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Bioethics: An Export Product? Reflections on Hands-On Involvement in Exploring the “External” Validity of International Bioethical Declarations

Abstract

As the technosciences, including genomics, develop into a global phenomenon, the question inevitably emerges whether and to what extent bioethics can and should become a globalised phenomenon as well. Could we somehow articulate a set of core principles or values that ought to be respected worldwide and that could serve as a universal guide or blueprint for bioethical regulations for embedding biotechnologies in various countries? This article considers one universal declaration, the UNESCO Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights (2005a). General criticisms made in a recent special issue of Developing World Bioethics are that the concepts used in the Declaration are too general and vague to generate real commitment; that the so-called universal values are not universal; and, that UNESCO should not be engaged in producing such declarations which are the domain of professional bioethicists. This article considers these and other criticisms in detail and presents an example of an event in which the Declaration was used: the request by the Republic of Sakha, in Siberia, for a UNESCO delegation to advise on the initiation of a bioethics programme. The Declaration was intended to provide an adequate “framework of principles and procedures to guide states in the formulation of their legislation, policies and other instruments in the field of bioethics” (article 2a). The Declaration was produced, and principles agreed upon, in an interactive and deliberative manner with world-wide expert participation. We argue that the key issue is not whether the general principles can be exported worldwide (in principle they can), but rather how processes of implementation and institutionalisation should take shape in different social and cultural contexts. In particular, broader publics are not routinely involved in bioethical debate and policy-making processes worldwide.

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Acknowledgment

The authors were part of a delegation to Yakutsk, Republic of Sakha led by Henk ten Have, Director of the UNESCO Division of Ethics of Science and Technology. The support of UNESCO for this visit is gratefully acknowledged.

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Correspondence to Mairi Levitt.

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Levitt, M., Zwart, H. Bioethics: An Export Product? Reflections on Hands-On Involvement in Exploring the “External” Validity of International Bioethical Declarations. Bioethical Inquiry 6, 367–377 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11673-009-9168-z

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Keywords

  • UNESCO
  • Public policy
  • Human dignity
  • Yakutsk
  • Bioethics experts
  • Public engagement