Cloning, genetic modification, stem cell research, IVF. I’m sure that you have seen or heard these terms before in the media, which frequently reports on new treatments for various diseases and conditions, women having babies through surrogates (or multiple babies as a result of fertility treatments), and changes to how our food is produced. You may have also thought about or discussed the potential risks or costs of these developments, along with the benefits.
The questions of how to minimize the potential harm (for example to individuals or the environment) and maximize the potential benefits of scientific advancements, while ensuring that the views of different stakeholders are taken into account, are matters that lawmakers around the world consider in regulating different areas of biotechnology. In the last thirty years or so, as the speed of developments in biotechnology has increased, discussions relating to bioethics have become much more prominent in many countries and at the international level.
Some of the Law Library’s foreign law specialists and legal research analysts recently completed short reports on how bioethics and other matters are being reflected in the laws of various countries and in international instruments. The reports were produced in preparation for a conference held at the Library of Congress last week – the annual conference of the International Council for Scientific and Technical Information (ICSTI) – and are now available on the Law Library‘s website.
The reports show that although countries may face similar issues and questions in relation to regulating different areas of biotechnology, decisions on the approach taken in relevant laws can be impacted by public opinions in the country, by historical, cultural, religious, political, and economic factors, as well as by the views of scientists themselves. For example, in seeking to balance competing interests, some countries appear to place considerable emphasis on promoting and utilizing scientific advancement for economic development or other domestic reasons, while others might place greater emphasis on precaution or on ensuring that ethical concerns are at the forefront of the regulatory approach.
The discussions and approaches to bioethics and biotechnology within countries can also influence, and be influenced by, the debate at the international level where various instruments have been developed in the last twenty years. In all of the countries studied, however, ethical issues and the desire to minimize risks are considered and incorporated in some way into the legal framework.
The reports cover such interesting areas as the regulation of surrogacy in India and Israel; the framework for approvals relating to genetically modified organisms in New Zealand and Kenya; the different restrictions on embryonic stem cell research in China, the United Kingdom, and Germany; privacy considerations in human genetics research in Japan; and various restrictions in Russia, including a ban on human cloning and information requirements for genetically modified food products. The reports provide information on the relevant legal provisions as well as the agencies that have been tasked with providing advice to governments on science and ethics, or with considering ethical and other questions in determining whether to approve research projects.
So, if you’re interested in science, law, ethics, or even the differences between countries, take a look at our report. There are also many other reports on a wide range of interesting legal issues in various countries on the Current Legal Topics page of our website, as well as links to digitized items from our collection. For more frequent legal updates, don’t forget to check out the Global Legal Monitor, where you can set up RSS feeds for any topics or jurisdictions that you’re interested in. For more on laws relating to science and ethics, for example, you could take a look at some of the articles under the topics of biological diversity, environment, health, health and safety, research and technology, transplantation of organs and tissues, and treatment of animals. In addition, a recent In Custodia Legis post on the “New Cyber Battlefield” focuses on regulation of the use of scientific developments in the cyber field under the laws of war.
Considering the enormous potential genetic research holds for preventing and curing diseases, eliminating genetic deficiencies, and improving public heath overall, all obstacles that prevent research from progressing should be looked into and eliminated if possible. Of course, we cannot sacrifice personal privacy and human rights to promote this cause. Striking the balance is difficult; especially considering the visceral, emotional reactions citizens have to bioethical issues. I think that people’s fears surrounding the possibilities of what research findings could be used for is often at the core of arguments against investing and furthering genetic research. One way to garner support for ethical biological research would be to put standards in place, such as the recent UNESCO declarations, with more enforcement and backing to ensure that biomedical data is not used for exploitative, unethical, or oppressive purposes. Currently, in the US, only half of states have protections in place against surreptitious commercial testing using genetic data. Individuals who provide their data should be informed of what is done with their data, and should not have anything done with that data without their consent. It’s especially interesting to consider how these ethical notions surrounding human genetics vary according to culture and politics. The ethical concerns are heightened in countries that already violate the rights of their citizens, which increases the need for international authority on the issue.