Bioethics: a sensitive policy area
Science is making increasingly rapid advances, especially in the fields of biology and medicine. This applies particularly to "red biotechnology" – in other words, the use of biotech and genetic engineering techniques in medicine and biomedical research. It includes:
- genetically engineered drugs and vaccines,
- genetic testing to screen for diseases,
- genetic therapy to treat diseases,
- reproductive medicine, such as the use of prenatal genetic testing,
- cloning of animals and humans,
- stem cell research, in which the properties of stem cells are used to replace damaged nerve, brain or heart muscle cells, for example.
Debates about red biotechnology and associated biomedical fields rarely produce a clear "yes" or "no" about these issues. How much freedom of choice and autonomy and how much state regulation do we need in areas of biopolitics that are highly sensitive from an ethical perspective, such as embryonic stem cell research or reproductive medicine?
On the one hand, the real opportunities afforded by biomedical techniques to treat diseases or improve diagnostics must be utilised. On the other hand, ethical and social policy aspects must also be considered. Patients – understandably – expect science to find a cure for their suffering, while researchers rightly aspire to push back the boundaries of knowledge and make advances in medical science. However, these legitimate research interests must not conflict with others' vital interests or with fundamental values such as the protection of human dignity and human rights. Genetic testing, for example, can provide important information about diseases that an individual may develop in future, but it also harbours the risk of potential discrimination by employers or insurers. In clinical trials of new drugs or vaccines, the safety of participants must of course be guaranteed, but at the same time, the products must be brought to market as quickly as possible to enable a large number of people to benefit from the new drug or vaccine.
Bioethics: beyond embryo protection
In recent years, advances in red biotechnology have frequently raised fundamental ethical and legal issues with far-reaching implications, requiring legislators to provide a clear framework for policy action in this area. Examples are the debates about the regulation of embryonic stem cell research or genetic diagnostics. This has created many challenges for Parliament in the past, and there is no doubt that it will often be called upon, in future too, to develop viable rules, based on careful scrutiny of the issues and with due respect for the various ethical positions represented within society.
From a Green perspective, it is important to avoid a narrow focus on individual aspects. Economic factors such as new drugs as a future market, and issues relating to the protection of human life – such as the duty to protect human embryos – must not be ignored, but they are not the only decisive criteria.
Other ethical aspects must also be considered in the debate about red biotechnology, such as the risks associated with the commercialisation of human cells, tissues or organs, women's rights, patients' rights, social and international justice, and social conditions and the impacts of biomedical progress. The scientific community also has an obligation to address these issues and critically review its research projects from an ethical perspective. It is not helpful to research or individuals to raise unrealistic expectations of the benefits that may be afforded by new therapeutic techniques (such as embryonic stem cell research) or instrumentalise patients' hopes of finding a cure for their condition.