The 21st century will be called the century of life science. In fact, an enormous amount of money has already been reinvested for research in this field on a global scale. A representative example is the human genome project, which is closing in on the complete deciphering of human DNA. In addition, there was a technological breakthrough toward the end of the 1990s in the field of embryological engineering such as cloning of mammals. There is a sign that the fruit of these studies will spread to the sphere of basic research and medicine.
Much has been said about future applications: diagnosis of detailed hereditary characteristics of individuals, development of tailor-made medicine based on such diagnosis, production of new drugs that utilize the functions of various genes.
Because it has become possible to extract from humans embryonic stem cells that develop into any kind of tissue, there has emerged the possibility of obtaining any type of desired cell through culturing. Cell injection treatment for Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease is now being talked about.
The 20th century was certainly an age of physical science, one in which humankind incessantly analyzed and utilized the nature that surrounds them. As a result, the quality of our lives has rapidly improved. But at the same time, large-scale environmental disruption has ensued. We have to admit that the way humankind approached its “outer nature” — the environment — has brought both merits and demerits that offset each other. As we enter into the 21st century, we have started to regard the “internal nature” — represented by the genome, the internal structure of cells and the central nervous system, or, in other words, our bodies — as a frontier and are trying to analyze it using state-of-the-art technology. Commercialization of the fruits of this endeavor is coming into view.
But this situation is causing vague sense of uneasiness among the general public. One reason for this is the widening of the perception gap between the general public and researchers. The image of the human genome obtained through a fast-speed DNA deciphering device is something like a vast ocean of hereditary information. For the researcher, the analogy that DNA is a blueprint of life is losing reality. Although scientists say they won’t step into God’s territory, the general public, which has been taught that DNA is something special, has come to have a different feeling from researchers concerning the question of what is the sacred territory. There is also another reason for the uneasiness. The general public feels uncomfortable because they have come to realize that traditional criticism comparing current research to what was done under Nazism or reminding people of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” is losing its effectiveness.
The biggest question we face concerns bioethics. What meaning does the human genome or fertilized human eggs have? In what way and to what extent are we allowed to utilize them? We have not yet obtained a system of logic to answer these ethical questions. Research in the field of bioethics has been overwhelmingly conducted in Europe and America. Western philosophical research has been based on a view that assumes the existence of an independent value system apart from the human genome or fertilized human eggs or a binary opposition between fact and value. To what extent the fruit of Western philosophical research has persuasive power is an important question for bioethics in the 21st century.
Among the three poles of Europe, America and Japan in the group of the developed countries, only Japan has a non-Christian cultural background. Japan should be in a position to be able to make a contribution in the field of bioethical research.
But the Japanese academia has a grave defect. Since the Meiji period, it has had a strong tendency to search for new knowledge beyond Japan’s borders, to the exclusion of domestic knowledge. Bioethics researchers in Japan are just importing the results of research done in the U.S.
An even more basic problem is the fact that the self-governing ability of the community of scientific researchers in Japan is extremely low. Because many bioethical questions concern medicine, the medical profession should be coping with them by autonomously writing and strictly observing guidelines. But strangely enough, Japan’s medical profession does not have an organization in which membership and participation are compulsory. The Japan Medical Association is only an incorporated body with voluntary membership and participation. Japan’s Medical Practitioners Law does not include any provision for the JMA. This is an unusual situation resulting from the policy of the occupation forces after World War II. The true reason for the lack of the provision in the law is a mystery.
Due to the lack of an organization of medical professionals with compulsory membership and participation, transplants utilizing organs taken from brain-dead patients cannot be carried out in Japan as autonomous activities of experts. Organ transplants have become possible only through the enactment of a law, whose passage by the Diet was prompted by calls from the Japan Society for Transplantation and various organizations of patients. Although the law to prohibit human cloning was enacted toward the end of 2000, it has become clear that the self-governing ability of the Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology to control artificial fertilization or the use of fertilized human eggs for experiments is very low. Under this situation, a voice is rising, calling for direct control of fertility technology by law.
It is said that Japanese people’s distrust of the medical profession is very strong. This ubiquitous distrust is a phenomenon corresponding to Japan’s lack of an organization in the medical profession with compulsory membership and participation and lack of a system to ensure strict observance of professional ethics. An ultimate solution of bioethical problems would be obtained through a revision of the Medical Practitioners Law. But because no organizations seem to be ready to push for such a revision, a realistic way would be to restore self-governing ability to various organizations of medical experts by combining various frameworks of individual regulatory measures for biomedical technology.
We cannot help entering into an age of life science while still suffering from institutional defects. Thus, we are in a very difficult situation. If we look for a similar scenario in past history, it would be Japan toward the end of the Edo period. At that time, anatomical dissection of human bodies was prohibited. When Western medicine was introduced toward the end of the period, we suddenly came to know our “internal nature.” Afterward, the nature of Japan’s medicine greatly changed from Chinese medicine to modern Western medicine. But this did not mean a total collapse of the traditional view of humankind. It would be correct to say that today, we are entering into an age of new anatomy. From now on, spectacles of the “internal nature” would spread out in new dimensions one after another. If we are to control and regulate the knowledge of the “internal nature” and its technical applications in a way appropriate to human nature, we must figure out what feelings humankind commonly holds concerning the issue and verbally describe these feelings. For, the basis for ethics is commonly held sentiments.
We have already encountered part of the prevailing issue in the form of the controversy over genetically modified food. GM food has been accepted in the U.S. But at the stage of its importation to Europe in 1998, it was suddenly given the cold shoulder. As soon as GM food came into Europeans’ view, subconscious feelings commonly held by them burst forth. It is extremely difficult to detect such sentiment embedded in the subconsciousness simply by polling people.
It is rare to encounter in history such a situation as we face today. For the time being, we have no alternative but to accept that development of science and technology is inevitable. Rather than shrinking back, we should take it as a challenging issue affecting our civilization and start building a new system of values that governs our approach to the “internal nature” by mobilizing our whole intellect and wisdom. UNESCO’s Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights can be taken as a good example of the beginning of the new effort to establish common values of humankind. One of the ways to help promote such an effort is to carry out comparative anthropological studies centering on the issue of the use of state-of-the-art technologies. Anthropological studies of society in developed countries may sound strange. But academic efforts to discern and clarify common feelings held in subconsciousness are nothing other than anthropology.
At the same time, the time has come to conceive and establish politics that aim to control the use of the “internal nature.” If we fail in this attempt, devastation of the “internal nature” accompanied by antihuman effects may ensue, which would be qualitatively different from devastation of the “outer nature” caused by humankind in the 20th century. In order to cope with the situation, we ought to create a system that will socially control the technological use of the “internal nature.” In doing so, freedom in research, which has so far been regarded as a supreme principle, would have to be restricted.
In proceeding in this direction, we face another difficult problem. So far, most research in life science has been conducted in developed countries. But such work will also be carried out on a large scale in developing countries. This is a fact that must be accepted. But sooner or later, we will inevitably face the reality of a double standard that crosses over developed and developing countries. For example, the early forms of embryonic stem cells are currently made from fertilized eggs that have been left over from the process of sterility treatment. To put it in a reverse way, research on embryonic stem cells is narrowly justified by the understanding that fertilized human eggs will not be let to grow along their natural course. But if we look at the reality in developing countries, unfortunately, it would be easy to find women there who will readily sell their ripened eggs in exchange for a small amount of money.
As to biological resources, the term “bio-piracy” has started to appear. This term represents criticism from the South directed at the developed countries for using tropical rain forests and other resources for biotechnology-related research, investing enormous amounts of money and trying to monopolize the patents for the technologies, while selling only the end products to developing countries, yet forcing them to protect such forests and other resources under the name of maintaining biodiversity. But unfortunately, for the time being, we have to live with the reality of the world in which the double standard has the upper hand.
At this turning point in a dimension affecting all of civilization, what is most needed is a clearly spelled out agenda. With this, the general public will be freed from the vague uneasiness they feel and will be able to start rationally selecting policies based on a common perception of issues in question. To make this possible, everyone must have access to reports that comprehensibly study, from the viewpoint of all of society, the merits and demerits of individual scientific technologies, aspects of them that need adjustment in relation to social values and possible policies to solve value-related issues. The best model to be adopted is the activities of the U.S. Office of Technological Assessment, which existed through 1995. Japanese society urgently needs to create a think tank that will act on behalf of all citizens and concentrate on studying the problems posed by science and technology.
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