Beyond the visible horizon line of the United Nations Conferences during the 1990s, a group of internationally-based scientists, high-powered attorneys and government-associated ethicists bid in a high stakes game for access to the human person for research. Their mission, loftily described as the “ethics of life,” has been the scientific “transformation of human beings by human beings.” This not-so-new-game is conducted within the International Bioethics Committee (IBC) of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The action of the IBC has a three-fold focus: the provision of an international forum on genetic screening and testing, gene therapy, genetic counseling, population genetics, neurosciences, experimental treatment, genetically-modified food, and the promotion of education and information on bioethics for the public, professionals and decision makers.

It was no coincidence that Federico Mayor, director-general of UNESCO, noted the ambitions of enlightenment philosopher the Marquis de Condorcet: “Would it be absurd, at this stage, to suppose that the improvement of the human race must be considered as a process which knows no bounds…? No doubt human beings will never become immortal, but cannot the period between the moment when life begins and the time that comes for all, when, even without disease or accident, living becomes difficult, be stretched indefinitely?”

The underlying key questions: what is the nature of man? and when does human life begin?

Why bioethics at UNESCO? Mr. Mayor claims to have created the IBC in 1993 as a response to “major concerns raised by the progress made in the life and health sciences, in particular genetics and biotechnology.” Since UNESCO’s objectives include the “promotion of education, science and culture” and its constitution insists that peace “must be founded … upon the intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind,” Mr. Mayor holds that the ethical debate comes under UNESCO’s umbrella. Unfortunately, the means to achieve “intellectual moral solidarity” at the United Nations is through confrontational debate intended to drive participants toward “consensus.” The bargaining method frequently involves international loans or grants, given or withdrawn, political payoffs and off-the-record private agreements. There is pronounced risk in bargaining essential values related to human life in such an environment.

Academically, bioethics is a sub-field of ethics, not ethics per se. Bioethics is not “neutral.” It does “takes a stand” on right or wrong that is not limited to the medical context. It is an academic theory of ethics, produced in 1979 by a National Commission mandated by the U.S. Congress (1). In its final Belmont Report (1978), three ethical principles were identified to be used by government to evaluate research on human subjects: respect for persons (later evolved as absolute autonomy), justice, and beneficence. Eventually bioethics was reduced to a form of utilitarianism or relativism; the “good of society” was the moral principle, and the “good of the individual” was secondary. The Commission also defined “fetus” as “the product of conception from the time of implantation” rather than fertilization; and pregnancy as “the period of time from confirmation of implantation….” Personhood was defined in terms of “knowing, willing, self-consciousness, etc., or the feeling of pain or pleasure.” Such positions provided “a ‘theoretical’ support” for the use of early human embryos and fetuses “for the common good” or “for the advancement of science’ and was therefore considered “ethical”( Dr. Diane Irving, “Quid Est Bioethics?,” 1, 12-13, 16-17).

Dr. Hiroshi Nakajima, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), traced the “modest role” of WHO in the field of bioethics through the WHO 1996-2001 Programme of Work, and the Regional Program on Bioethics initiated in Santiago, Chile (1994) by the Pan American Health Organization. The Council for International Organizations of Medical Sciences (CIOMS), a WHO-related non-governmental organization, established in 1949, engaged in activities related to the Human Genome and other areas of bioethics. The 24th CIOMS Roundtable Conference in Tokyo in 1990 was devoted to: “Genetics, Ethics, Human Values: Human Genome Mapping, Genetic Screening and Gene Therapy.”