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Posted on 3 Feb 2008 2:22 pm
SPEAKING WORDS OF WISDOM
AT THE HOUSE OF LORDS
By Gianfranco Amato
"The noble Lord said that science could change ethics. No, my Lords, science cannot change ethics. Ethics are ethics, morals are morals. What is right is right, what is wrong is wrong, and science cannot change that. If that were so, we would be living in a morass, in a world of moral relativism".
These are the wise words spoken with a remarkable depth of feeling by Lord Norman Tebbit of Chingford during an impassioned debate that recently took place at the House of Lords on the question of creating animal-human hybrids for the purpose of scientific research. It would behove us to heed his cautionary words.
In fact, Lord Tebbit's sentiment on the matter is echoed by certain fundamental concepts that have been outlined in various international documents. Notably, Art. 2 (Primacy of the Human Being) of the Oviedo Convention, as per the Council of Europe on April 4, 1997, "the interests and welfare of a human being shall prevail over the sole interest of society or science". The General Conference of UNESCO has adopted an identical provision in the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights on October 19, 2005. Furthermore, on March 23, 2005, the General Assembly of the United Nations resolution 59/280 emphasized that "the promotion of scientific and technical progress in life sciences should be sought in a manner that safeguards respect for human rights and the benefit of all".
For those who hesitate to recognize these ethical limits and who believe in so-called "neutral" science, it is befitting to recall the insightful words of Sir Christopher Weeramantry, former Judge and Vice President of the International Court of Justice, who so poignantly reminds us that "the same rules of engineering that will construct a church will construct a torture chamber". Can a scientist turn a blind eye to what purposes his expertise serve? Are there no boundaries to what is acceptable in scientific enquiry and experimentation?
The recent commemoration of the Holocaust serves as a painful reminder that the concerns about using data compiled from experiments on humans in the name of "scientific research" is not just an abstract question, in view of the fact that they were obtained from victims of torture and murder under the Nazi regime. Following, there are some chilling examples that will demonstrate that the use of such tainted data should be considered as highly objectionable.
Doctor Robert Pozos, Director of the Hypothermia Laboratory at the University of Minnesota of Medicine in Duluth, has devoted his research to methods of treatment of victims of extremely cold temperatures. In his quest to find remedies for hypothermia, he has never compromised his research by subjecting his volunteers to temperatures below 36 degrees. Dr. Pozos had to therefore speculate what the effects would be on a human being at much lower temperatures. In stark contrast, the Nazis at Dachau did not observe any such humane considerations, and did not stop at anything in their hypothermia research methods. The Nazis immersed their subjects into vats of ice water at sub-zero temperatures, or left them out to freeze in the winter cold. As the prisoners excreted mucus, fainted and slipped into unconsciousness, the Nazis meticulously recorded the changes in their body temperature, heart rate, muscle response and urine. When Dr. Pozos learned of the Nazi scientific data, he commented: "It could advance my work in that it takes human subjects further than we are willing to".
Dr. John Hayward, a Biology Professor at the Victoria University in Vancouver, Canada, did not recoil from actually using the results of the aberrant experiments that the Nazis performed in Dachau for his own hypothermia research. When questioned, Hayward offers a troubling justification: "I dont want to have to use the Nazi data, but there are no other, and in an ethical world there will be no other available. Ive rationalized it a bit. But not to use it would be equally bad. Im trying to make something constructive out of it. I use it with my guard up, but its useful". This reaction exemplifies a disturbingly detached mentality that can be found in the scientific community.
The Environmental Protection Agency used Nazi research data on "phosgene", a toxic gas used in the manufacture of pesticides, plastic and in chemical warfare during the Iran-Iraq war, in 1989 in order to study its effect, because the Nazi experiments conducted on human beings rather than animals provided comparatively more useful data. Fearful of a phosgene gas attack by the Allies in Africa, Heinrich Himmler ordered Dr. Bickenbach to experiment on humans in an effort to develop means of protecting the Germans against phosgene poisoning. These cases in point, among many others, make it quite clear that "ethics are ethics, morals are morals, what is right is right, what is wrong is wrong, and science cannot change that".
Is it really morally acceptable to allow the use of tainted Nazi experimentation data in the service of scientific development?
Can we in good conscience stand by and watch researchers use the results of experiments conducted in the horrific circumstances of the Nazi death camps under Dr. Mengele's, known as the "Angel of Death", supervision just for the sake of the advancement of science in the name of progress of mankind?
The answer to this impelling question is predicated on the degree of ones capacity to be humane. This lies at the heart of Lord Tebbit's alarm.
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