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Vatican on the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights

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 introduced. Others said that their governments could not accept it -- one delegate told me it was not possible because in his country "therapeutic cloning" had been legalized.

After many attempts and after some delegates consulted with their governments, it was accepted that the section on the objective of the declaration concerning human rights state: "ensuring respect for the life of human beings."

As I said at the meeting, it was somewhat amusing that a declaration of bioethics, elaborated by human beings, should fail to propose the principle of human beings' right to life. But at least it remained consigned among the objectives of the declaration.

On the other hand, speaking of the distribution of the benefits of medicine, the draft introduced the topic of "reproductive health" that, as is known, includes problematic practices from the ethical point of view, such as contraception, sterilization and even abortion.

A few suggested that the "health of women and children" be stated generically. The truth is that, as I said to the delegates -- and quite a few agreed -- it was a question of the introduction of a very concrete and specific problem, after it had been agreed that the declaration should be kept at the level of general principles.

Moreover, in quite a few countries some of these practices, actually included in the expression discussed, are not legal.

The conclusion was to adopt the most generic formula, although some delegates requested that their preference to include the topic of "reproductive health" be stated in the minutes of the meeting.

Q: If we look at the future ...

Father Miranda: If we look at the future, I believe this declaration will have a certain influence in the world, perhaps greater in areas where bioethics is not yet deeply rooted.

It was above all the representatives of those countries who reflected on the importance of UNESCO in this field.

Instead, several delegates of developed countries pointed out that in their nations the declaration will be applied according to their national laws. A significant observation if one takes into account, as I said earlier, that it is already known that the declaration, by its very nature, is not legally binding.

Moreover, some expressed the wish that UNESCO address some of the topics that could not be included in the declaration. In the coming years we might see the publication of UNESCO documents on very complex, delicate and controversial bioethical topics.

Rumors are beginning, moreover, on the possible elaboration of a UNESCO Bioethics Convention. A Convention on Cultural Diversity was approved, in the recently ended General Conference, on the basis of a preceding declaration. Conventions are legally binding.

The whole of this process will have to be followed very carefully and there will have to be collaboration and further study and dissemination of the topics of bioethics worldwide. The Catholic Church has much to say and says much in this area.


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Vatican, Human, Rights, Life, Solidarity, Bioethics

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