Introduction to Human Rights | Lesson 33: “Bioethics and Human Rights”

This lesson is about bioethics and its relation
to human rights. We will cover five points: 1. The concept of bioethics; 2. The birth
of bioethics; 3. Some normative landmarks; 4. The principles of bioethics; and 5. Basic
dilemmas regarding human rights. As seen during the first lesson of this course,
morals is about formulating prescriptive norms and also about passing judgment therefrom,
while ethics is the study of the field of morals. But to treat them as synonyms is quite
alright. Therefore, bioethics is the moral or ethical
regulation, judgment and study of norms as applied to the realm of biology and medicine.
In other words, bioethics deals with the ethical dilemmas coming from the application of science
to living beings, particularly humans. Ever since the times of Hippocrates in ancient
Greece, and until very recently in the history of humankind, patients and other human subjects
have been utterly patronized, that is, treated by doctors and scientists as objects of care
and study. But by the beginning of the 1970s this paradigm was changed by a new one where
patients and human subjects in general started to be treated by science as autonomous moral
agents capable of making their own decisions regarding what was good or bad for them. Thus,
in 1970, the term “bioethics” was coined by the American oncologist, André Hellegers. In 1964, the World Medical Association issued the Helsinki Declaration, banning human experimentation. In 1973, the American Hospital Association drafted the first Patients’ Bill of Rights.
This charter contained such rights for the patient as respect for their privacy and confidentiality,
and the right to be informed of every procedure and treatment so as to give an informed consent
to them. In 1997, the European Union signed in Oviedo
the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Dignity of the Human Being with
regard to the Application of Biology and Medicine. Finally, in 2005, UNESCO issued the Universal
Declaration of Bioethics and Human Rights. This document reaffirmed such principles as
human dignity, autonomy, individual responsibility, informed consent and justice, among others. In their capital work on the subject, in 1979 Tom Beauchamp and James Childress proposed
the four basic principles underlying the new discipline of bioethics: autonomy, beneficence,
non-maleficence and justice. The importance assigned by those authors to these principles
has been labeled in the literature as “principlism”. In a word, “autonomy” means the acknowledgement
of the patients’ moral capacity to make their own decisions about medical care and
treatment. “Beneficence” means the duty of everyone,
including doctors and scientists, to actively help those in need of care. “Non-maleficence” is a somewhat reverse version of beneficence. It means the fundamental
duty not to commit any harm, which has been part of medical professional codes since Hippocrates.
Finally, “justice” has to do with the fair distribution of public health benefits and resources so as to tend properly to those in most need. Since human rights are defined as those faculties and liberties bestowed to every human being
as such, this begs the obvious question: Who is a human being?; Since when he or she is
considered as such and until when? Indeed, one of the most vexing issues in the current
bioethical debate is the discussion on the beginning of human life, and therefore the
entitlement to human rights. The debate regarding the beginning of human
life relates to abortion and contraception. For those who hold that human life begins
since the conception, that is, since the fertilization of an egg by a spermatozoid, abortion is murder.
Some oppose even contraception. Others think that human life does not begin until the implantation
of the fertilized egg into the womb of the mother. Yet, others believe that human life
begins with the early development of the neurological system or of the brain functions. For them
abortion is not morally questionable before a certain time of pregnancy has elapsed. There
are even those who think that the reproductive rights of the mother trump those of the unborn
child, even if it were to be considered a human person, so they defend an unrestricted
right to abort. At the other end of the line, there is the
debate regarding the ending of human life and of human rights entitlement thereof. There
are some who consider that human life ends when all and every biological functions have
ceased to exist. But there are also others who think that it suffices with the demise
of brain functions to declare someone dead, in order to authorize organ donation while
organs are still transferable. There are other issues related to the end of life, including euthanasia, that is, assisting a consenting, incurable, terminal patient to die. While human beings alone are entitled to human rights, there are some who have questioned
this discrimination against other sentient living beings, calling it “specism”. Thus,
anti-specists, such as “animalists”, fight for the acknowledgement of equal levels of
protection for all sentient beings, that is, for all beings capable of feeling, having sensations and suffering, whether human or animal. On the same or similar grounds, many oppose animal experimentation by medical research laboratories. Some oppose it even if it does not cause pain. In the name of our team, I would like to thank you for having accompanied us throughout this course. We hope you have learned basic notions of human rights and you have become familiar with some of the main challenges in this area. We also hope we can meet again next year, in 2015, when we will launch our second MOOC course, this time in Spanish, on transparency and anti-corruption. You can now obtain a free virtual certificate from Udemy. If you would also like to obtain a paid certificate from the University Diego Portales, please visit our website and follow the instructions to do so. Thank you and farewell.

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