant debates of the past century. A new word has been coined to encompass these concerns: bioethics.
The UNESCO Bioethics Programme was created in 1993. It belongs to UNESCO's ethics of science and technology programme. Its first major success occurred in 1997 when the General Conference adopted the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights, the only international instrument in the field of bioethics, which was endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1998.
UNESCO's ethical watch mandate justifies itself day by day and is becoming increasingly necessary in light of recent scientific developments and their far-reaching implications for society. With its standard-setting work and unique multicultural and multidisciplinary intellectual forums, the Programme has confirmed UNESCO's leading role in bioethics at the international level.
The Bioethics Programme is part of UNESCO's Social and Human Sciences Sector. It is primarily responsible for the Secretariat of two advisory bodies: the International Bioethics Committee (IBC), composed of 36 independent experts, and the Intergovernmental Bioethics Committee (IGBC), composed of representatives of 36 Member States. These Committees cooperate to produce advice, recommendations, and proposals that each submits to the Director-General for consideration by UNESCO's governing bodies.
The Programme has developed four main action areas:
- Intellectual forum
The Programme provides an intellectual forum for multidisciplinary, pluralistic and multicultural reflection on bioethics, in particular through the IBC and the IGBC and by organizing and participating in conferences, symposiums, etc.
UNESCO intends in this way to foster both national and international debate on the major ethical issues arising from recent developments in the life sciences and their applications in order to work out ethical guidelines for the international community and the Member States.
- Standard-setting action
The Programme aims to define and promote a common ethical standard-setting framework that States can use in formulating and putting into practice their own policies in the field of bioethics. The Programme's first major success in this area was the adoption of the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights by UNESCO's General Conference in 1997. The International Declaration on Human Genetic Data, which is a sequel of the Universal Declaration and a modality of its implementation, was adopted unanimously and by acclamation by the General Conference at its 32nd Session, on 16 October 2003. The Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights was adopted by the General Conference on 19 October 2005.
- Advisory role and capacity-building
The Programme acts as an adviser to the Member States wishing to promote reflection and debate on bioethics, to set up national ethics committees and to define national standards and/or legislation in the field. The Programme also contributes to national and regional capacity building by facilitating the establishment of networks of institutions and specialists concerned with bioethics and encourages the establishment or strengthening of regional bioethics information and documentation centres.
The Programme endeavours to identify ethical issues for specific regions in an effort to define and implement appropriate strategies for the promotion and development of ethical reflection in these areas.
- Education and awareness-raising
The Programme takes part in education and awareness-raising of bioethics among specialists (researchers, jurists, journalists, etc.), decision-makers, the general public, and specific target groups. At university level, the UNESCO Chairs in Bioethics facilitate regional cooperation between universities and UNESCO in bioethics education. UNESCO also identifies universities that offer bioethics education in order to foster exchanges, in particular by connecting them with the Network of Institutions for Medical Ethics Education (NIMED).