Ethical principles in gene technology

In an area dealing with new and previously unconsidered ethical problems – like gene technology – it is important to establish an ethical  framework which can provide some guidance when dealing with specific issues (such as the appropriateness of genetically modifying crops, animals or people). The National Framework for the Development of Ethical Principles in Gene Technology,   produced by the Gene Technology Ethics Committee, (Commonwealth of Australia: Office of the Gene Technology Regulator, 2006) is one attempt to do this.  I acted as one of a group of twelve to produce this national ethical standard for gene technology. The whole document can be found at the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator or downloaded here: Ethical Principles in Gene Technology

Following are some short extracts from the statement:

Ethical issues are based on individual, group and societal answers to questions about what they value as good, or what they believe to be the right thing to do. Acceptable — and unacceptable — practices are defined in legislation; therefore, a society’s ethical values, and the ethical consequences of any decisions, must be considered when drafting new legislation or regulation.

In addition, a society’s cultural and spiritual values are reflected in its ethical considerations. Ethical decision making, for example about environmental issues such as GMOs, should take into account these values, including different views on the relationships between human beings, animals and the environment.

Values relating to gene technology

In developing the National Framework, and in particular the nine principles, GTEC identified the following values as the most relevant for ethics of gene technology. The values are derived from general philosophical writings and debate, environmental discussions, and international documents (for examples, see Appendix 1). Although this list may not be exhaustive, these values are important because they are part of a common currency in discussions about the ethics of gene technology.

Respect for human life

Gene technology is grounded in the life sciences. Accordingly, the value of respect for human life is of central importance. All humans intrinsically deserve respect — irrespective of age, ethnic background, cultural group, gender, economic status, religious beliefs, or any other factor. Respect for human beings is expressed as regard for the welfare, rights, beliefs, perceptions, customs and cultural heritage, both individual and collective, of people likely to be affected by gene technology. No person should ever be used merely as a means to some other end; however, fair conduct is not reducible to the idea that all people should be treated ‘equally’ in all circumstances. In some cases, it may be equitable to treat differently those individuals or groups who have relevant differences such as needs and entitlements. Where relevant differences are cited as a reason for discriminatory treatment (whether favourable or not), the arguments and criteria should be transparent and well justified. For example, in making ethical decisions involving GMOs, people should ensure the fair and just treatment of all whose interests are, or are likely to be, affected.

Respect for animals

There is widespread recognition of the value of respect for animals, though different views exist on how such respect should be defined and what the resulting human obligations are toward animals. Some philosophers have argued that animals have significant intrinsic moral status. More commonly, many people believe that the value of respect for animals arises from recognition that some types of animals are sentient (able to feel pain and endure suffering). This approach is reflected in animal welfare legislation in most countries, including Australia, that is designed to prevent cruelty to animals. In addition, there are guidelines to regulate animal research which require researchers to strive to replace animals with other types of experimental models or systems, to reduce the number of animals involved in individual experiments, and to refine experimental research projects to minimise harm to animals. Respecting animals used or generated for research involving genetic modification also requires consideration of the possible consequences associated with the welfare of modified animals, as well as the possible effects on human and animal health and the environment.

Respect for the environment

The environment is of great objective value, and humans have legal and ethical duties to protect, conserve and preserve organisms, species, natural ecosystems, natural and physical resources, and the qualities and characteristics of locations, places and areas, both on local and global levels.

Respect for the environment is often associated with sustainable development and management, as well as protecting biodiversity and ecosystem integrity and showing respect for individual species. Humans should ensure that the built environment and human activities cause the least possible harm to the environment as a whole, to animal and plant populations, and to sites of historic or cultural significance. Decision making should consider the impact on these components of the environment, how they function as a whole, and how the environment evolves over time in response to external stimuli.

Humans also have duties to achieve sustainable development for present and future generations, while recognising that environmental protection is an integral part of development and cannot be considered in isolation from it.

Freedom of choice

Freedom of choice is closely related to the value of respect for human life. The capacity to make autonomous choices underpins the possibility of attributing responsibility to humans, and allows them to be responsible for their actions and their influence on the world, rather than being mere spectators to unfolding events. Therefore, freedom of choice is central to the recognition of the autonomy of humans and the respect that they enjoy as people. The possible effects of gene technology on human life and freedom should be major considerations in any debates about the value of knowledge to be gained from this type of research.

Acquiring and applying knowledge

Knowledge is a cornerstone of human civilisation and has diverse origins. As the highest achievement of the human mind, it is of intrinsic value and allows humans to reach a deeper understanding of themselves and the world in which they live. The application of knowledge can also increase human, animal and environmental wellbeing. This is recognised in the National Strategy, which encourages the development and application of research and scientific knowledge associated with gene technology for the benefit and wellbeing of the community. In addition, sharing and reflecting on existing knowledge held by stakeholders outside of the scientific community, may also contribute to the wellbeing of humans and animals and the environment.

Reasoned argument and decision making

The application of reason recognises the importance of evidence and reasoned argument to resolve complex practical and theoretical questions, and conflicts between alternative views. Reasoned decision making stands in contrast to making choices based on unsubstantiated opinions or the narrow pursuit of self or commercial interest.

Trust

Trust in institutions, public officials and the professions are critical underpinnings of a democratic society. Public trust in, and accountability of, the corporations, institutions and scientists working in the development and use of gene technology is an important value for the success of these technologies. The value of public trust is implicit and recognised in the National Strategy, the regulatory framework established in the Act, and the corresponding state and territory legislation.

The Gene Technology Act 2000 acknowledges the value of public trust through the inclusion of procedures, particularly those to ensure transparency and consultation. Transparency and public participation are required at many stages in the regulatory system, such as, during consideration of licensing applications and assessments (section 52), inclusion on the GMO Register (section 81), the operation of the advisory committees (part 8) and the issue of policy principles or codes of practice (sections 22, 24). The workings of the office and licences issued by the Gene Technology Regulator are publicly available on the OGTR website.

Integrity

The value of integrity is related closely to the value of trust. The value of integrity recognises that individuals have an ethical responsibility for their own conduct to act rightly, avoid conflicts of interest and deal honestly and truthfully with others. The value of integrity applies also to the dealings of corporations. Commitment by individuals, scientists, corporations and institutions to behave with integrity helps to build public trust. In the area of human research, the National Statement of Ethical Conduct in Research Involving Humans states that research conducted with integrity is carried out by researchers who are committed to the search for knowledge and the honest and ethical conduct of research.

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