Plan enshrines ethics of genetics
The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has unveiled the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights, the first international treaty setting out ethical guidelines for genetic research.

The declaration will prevent human rights abuses such as genetic discrimination, says UNESCO's International Bioethics Committee (IBC), which drafted the document. But it also enshrines research freedom and will allow the potential benefits of genetics to be realised, IBC claims. 'The purpose was not to hamper progress, but to set out the rules of the game,' says IBC chief Noelle Lenoir.

In a broad opening section, the declaration states that human genes are 'the heritage of humanity' and should not be used to cause harm. In addition, 'the human genome in its natural state should not give rise to financial gains.' The treaty goes on to set out the rights of individuals, guidelines for researchers, and ways to implement the treaty.

The research guidelines propose the banning of practices that are 'contrary to human dignity', such as human cloning. Scientists are also urged only to follow research that offers relief from suffering and improves the 'health of individuals and humankind', and to make the benefits of their work freely available.

The declaration deliberately avoids setting out specific research areas. 'It has been designed to establish lasting ethical principles at a universal level,' says Lenoir. 'It does not aim to authorise or prohibit specific processes which may soon be obsolete.' However, IBC says it will identify research that threatens human dignity as and when it arises.

The declaration is not binding and requires individual member states to implement it, UNESCO admits. However, governments have a 'strong moral commitment' to follow the code, says Lenoir. As C&I went to press, UN members were on the verge of adopting the declaration.

National governments are likely to implement the declaration 'with the possible exception of the US where UNESCO is not in good standing,' predicts Mark Cantley of the OECD Biotechnology Unit. But the declaration lacks operational detail and could be interpreted in many ways, he warns.

EuropaBio, the European biotechnology industry association, says it has not studied the declaration in any detail and cannot comment on the business implications.

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17 Nov 1997