Of science and human rights (editorial)

Ensuring employees are treated equitably, and human rights legislation is adhered to, can be a complicated domain for HR professionals. It’s a duty science is about to make a lot more difficult.

Science has never felt the need to ask permission to boldly go where no one has before. But that’s slowly starting to change as governments wake-up to the need to regulate experiments with humanity such as cloning. And in this category falls the practice of transplanting animal organs and tissue into humans — known as xenotransplantation.

The Canadian Public Health Association, commissioned by Health Canada, is holding six forums across the country to discuss xenotransplantation. At the Toronto stop, the rights of those who receive such transplants was a hot topic. Specifically should they face restrictions to ensure dangerous new diseases are not unleashed? Could putting a pig’s liver in a human inadvertently create a plague to rival AIDS or medieval epidemics? (Of course there are ethical and religious issues here which must also be dealt with, but lets stick with the threat to the human gene pool.)

What if, like mad-cow disease, Chernobyl and killer bees, science hasn’t exactly got it all figured out. If NASA can’t be trusted to put the right lens in the Hubbel telescope after spending billions of dollars and shooting it into space, how can one feel safe about science tampering with humanity?

Xenotransplantation forum attendees were given some possible scenarios. Stringent life-long controls needed to protect the public might include: restricting animal-transplant recipients from travelling outside their region, prohibiting them from having children to prevent DNA transmission, requiring safe sex and the reporting of partners to authorities, and mandatory quarantines should an epidemic occur. These are weighty human rights issues.

HR professionals may soon find themselves drafting policies to manage the participation of animal-part transplant patients in the workforce. For starters, will there be restrictions on the type of work these people do? Will they be barred from food services or agriculture? Professions in the health-care sector?

Would restrictions on travel be grounds for denying certain promotions? Could co-workers refuse to work alongside a transplant recipient? This could be the beginning of human rights code considerations that rival any equity issue employment law has yet to deal with. Science is bringing us to an age where human rights may be redefined — society, and by extension government, must join the debate.

For people in need of transplants, there are other avenues to pursue that do not put public health at risk. Improved human organ donor retrieval rates, preventing and curing diseases, and improving human transplant techniques will all lessen the need for dangerous experimentation with xenotransplantation. And on a very practical level, government and employers could make a simple change to assist organ donations from living people. Someone giving a kidney or portion of a liver requires months to fully recuperate. This time off should be enshrined in corporate and Employment Insurance policies today.

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