Human Exceptionalism

UN Head Urges World to Regulate Biotechnology–Yadda, Yadda, Yadda

Excuse my cynicism, but UN Head Kofi Annan’s urging that the international community regulate biotechnology seems like so much hot air to me. Of course, he is right: We should regulate biotechnology. But based on how the “international community” does business these days, how effective would such regulations be?

One problem is that there is utterly no consensus on what should be regulated, and even if there were, what would the international community do to dissenting states? Look at the cloning issue: By a 3-1 margin, the General Assembly called upon member states to outlaw all human cloning “inasmuch as they are incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life.” Well, that and six bits will buy you a cup of coffee. This was an important ethical declaration–albeit, like almost all UN actions, nonbinding–which gets us to the heart of the problem. Dissenting countries, like the UK and China, just shrugged their shoulders and kept on cloning.

And here is another problem with the kind of international regulation that Annan is calling for: It depends on consensus and thus becomes quickly shackled to the lowest common denominator. This point was brought home to me a few years ago when I was in Portugal debating euthanasia at a Fulbright Commission bioethics conference. At the farewell dinner, I got into a rather heated discussion with a UN technocrat who also spoke at the event (about cloning). He was very agitated with me, and accused me of not believing in “dialogue.” I was taken aback. “How can you say that?” I asked. “I flew 6,000 miles to be here. I sat next to people with whom I profoundly disagree. I was cordial and collegial. I did not raise my voice. I engaged in no ad hominem. I backed up my assertions with evidence. Now it’s up to the audience to decide whether they agree with me or not.”

“But you do not believe in dialogue,” he repeated testily. “You only care about what you believe.”

That’s when I got it: To the internationalist way of thinking, it isn’t the actual policy that is important. Rather, it is maintaining consensus and comity. Thus my protagonist believed that I should have been willing to accommodate some euthanasia legality. In that way, supporters would have the satisfaction of knowing that euthanasia is available in at least a few circumstances, while opponents would have the satisfaction of knowing that legal restrictions limit the actual practice of euthanasia to some degree. Hence, a supposed end to conflict. The problem, of course, is that there would be legalized euthanasia. Moreover, once killing was explicitly sanctioned by international accord as an acceptable answer to the problem of human suffering, then the force of logic would quickly take the world down the slippery slope to an ever-widening permissiveness.

The same paradigm would operate in international biotechnology regulation. Because the world is divided about what is proper and what is not, the result would be to sanction some unethical biotechnology, cloning, for example, leading in slow motion to an eventual anything goes policy and the Brave New World.

So, by all means, let’s do our best to create meaningful international regulations over biotechnology. But don’t expect them to do any good until and unless the “world consensus” is willing to actually place some areas of research permanently off limits and to enforce these agreements with meaningful consequences if they are violated.

I have full confidence that we will do that–right after we save the poor people in Darfur.

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