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Vatican on the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights

2/7/2006 - 6:00 AM PST

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Interview With Bioethicist Father Gonzalo Miranda

ROME, FEB. 7, 2006 (Zenit) - Last autumn UNESCO's General Conference approved the "Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights," a document that took its International Bioethics Committee and Intergovernmental Bioethics Committee two years to write.

The Holy See's delegate to the conference, Legionary Father Gonzalo Miranda, dean of the School of Bioethics at Rome's Regina Apostolorum university, took part in some phases of the declaration's elaboration.

In this interview with us, Father Miranda analyzes some of the document's most important aspects.

Q: What was the significance of the approval of this declaration?

Father Miranda: Above all, it confirms the universal importance of bioethics and the topics and problems studied by this discipline, born 35 years ago. Universal in the sense that they affect all of us -- doctors and biologists, but also politicians and lawmakers, journalists, priests, etc., and society in general.

Universal also insofar as these problems now are perceived and studied in all geographic and cultural areas of the world. Galloping globalization has undoubtedly contributed to this phenomenon.

By its very nature, the declaration is not a binding document for states. But it tries to exercise an important influence in the legislations of countries and in the decisions and behavior of all people involved in the problems of bioethics.

UNESCO seeks to be a world leader in this field, and it says so explicitly and clearly.

I was able to see how the representatives of many governments, especially developing countries, appeal to UNESCO to give them some direction on bioethical topics and to disseminate this discipline in their nations, collaborating, for example, in the creation of their national bioethics committees.

There is no lack of those who see in all this the danger that a sort of worldwide ethical government might be established.

Q: How has the Holy See participated in this work?

Father Miranda: As you know, the Holy See has a permanent observer to UNESCO in Paris. At present, it is Monsignor Francesco Follo who covers this post, in a very worthy and effective way.

I was invited to take part in the work of the declaration's elaboration; first, to give the Catholic view of bioethics, in August [2004]; and this [past] year, in June, at the meeting of experts representing governments, and now at the General Conference.

As an observer, I could speak but not take part in the decisions. It was also interesting to be able to speak informally with governments' delegates, exchanging impressions, listening and proposing.

I was able to see in many delegates and representatives a profound appreciation for the Holy See and great interest in the thought of the Church.

Q: What global judgment can be made on the approved declaration?

Father Miranda: I believe it is important that the declaration be studied carefully and freely by those dedicated to bioethics, so that they begin to understand its demands, the meaning of the principles it proposes, the possible consequences of its influence in the world, etc.

I do not think that a considered judgment can be made without going through this analysis and debate.

Anyway, I think that in general the declaration is acceptable, and even good on some points. Of course, it represents the fruit of a negotiation and effort of consensus among contrasting views and interests.

Precisely because of this, topics such as the protection of unborn human beings or the status of the human embryo do not appear in the text, and are not even hinted at. Much less is there an attempt to come to an agreement on what is understood by person, human dignity, etc.

As you no doubt know, in the beginning the title "Declaration of Universal Norms of Bioethics" was bandied about, and there was a long list of specific problems of bioethics that the declaration should address.

Then it was thought to be more convenient to keep to general principles, and remove the term "norms" from the declaration's title. At the end it was also decided to introduce the expression "human rights," which emphasizes the platform on which the principles proposed by the declaration are based.

Q: What were the most controversial points in the elaboration of the text?

Father Miranda: There were several, very interesting ones. At the June meeting, in which experts representing governments had to review the text prepared by UNESCO's bioethics committees, it was possible to talk and cede, for the sake of consensus, on some of the most conflictive points, undoubtedly improving the text.

For example, some countries requested that the principle of the right to human life be ...

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