An Otago University philosopher has been appointed to head a
world-leading bioethics organisation.
Professor Donald Evans was elected president of the
International Bioethics Committee (IBC) of the United Nations
Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) at
a meeting of the group in Mexico last month. The IBC follows
developments in the life sciences sector to ensure respect
for human dignity and freedom.
The committee is made up of 36 international experts,
recruiting them equally from the worlds of science, research,
health, law and government. Committee members include
field-leading scientists, former ambassadors and ministers, a
judge from the International Court at the Hague, an
Australian High Court Justice and a member of the Nobel Prize
"They are pretty distinguished, very experienced people. To
be asked to be president of that committee is daunting, and a
huge privilege. I'm very privileged," said Prof Evans who
will hold the position for three years.
"It's a particular honour to be asked, as a philosopher, to
chair this. It's not usually the case, I must say. Also, it's
the first time the Southern Hemisphere has had the chair.
It's nice to get a notch in the gun for the Southern
The committee, and the world, faced two major issues in the
coming years, he said.
Firstly, the recurring, increasingly-pressing issue of
delivering adequate health care to everyone, equally.
"The more we can do in medicine, the more demands are going
to be made upon medicine. Far from decreasing cost, the very
success of that medical intervention increases demand for it.
The gap will only grow wider," he said. The other was the
emerging new technologies -- including cloning, stem cells,
"For instance, [Nano-tech] is with us already, but is not
controlled very well at all -- and the risks that are
involved have not been taken into account, Prof Evans said.
"We do keep our eye on the ball, and we do fix our own
agenda. The director general of Unesco can also commission us
to carry out certain pieces of work," he said.
One major advance, carried out two years ago, was an inquiry
into cloning that led to a moratorium on human cloning.
"These do not have the status of a treaty, but rather the
status of a United Nations declaration. But that has a huge
moral force. It is a moral cosh people can be beaten with if
they abuse human rights. It's a shaming game, really," he
The most recent declaration the IBC had made was universal
declaration on bioethics and human rights.
"It was the first time bioethics was linked to human rights.
That was adopted by the (UN) General Assembly, by acclaim,
three years ago."
From there, the group had been working on reports into issues
concerning social responsibility, consent and personal
integrity, from its position at the junction of science,
health, law and ethics.
"We have to be vigilant all the time," Prof Evans said.