Biotechnology and the Guarantee of Human Dignity

  • Martin Nettesheim
Part of the International Library of Ethics, Law, and the New Medicine book series (LIME, volume 44)

The astonishing and breathtaking future prospects of biotechnology have become clearer and clearer in recent years. The possibilities opened by interventions into the genome, the genetic cultivation of tissues and organs, and the biotechnical optimization of the human body alter contexts which hitherto seemed unalterable to constitutional law. The genetic endowment of human beings, even the continuity from one generation to the next, loses the certainty and organic quality which used to determine the unexamined and self-evident background of our constitutional theory and our conception of ourselves. The soon to be available possibility of the self-optimization of the human race shakes the self-evidence of elementary background assumptions—both of an ethical and legal nature—which until now have never been subject to attack. Distinctions which until a few years ago seemed simply unalterable and insurmountable are threatening to become slippery. Categorical distinctions and demarcations, which the constitution could assume to be invariant and “natural” or “God-given” are suddenly becoming undifferentiated.1 In the realm of ethics,2 but also in the domain of constitutional theory and constitutional law, the developments in biological science lead into terra incognita.

In Germany, the future of biotechnology has provoked a heated and challenging discussion of the content of the guarantee of human dignity.3 Article 1 par. 1 of the German Basis Law (Grundgesetz) sets forth: “Human dignity is inviolable” (“Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar”). This article does not only mark the beginning of the constitutional text; it is considered to be the cornerstone of the Grundgesetz and the prism through which all other provisions must be understood and interpreted. At the same time, the provision is, by virtue of Art. 79 of the Grundgesetz, also inalterable. Recent years have seen a constant flow of law review articles and journal contributions which attempted to show how the constitutional guarantee of human dignity confined the use of modern biotechnology. Most of these articles shared common features: they relied on the assumption that the traditional doctrinal approach to Art. 1 of the Grundgesetz would stand the test of time in light of the biotechnological challenge, and they claimed that the constitution itself imposed strict and invariable limitations on the use of biotechnology. These contributions also shared the view that the biotechnological challenge can be met by confronting political options with the supposed trump card of a violation of Art. 1 par. 1 GG—a trump card that cannot be taken even by lawmakers changing the law. Of course, the battle cry that this or that is incompatible with “human dignity”4 allowed one to play the “highest card”—but at the price of rendering impossible any methodically proper discussion, which weighs goals, interests, and results against one another in a rational and reasoned fashion. Sometimes it seemed that here the roles of the citizen, engaged in the political fight for public opinion, and of the constitutional scholar had not been sufficiently differentiated.5 It was merely one price of this strategy (and this should fill constitutional theorists with dismay) that lately many politicians regarded any appeal to Art. 1 par. 1 GG as a mere rhetorical gesture. Hypocritical compromises like those of the law on stem cells6 made the rule's loss of meaning all too obvious. Those capable of examining Art. 1 par. 1 GG not with the heated passion of the political fighter but with scientific coolness had to admit not only that there is considerable uncertainty as to the concrete meaning of Art. 1 par. 1 GG, but in addition, one had further to admit that this provision cannot be understood as a little Vademecum, which can answer any challenges from biological science if approached with enough skill in interpretation.

Keywords

Coherence Stratification Stein Arena Defend 

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References

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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Martin Nettesheim
    • 1
  1. 1.Professor of Constitutional Law, International and European Law University of TübingenGermany

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