Last year, the Stem Cell Foundation launched the Stem Cell Charter, a one-page document that sets out five principles — responsible science, protection of citizens, intellectual freedom, transparency and integrity — directed at advancing stem cell science for the benefit of all humanity. But what does that really mean? How and why were those five principles chosen? And what does the Charter have to say that applies to all of us?
First of all, the Charter has taken a unique approach when compared to other stem cell-related policy documents: it reminds us that science, health and human rights are and should always be interconnected. Violations or lack of attention to human rights can have serious health consequences for us all and can impact the way health policies and programs (such as funding for scientific research or policies regulating scientific research and clinical applications) are created.
The Charter reminds us that we all have a “right to health” by stating that: “enjoyment of the highest attainable state of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without discrimination of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition” (WHO, Constitution, 1946).
Most people think that the right to health means access to health care or even just being “healthy,” but it goes far beyond that. This right includes freedoms (e.g. the right to be free from non-consensual treatments) and entitlements (e.g. the rights to enjoy the benefit of scientific advances like access to prevention, treatment and control of diseases). It is also universal; it is for all of us to enjoy without discrimination based on race, gender, religion, political beliefs or socioeconomic status.
Governments have an obligation to protect, promote and fulfill human rights. To realize the right to health, different steps are needed. The first is supporting and regulating scientific research. In the same way, the scientific community also has a role to play in advancing this right: they have an obligation to promote responsible research and deliver safe and effective therapies for the benefit of all humankind.
So why is important to talk about the right to health in the context of stem cell science?
All of humankind has a vested interest in stem cell science because this field has the potential to treat a wide range of debilitating conditions and is progressing rapidly. With the hope that is generated by this progress, there is also concern regarding questionable practices. It is vital to address these concerns because of the connection between science, health and human rights. We all have the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications the same way we have the right for scientific advances to be realized with full respect to our human rights and dignity.
The principles and intent of the Stem Cell Charter draw from previous instruments for the protection of human rights, and the principles laid out in the Stem Cell Charter promote the right to health in the context of stem cell research. Over the next month, we’ll take a closer look at these principles and how they apply to real-world issues and our day-to-day lives. Five principles, five posts — we hope you’ll follow along.
Rosario Isasi is a Research Associate at the Centre of Genomics and Policy at McGill University. Her hobbies include bioethics, bioethics and bioethics. (And stem cells and policy.)