Reimagining Human Rights for the Biotechnology Age


Matilda Ajibola, BA

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Reimagining Human Rights for the Biotechnology Age
Topic(s): AI Policy Research Ethics

In our rapidly advancing world, biotechnology stands at the forefront of scientific progress. From gene editing and personalized medicine to anti-aging treatment and beyond, these breakthroughs promise to revolutionize healthcare, agriculture, and environmental conservation. However, as we celebrate these achievements, it’s crucial not to lose sight of a fundamental question: Are people’s rights safeguarded in this biotechnological era? In the context of biotechnological advancements, we must critically assess whose human rights are prioritized and whose are overlooked. While debates around biotechnology often focus on safety issues and societal ethics, equal attention needs also to be given to the human rights ramifications of biotechnological progress. How do we balance scientific progress with ethical responsibility? What safeguards exist to prevent the erosion of our fundamental rights? Our focus should extend beyond mere innovation to consider the intrinsic dignity and liberties that define our humanity. Can we genuinely label an advancement as “groundbreaking” if it compromises the inherent dignity and liberties of individuals? This essay delves into the fundamental issue of prioritizing human rights within biotechnological innovation.

Power Imbalance and Human Rights 

Just as we have enshrined fundamental human rights after a long and challenging struggle against our baser impulses, we must now ensure the protection of inviolable human rights in this new age of biological mastery and technological advancement. Each technological advancement that inches us closer to an enhanced or artificial humanity demands we ask profound questions: What fundamental human rights must be fiercely safeguarded, even as we transcend our biological limitations? How do we uphold principles of equality and human worth when the very concept of humanity is challenged? Who determines and governs the human operating system if human biology becomes a manipulable code? Who bears the responsibility for the progress of biotechnology?

The unjust concentration of power has long perpetuated staggering inequities and inequalities across the human experience and enabled egregious human rights violations. What happens when biotechnological advancements further empower those who already wield considerable societal influence? The looming fear of genetic data being exploited as a form of biological economic warfare against vulnerable populations is a chilling one that we cannot dismiss. History’s bloodiest chapters provide ample evidence of how technological superiority can be perverted into instruments of genocide by those consumed with hatred, greed, and power. Equally disturbing is the prospect of life-saving advancements in biotechnology becoming prohibitively expensive, accessible only to a privileged few while the less fortunate endure unnecessary suffering. The disparities in accessing treatments for medical problems like cancer, genetic disorders, neurological disorders, etc. highlight the stark reality of unequal access to innovative therapies. These disparities challenge the notion of an equitable and altruistic distribution of transformative new treatments within the biotechnology landscape and suggest that such “groundbreaking gifts” of science are not for everyone.  

Moreover, as we increasingly integrate our biological data into powerful technological systems, we cannot ignore the monumental privacy implications. The theft and abuse of how such personal information could enable gross human rights violations of a magnitude we are arguably not prepared to address. Discussions around biotechnology need to progress beyond superficial talking points and abstract philosophical ponderings. We must engage in a more profound and practical dialogue that focuses on humanity, examining how each new biotechnological advancement may impact the sanctity of human bodily autonomy, dignity, equality, rights, and protections against discrimination and coercion. For human enhancement to truly embody a triumph of humanity, it cannot compromise our human rights and liberties. It would be imperative for us to swiftly develop robust frameworks that prioritize human rights as fundamental standards against which all technological ambitions must be evaluated and constrained.

Governance Gaps

The Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights prohibitions against financial exploitation (Article 4) of the human genome, and genetic discrimination (Article 6) seem inadequate enough. We have already borne witness to the commodification of genetic data and its nefarious use in restricting access to vital healthcare based on insidious prejudices around race, diversity, and fundamental characteristics of our shared ancestry. The Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights principles risk becoming mere platitudes devoid of enforceability. Some of the more glaring loopholes include the lack of accountability mechanisms, its non-binding nature, which enables nations to flagrantly disregard its tenets, and the absence of a framework to equitably distribute biotechnology’s benefits across socioeconomic strata. While some safeguards exist, such as the guidelines on ethical research involving human subjects provided by the Council for International Organizations of Medical Sciences, concerns persist that these protections may be inadequate in preventing the exploitation of individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. 

Additionally, they may fail to sufficiently address the risk of these individuals being disproportionately subjected to experimental therapies or exploitation of their genetic resources. The history of unethical medical experiments, exemplified by the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, the case of Henrietta Lacks, and the issue of biobanks collecting samples without clear consent or benefit-sharing agreements, underscores the exploitation of vulnerable populations, particularly those from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, for scientific research. Furthermore, the problem of clinical trials often lack diverse representation and participation from disadvantaged backgrounds continues to lead to unequal access to advanced therapies, amongst other concerns. By implementing robust regulatory frameworks and ensuring equitable access to healthcare and research opportunities, we can mitigate the risk of exploitation and protect the rights of individuals from all socioeconomic backgrounds.


Despite our impressive scientific advancements, we risk causing serious harm if we push forward with new biotechnologies without first considering what it means to uphold human rights and human dignity. This is not just an abstract philosophical debate but a critical challenge that goes to the core of what basic rights and protections we are entitled to as human beings. If we pursue biotechnological progress while abandoning core human values and principles, we will end up on a path that disregards our humanity and its ethical foundations. Innovating new technological trails is admirable, but not if it comes at the expense of disregarding the ideals that elevate and define our human experience. Ultimately, as the biotechnology revolution advances, it must be guided by empowering disadvantaged populations, protecting the most vulnerable, and promoting equal access and opportunity. Anything less would be an ethical failure that sacrifices fundamental human values for the sake of technological supremacy alone. As we harness the ability to reshape biology itself, we have an obligation to uphold the universal principles of human dignity, equality under the law, and basic human rights protections. Progress toward an enhanced future cannot come at the expense of our moral and ethical foundations as a society. Preserving human rights must be a core driving principle and constraint for biotechnology’s development, preventing a dystopian path where technological capabilities outpace ethical accountability. Prioritizing human rights must be the guiding principle and ethical core of biotechnology.

Matilda Ajibola,BA is a current Master’s student at the Department of Philosophy, American University, Washington, D.C.

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