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close this bookThe Impact of Technology on Human Rights: Global Case-studies (UNU, 1993, 322 pages)
close this folder6. Western European case-study: The impact of advanced methods of medical treatment on human rights
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentArtificial methods of procreation
View the documentMedical genetics
View the documentCompulsory and mandatory medical examinations
View the documentConclusions
View the documentAcronyms
View the documentNotes


We have discussed the relationship between advanced methods of medical treatment and human rights with respect to three particular fields: medical examinations, artificial procreation, and medical genetics. There exist, of course, a number of further topics, such as organ transplantation and similar methods of advanced medical treatment, which have a direct impact on human rights. All of them reveal, however, certain common characteristics which can be summarized as follows:

1. As in other fields of modern technology (industry, agriculture, electronics, etc.) new developments cause a number of serious dangers to human rights. Above all, the individual's right to privacy is infringed upon if, for example, states introduce arbitrary compulsory medical examinations for the prevention of contagious diseases such as AIDS, if private employers or insurance companies make their jobs or services subject to mandatory medical tests and pass medical information on to other institutions, if semen, egg, and embryo banks do not disclose the identity of their donors, or if human embryos created by in vitro fertilization are subjected to experiments against the will of their parents. the right to physical integrity and human dignity might be violated by certain methods of compulsory medical examination and genetic engineering. Economic, social, and cultural rights such as the right to work, housing, and social security are frequently restricted as a direct result of modern screening techniques. Since these methods are not infrequently applied in a discriminatory manner, the right to equality is also at stake. Finally, methods of gene therapy and manipulation have irreversible effects and interfere with the human rights of future generations. States have, therefore, an obligation under international law to respect these human rights and to protect them against any undue interference.

2. More than in other technological fields, however, the advanced methods of medical treatment also have also a very positive impact on human rights. As a general rule, medical research, experimentation, and treatment are directed at improving health services and are, therefore, a necessary requirement for ensuring the individual's right to health care. A satisfactory health status is an essential element of the human right to an adequate standard of living and contributes to the enjoyment of the most fundamental human right, the right to life. All methods of artificial procreation aim at improving the right of men and women to found a family. Consequently, these and other human rights such as freedom of research oblige states in principle to respect and to encourage the further development of medical research and treatment.

3. In order to comply in an appropriate manner with these diverse international obligations and to solve the rapidly increasing problems caused by new technological developments in the fields of medicine, biology, and genetics, we observe that there is an urgent need for parliaments, governments, and international organizations to take adequate legislative and other measures. One of the first questions to deal with concerns the meaning of the non-discrimination principle, notably on the grounds of health status, and its applicability both in horizontal and vertical relations. These and other decisions by democratically elected political bodies should be the result of carefully balancing all human rights involved.

4. A careful legal analysis of the existing international human rights law shows, however, that these human rights standards only in exceptional cases provide clear and legally binding obligations for states either to refrain from certain actions or to take particular positive measures with the purpose of preventing private individuals and entities from acting in contravention of human rights.

5. In most cases international human rights must, therefore, be considered as guidelines rather than as binding obligations. There might, however, be a need to draw up new and more specific human rights, for instance a catalogue of patients' rights and rights of future generations, including binding obligations of states to regulate horizontal relations between private individuals and entities in the spirit of human rights.