Otago Uni philosopher to lead global bioethics group

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 selection panel.

"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 hemisphere."

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, nanotechnology.

"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 said.

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.