WYA North America and Latin America together at UNESCO’s International Bioethics Committe

At the end of November, I attended the 16th Session of the International Bioethics Committee (IBC) in Mexico City. The IBC, a committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), was created in 1993. It is composed of 36 bioethics experts whose tasks include promoting reflection, developing and supporting educational programming, and making recommendations on bioethical issues. The 16th Session addressed the topics of Social Responsibility and Health, the Principle of Respect of Human Vulnerability and Personal Integrity, and Human Cloning, and also heard Latin American perspectives in the field of bioethics. (Photo with Prof. Donald Evans, New Zealand, president-elect of the IBC)

As representatives of WYA, Lourdes Villanueva, the director of WYA Latin America, and I were present at the committee meeting in order to monitor the session, identify committee members who share WYA’s commitment to human dignity, urge the committee to maintain respect for human dignity in their programming and declarations, and network with other organizations and experts present at the session.

Listening to the presentations and discussions really allowed Lourdes and I to gain insight into the ideas held by the committee about bioethics. Much of the work done by the committee is excellent, as are their three existing declarations: the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights, the International Declaration on Human Genetic Data, and the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights. Their declarations affirm their commitment to “respect for human dignity, human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Interestingly, however, the committee’s mandate is to consider and respect all ethical viewpoints. This was evident in the many presentations which stressed that bioethics should be regionalized. What was surprising was that although the committee often employs the language of “human dignity,” it does not have an understanding of what human dignity is. Their understanding that bioethics should be regionalized implied that each region should decide what is meant by human dignity and what constitutes acting in accord with human dignity.

In a session that included the topic of human cloning, the committee inevitably discussed the question of when human life begins. Unfortunately, although the committee had already stressed many times their respect for plurality of opinion, on this topic the overwhelming majority of the committee would have liked to dismiss the ethical controversy over research cloning by saying that, scientifically speaking, the pre-embryo is a mass of undifferentiated cells and cannot merit the same rights as a person. Thankfully, after the discussion went this way for a while, IBC committee member and president-elect Professor Donald Evans reminded the committee that “it is attractive to provide a purely biological description of when life begins, but we cannot avoid the ethical questions”: the IBC would be rightly accused of promoting a particular ethical viewpoint if it were to disregard the view that the pre-embryo is a mass of undifferentiated cells that is human life and adopt the view that the pre-embryo is only a mass of undifferentiated cells undeserving of rights.

As the IBC moves forward in its efforts to internationally ban human reproductive cloning, a technology that is almost universally opposed and that the committee unanimously views as an affront to human dignity, our hope is that the committee will maintain a consistent view of human dignity and work to ban all forms of human cloning, whether the clone is implanted into a mother’s uterus and allowed to grow to term, or whether the clone is used for research purposes.

Gina Fullam- United States
Committee Member
World Youth Alliance North America
21 years