The Conflict Between Human Rights And Biotechnological Evolution – OpEd


In 1997, Dolly the sheep became the first mammal ever to be successfully cloned. This was a major breakthrough in the field of genetic engineering and since then scientists worldwide have been trying to replicate the success in other mammals such as pigs, mice, cows, primates and even humans. However, the idea of genetic modification by using biotechnology existed way before Dolly did and was a cornerstone to the Nazi ideology and eugenics was used as a justification to commit heinous crimes against humanity such as genocide.[1]

Today, one of the most perilous issues but unfortunately one which has gained scarce global attention is whether humans should be genetically modified. This question raises several moral, ethical, legal and scientific considerations and is an extremely sensitive issue. The startling contemporary truth is that technology is at a stage where it is possible for scientists to clone humans and genetically engineer them.[2]

Genetically modifying humans has the potential to violate human rights and freedom and could possibly lead to catastrophic consequences for the human race if legalized and encouraged. Manipulating genes would not only affect the present generation but also the future generation as the genetically modified humans would pass on their genes to their progeny.[3]

The Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights adopted by UNESCO in 1997 is the first international instrument which dealt specifically with human rights and genetics.

Though this Declaration is not a treaty and has no binding value on any of the signatories, it strongly advocates against human cloning and the use of human genome which goes against human dignity. Article 10 of the Convention states that “No research or research application concerning the human genome, in particular in the fields of biology, genetics and medicine, should prevail over respect for the human rights, fundamental freedoms and human dignity of individuals or, where applicable, of groups of people”. Article 11, prohibits reproductive cloning and other practices which are considered as contrary to human dignity.[4]

The Council of Europe’s Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and the Dignity of Human Being with Regard to the Application of Biology and Medicine is another important international convention in the sphere of human rights and genetics which should be read with the 1997 Declaration. While most European nations have taken the stance of prohibiting human cloning, some countries such as the United Kingdom are considering passing bills which would allow scientists to clone human beings under certain conditions.

An analysis of these two international instruments brings an important principle of international law into the picture, i.e., the common heritage of mankind. The Common Heritage of Mankind is an internationally recognized principle which essentially states that elements of humanity’s common heritage should be held in trust for the people and for future generations and should not be exploited by the State or by corporations, instead these the use of these resources should be regulated by international treaties or by such mechanisms which promote the common interests of mankind as a whole. Initially, the scope of this doctrine was restricted to the Law of the Sea, however over the years it has been expanded to bring other elements within its ambit such as human rights and human genomes.[5]

It is indeed alarming, that given the gravity of the issue in light of its potential ramifications, only a meagre quantum of discussions have been initiated at an international level. National laws are grossly inadequate to tackle this international dilemma because scientists who seek to profit by indulging in such inhuman practices would always have the option to conduct their experiments in other countries where laws prohibiting such experiments are absent.

If these terrifying experiments are allowed, it would have a cascading effect on humanity. Apart from gross human rights violations, this would promote illegal and immoral trade in human organs and genes as the rich would want to reap the benefits and enhance both their own as well as their progeny’s intellectual and physical capabilities. This would in turn widen the economic divide and lead to inequality at a global level as only the rich would be able to afford the new technology and the poor would suffer the brunt of inequality as they struggled to keep up with genetically enhanced beings that are programmed to excel.[6]

International Conventions such as the currently existing ones are toothless in effectively dealing with the issue because they are not binding on any country. Hence, the need of the hour is to enact and implement an International treaty which categorically prohibits human cloning and other forms of human gene manipulation which would result in violation of basic human rights and impinge on human freedom and dignity. Lawmakers should be especially mindful of the future generation’s requirements while drafting such a treaty so that human rights are harmoniously balanced with advances in biotechnology.

[1] Longerich ,Peter, Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews, 2010, Oxford University Press, p. 30
[2] Annas, George J.; Andrews, Lori B.; Isasi, Rosario M. Protecting the Endangered Human: Toward an International Treaty Prohibiting Cloning and Inheritable Alterations; 28 Am. J.L. & Med. 151 (2002)
[3] U.S. National Library of Medicine, Genomics Home Reference. What is gene therapy?
[4] Bell, Dean, Human Cloning and International Human Rights Law; 21 Sydney L. Rev. 202 (1999)
[5] Egede, Edwin, Common Heritage of Mankind, Oxford Bibliographies Online: International Law, Oxford University Press, 2014
[6] Annas, George J.; Andrews, Lori B.; Isasi, Rosario M. Protecting the Endangered Human: Toward an International Treaty Prohibiting Cloning and Inheritable Alterations; 28 Am. J.L. & Med. 151 (2002)

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