05/24/2005, 00.00
South Korea
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Common bioethical standards to channel biotechnology's mad rush

by Theresa Kim Hwa-young
Robert M. Veatch, a medical ethicist at Georgetown University, proposes bioethical standards during the 150th anniversary celebrations of Seoul's Catholic University.

Seoul (AsiaNews) – For Robert M. Veatch , professor of Medical Ethics at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics in Georgetown University, the modern world needs "international and universal" standards of bioethics because "being an expert in medical science does not make one an expert in medical morality.

Professor Veatch made the proposal during a conference held during the 150th anniversary celebrations for Seoul's Catholic University held from May 18 to the 20.

He was one of 14 Korean and international experts on bioethics invited to speak in the main Hall of the Faculty of Theology on issues such as 'Life and Theology', 'Law and Philosophy', and 'Life and Medicine'.

Prof Veatch's presentation was entitled Regulating Biotechnology: The Need for International Standards. In it, he proposes the international community formulate standards and norms to regulate biomedical research in the world.

In his opinion, the rapid development in the field of biotechnologies makes common bioethical standards a necessity. In fact, given the high speed with which scientific knowledge is spreading in the third millennium it is absolutely necessary to define ethnical standards that can inform people whether cloning a human embryo is a culturally-specific choice or a fundamental moral question that cannot be left to local cultural preferences.

Norms on biotechnology cannot however be left to either the medical profession or national governments, since "being an expert in medical science does not make one an expert in medical morality, while a national government reflects the cultural, religious and social interests of its people," Prof Veatch said.

A practical example is that of the host country. "In adopting a Bioethics and Safety Act, the [South] Korean government is a pioneer in establishing moral and policy standards to guide research. But the source of ethical norms must be wider; it must be international and universal," Veatch said.

Overcoming cultural relativism and establishing common standards must rely on finding common ground while acknowledging the general subjective nature of ethics.

"If it [the standard] is general enough, it will be possible to gain international consensus," he said, adding that general norms have to be applied or specified to local cultures.

Ultimately, the goal is to find out which cultural norms can be preserved and determine which ones constitute violations of international standards. This can be achieved by applying three criteria.

The first one is whether the action produces harm without consent. In the absence of consent, actions are immoral.

The second one is whether the action kills another human being, something that cannot be tolerated.

The third and final criterion is whether the action shows a fundamental disrespect for human life, such as slavery.

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