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UNESCO and bioethics in Latin America - A comment by Miguel Kottow


Miguel Kottow commented the outcomes of the meeting of the International Bioethics Committee of UNESCO which has been recently held in Mexico. Prof. Kottow (University of Chili) is a Member of the Latin American and Caribbean Network for Bioethics of UNESCO and a former speaker of the last World Congress for Freedom of Scientific Research. "Latin American bioethics has been in active connection with UNESCO ever since the creation of a regional network for bioethics called “Red Latinoamericana y del Caribe de Bioética (UNESCO)�?. This network has held numerous regional meetings, published 5 books and edited in 2008 the Latin American Dictionary of Bioethics. Members of the network have actively cooperated with UNESCO’s ABC (Assisting Bioethics Commissions) which helps countries set up National Bioethics Commissions. In the recent ICB and JACOB meetings in Mexico, the Latin American group discussed two important issues: The regional group emphasized that universally accepted basic human rights need to be translated into specific economic, social and cultural rights. This means putting political rights on a supranational level and giving them universal status. Rights attending primary needs include basic primary health care, availability of a OMS defined list of basic therapeutic medication, access to essential nutrition, housing and water supply. National States are under obligation of satisfying these basic needs but, wherever local conditions do not or cannot and comply, international organisms are expected to meet the demands as stated in national Constitutions and International Declarations. Based on numerous internationally recognized documents, the Latin American group takes a decidedly firm stand against those who mark a difference between demandable civil and political rights as distinct from economic, social and cultural rights that are “merely proclaimed.�? Implicitly, regional scholars would also oppose the distinction often made between universal human rights, and political rights which, in this second version, represent those rights that can only be implemented insofar as local resources are available. In sum Latin American bioethicists explicitly agree with N. Bobbio when he states that human rights are more urgently in need of protection rather than justification. Thus, the issue is not philosophical but strictly political. The second issue Latin America discussed in Mexico pertains the Universal Declaration of Bioethics and Human Rights (UNESCO 2005), which was preceded by a number of regional meetings, the “Letter of Buenos Aires on Bioethics and Human Rights�? (2004), and personal participation in preparatory meetings held in UNESCO-Paris prior to the issuance of the Declaration. The region had been concerned that preliminary drafts of the Declaration on Bioethics an Human Rights tended towards an excessive “medicalization�?, and that the Third World, suffering under extreme social and economic deprivation, was in urgent need of a more social view of its problems, requiring a political commitment and a pragmatic approach to actually reduce the inequities that plague poor countries. Bioethics, therefore should adopt a more proactive stance, requiring the solution of these problems, as was actually incorporated in Article 14 of the final version issued by UNESCO. Latin American bioethicists insist that the text of the Declaration should be understood as a binding commitment to take political action in favor of reducing poverty, discrimination, marginalization and all sorts of violation of human rights. Such violations occur when human rights are proclaimed without inspiring specific actions to improve the lot of the underprivileged. Ambiguous and non committed semantics should be strongly opposed, and it was one of the targets regional bioethicists aimed at, to strengthen Article 14 and press for its implementation, undiluted and without delay. An initial, unofficial report to the network’s members stresses the major Latin American contributions to the Mexico meetings. As for discussing the IBC report on cloning, the debate probably did not progress beyond the document presented in June 2009. The general position of Latin American bioethicists is to oppose the conservative view, also endorsed by the strongly predominant Catholic Church, arguing that research on embryonic stem cells is tantamount to homicide; furthermore, regional scholars voice their concern that investigators working in this field are anxious to receive official and legal guidelines, in order to avoid the present status of uncertainty that entails the perils of prosecution if “pro life�? attitudes are related to research on embryonic cells and equally outlawed. Similar concerns have been voiced regarding Latin American legislation on the human genome, as reported in Volume 3 of the regional network`s book publications: Saada A. & Valadés D. (2006). Panorama sobre la legislación en materia de genoma humano en América Latina y el Caribe. México D.F., Universidad Autónoma de México/UNESCO. Miguel Kottow December 2009"

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