Norway to the future
Wednesday, June 16, 2004
Mullah Høybråten does it again
Norway's minister of health once again demonstrates how to abuse political power to enforce your own intolerant points of view. After having kicked 40% of Norwegians out on the street from bars and restaurants (I am personally looking forward to see the number of pneumonias and lost productivity when the stormy weather arrives in October), he has now copied Bush' way of handling progress in the biotech research field. Daginn Høybråten, member of a christian missionary sect, has replaced his strongest critics on the Norwegian Biotech Advisory Board, a supposedly impartial board of scientists and stakeholders regarded as a number one authority in biotech legislation and debate.

Høybråten has replaced two of his strongest critics on the board, and appointed his Christian Democratic party colleague Torleiv Ole Rognum as vice president. The tabloid Dagbladet comments that this is the first time two men have held the top positions on the board. Jan Erik Solbakk, one of the critics who was thrown out, characterizes the change as an exact copy of Bush' manipulation of the Council on Bioethics. Høybråten now has to explain himself to the parliament on his behaviour in the case.

Norway has a tradition for adhering to strict principles when it comes to ethical grey areas. Our biotech law states that

Formålet med denne loven er å sikre at medisinsk bruk av bioteknologi utnyttes til beste for mennesker i et samfunn der det er plass til alle. Dette skal skje i samsvar med prinsipper om respekt for menneskeverd, menneskelige rettigheter og personlig integritet og uten diskriminering på grunnlag av arveanlegg basert på de etiske normer nedfelt i vår vestlige kulturarv.

which translates into

The purpose of this law is to ensure that clinical use of biotechnology is utilized to the best for humans in a society where there is room for everyone. This shall happen in coordination with principles of respect for human value, human rights and personal integrity and wihtout discrimination based on genetical heritage on the grounds of the ethical norms of our western cultural heritage

Which is a statement that opens for several interpretations. It is easy to agree on statements such as "best", "room for everyone", "respect for human value", but the connotation may vary quite significantly from person to person. Therefore, it is imperative that an advisory board on the ethics of biotech has integrity. This integrity can only be acheived if the board represents the different views on the issues at hand.

The law is one of the most restrictive in the world. It does not allow anonymous sperm donation, the option to choose your donor, nor the option of using the sperm from a newly deceased partner. Fertilized eggs have to be destoryed after five years. There is a total ban on research on fertilized eggs and stem cells, as well as therapeutic cloning to produce healthy cells for genetically caused diseases. Diagnosing fetuses for malignant genes is for some reason only allowed when the mother is over 38 years old. Biological material collected for research has to be destroyed after the research has been completed (there are some exceptions to this rule). The law has been criticized by many, the National Research Ethics Committee have in an official statement called the law "inconsistent in the choice of norms used".

Norway's biggest newspaper writes that "it is not unnatural to ask why not the law has opened for 'foreign cultural' ethical and cultural ideals". OK, it may be a valid point, but the ideals of western society regarding personal freedom, the right to choose your own destiny and a free society with equal rights for everyone is one of the more useful thoughts created by our culture. Going to lengths to accomodate dark age points of view should of course not be encouraged. I am more shocked (but not really surprised) to see that the board is made up of only genetically Norwegian members. Not very representative, considering that we have significant ethnical minorities living here.

Lack of integrity and inconsistency is leading Norway into an awkward (and in the long term dangerous) ethical position. No matter how hard we try to keep our own hands clean, we are part of a larger setting, and biotech is a global issue. When -- not if -- treatments to diseases based on research on aborted fetuses or cloned cells are developed, then what do we do? Do we refuse our own citizen's the right to these treatments? Result: massive flow of people going to Sweden to get the treatments. Only the ones who can afford it, of course. Do we reserve the right to not take part in the research, but use our oil money to buy the treatments for our citizens? The allegory of the hen, the grain and the baked bread becomes rather tame in comparison.

We have a law about abortions in this country. It states that, until the twelfth week of pregnancy, an abortion can be performed if the mother is willing. Please stop me if my logic is skewed here, but if we allow abortions on fetuses, and do not allow murder, then fetuses under twelve weeks old are not considered living beings. The definition of life is an awkward one, but if we use this as a proxy, then a lump of cells is not life per se. This law is consistent with international practices on abortion, and can be considered ethically acceptable according to western cultural ideals. Placing a price on a life is impossible (even though insurance companies do it all the time). If we can justify abortion, then how can we disallow using cloned cells to save lives? If a fetus has been aborted, and this has not been considered murder, what is then wrong in using the remains to save a life?

As a transhumanist, I reserve my right to use applied technology to overcome the limitations of the human condition. I own myself, and I have a copyright (now that word will get a new meaning) on what defines me as me, namely my DNA. I should be able to decide what to do with it, until it is no longer mine, which usually is through reproduction. If cloning some cells from my body, even starting the process of life formation, I believe I should be allowed to do that, not only for therapeutic reasons, but also for augmenting my biological functions. This is of course still far fetched, but discussing the ethics is a useful thought experiment, as the rate of scientific and technological progress is increasing exponentially. The purpose of the biotech law, "to the best for humans in a society where there is room for everyone ... in coordination with principles of respect for human value, human rights and personal integrity ..." are from my ethical point of view consistent with the right to modify ones body with the help of technology. Giving those who want it a chance to live better than well will create better humans, who in turn are able to function for to the best for humans in society, keeping room for everyone in coordination with respect for human values.

Firstly, Høybråten needs to be chastised for abusing his power. Secondly, in the future, transhumanist viewpoints must be allowed on the Biotech Advisory Board.

Phew, some steam off there. And right now, my Winamp started playing Bowie's I Demand a Better Future.

Oh, and the link in the title here is a part of a googelwhack.

Old commenting service: |
Go Dag, Go Dag!

You have to ask yourself why they were there. The previous social-democratic government put them there for the sole reason they are social democrats. Placing friends and soulmates in this kind of positions is part of the political system in both Norway and in the US. And in Norway, DNA (soc.dem.) have the worst reputation...
True, positions of this kind (advisory boards, ambassadeurs, supreme court justices in the US) are often given to people you trust and meet regularly. It is one of the fallabilities of the democratic system we probably have to live with...

As to who placed the people who placed these people in the parliament in the first place, I guess we have to blame ourselves. We get exactly what we deserve, and that does every other citizen of a democracy as well. I do not really take sides in party politics, as none of the parties have a policy I can feel comfortable with on all points (I do of course still vote, that is one thing that should be mandatory in a democracy; vote or lose your rights as a citizen, or at least get fined. Vote blank if you cannot find a party you support, this would give a better -- perfect, in fact -- picture of the sentiments), but at least in the biotech issue, I have to give DNA some cred. Although I believe they sold out to SV later on due to some cooperativity issues...
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