European Human Rights Law, Biomedicine, and Cloning

Keith Elis (
Tue, 31 Mar 1998 17:34:28 -0500

Hello all,

Last April, the Council of Europe drew up and opened for signatures, the
Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine.
[] So far, only one country
(Slovakia) has signed it.

In designing this Convention, the Council intended to build upon the
original European Convention on Human Rights with a stated intent to
'protect the dignity and identity of all human beings and guarantee
everyone, without discrimination, respect for their integrity and other
rights and fundamental freedoms with regard to the application of
biology and medicine.' [Article I, Conv. on Biomedicine]

Building upon this intent, in the wake of Richard Seed's announcement
that he would attempt the first human clone, the Council drew up a
Additional Protocol to the Convention on Biomedicine called the
Additional Protocol on the Prohibition of Cloning Human Beings
( So far, no countries have
signed it.

The Human Cloning Protocol's main intent is to make explicit that human
clones are prohibited by the Convention on Biomedicine. And for the most
part, the Convention on Biomedicine seems relatively common-sense
ethics-wise (e.g., no experimentation on humans without consent, no
discrimination based upon genetic heritage, etc.)

But buried, it seems, among the common-sense articles, in Chapter 4,
Article 13 we read, 'An intervention seeking to modify the human genome
may only be undertaken for preventive, diagnostic or therapeutic
purposes and only if its aim is not to introduce any modification in the
genome of any descendants.'

Notably absent in this list of allowable uses is modification of the
genome for *augmentative* purposes. It is technically prohibited
(barring some rhetorical gymnastics) to intervene in the human genome
such that a descendant human is *better* than his/her parent. While it
*is* feasible that an augmentative intervention may be designed such
that it falls into the allowable 'preventive, diagnostic, or therapeutic
purposes,' this becomes difficult given that the provision requires an
'aim' other than 'modification . . . of any descendants'.

Fortunately, this is not yet an international law in Europe. And it
doesn't seem that Member States are running to Strasbourg with their
pens in hand to sign it. However, it is extremely disheartening for me
to see that an institution whose goals I think are of the noblest
variety (rights and freedoms for all humans) is willing to deny those
same humans the untold benefits of genetic augmentation because of risks
that are as yet inchoate, and still hardly understood.

Furthermore, underscoring the prematurity of this treaty, Chapter 11,
Article 29 of the Biomedicine Convention takes an unprecedented step in
allowing the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to give 'advisory
opinions on legal questions concerning the interpretation' of the
Convention even in the absence of a ripened legal issue that implicates
its provisions.

I am curious to hear from our European friends concerning their
reactions to this, now that it has had time to season. Have there been
any rumblings in the European genetics community? Have any European
governments (members of the Council of Europe) offered position
statements on this? Why is there only one country which has signed the
Biomedicine Convention so far? Why hasn't anyone signed the Cloning
Protocol? Might these government-types be smarter than we give them
credit for?

Boat drinks,