The UNESCO Declaration as a tool to bring together the Biology and the Law departments at the University of Cergy-Pontoise

- F. Hardy*, C. Bourdon# and G. Kutukdjian#
* (to whom correspondence should be addressed.)
University of Cergy-Pontoise
departement de Biologie, E.R.M.E.C.E.
U.F.R. Sciences et Techniques - site de St Martin
2, rue Adolphe Chauvin, BP 222 Pontoise
95 302 Cergy-Pontoise Cedex, FRANCE
#University Jean Moulin LYON III
#UNESCO (Paris)

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 10 (2000), 154-157.

The University of Cergy-Pontoise (France) was created very recently (1991). Bioethics was not planned to be a discipline to be taught. However, in 1997, students of a biotechnology course (4th year) implicitly requested some kind of bioethics teaching when the cloning of Dolly was reported. Students attended one lecture, and were very impressed by the universality of bioethics; "Everybody/tout le monde is concerned". This community of young people is multiethnic (originating from Europe, Asia and Africa essentially).

So, last year, we offered the biology students to work and discuss together with law students around an international document: The UNESCO Declaration. This small meeting was organized in three steps (1) a discussion session with a biologist and a law specialist as teachers, (2) use of web sites, (3) the lecture given by an anthropologist. Here, we report the lessons from this small experience and the desire we have to pursue a project designed by students.

Note: The figures are not on-line

This paper reports an initial experience in bioethics education conducted at University of Cergy-Pontoise (France) and the observations we drew out of it. To do so, the location unit, the time unit as well as the persons involved in the project will be considered. The development of what happened will simply be described. This personal experience does not pretend to be generalizable, but hopefully may be useful.


The University of Cergy-Pontoise (U.C.P.) was created in 1991. It is located in the suburbs of Paris and belongs to an Urban planning project. In particular, there is no campus; the university is split into 3 major sites and Human and Technical Sciences buildings are separated. In this context, the role of the University and its links with the environment are often questioned. The area is multiethnic and the student community covers essentially young people from all over Europe, Africa and Asia. As a new university, the goal is also to try to meet European standards quickly and we belong to the SOCRATES program. For the biology department, at the moment, our partners include Napoli (Italy), Mons (Belgium), Murcia (Spain) and Berlin (Germany) (Figure 1). In September 1995, a biotechnology course was implemented (4th year of university).

2. WHEN?

Origin Within the biotechnology course, right after the publication of the cloning of Dolly, in 1997, the biotechnology students requested bioethics teaching. The range of questions was extremely wide, ranging from technical to human sciences, and sometimes related to their cultural origins. Also, some of them, all of a sudden, realized that they were carrying certain knowledge they had, somehow, to be responsible for. The knowledge they had gained was no longer abstract, and deserved a perspective. I felt totally overwhelmed by this request, but I was indeed unable to refuse what I felt was more than a legitimate request. That is how bioethics stemmed as a course at the University of Cergy-Pontoise.


Luckily, the proximity of UNESCO, and the positive answer to the request F.H. had sent to the Director of the UNESCO Unit of Ethics of Science and Technology, G.K., allowed, in the absence of F.H., the biotechnology students to have a 3 hours lecture, as they had desired. After the course, there was a consensus among them, that it was an absolute necessity to have bioethics teaching within a Biology curriculum. That's why the second year (1998), all Biology students were invited to G.K.'s lecture. This time the theme was: "Tout le monde est concern/ Everybody is concerned". (In French "Everybody" translates to "the whole world"). I interpreted it as a requirement for a course at an international level. Moreover, FH noticed that G.K.'s lecture had such an impact that students were coming to FH with critical new questions the day after the lecture! Therefore, in 1999, we decided to organize a pre-discussion session for the students with a document they could actually study in advance to prepare for the lecture of G.K. The student's concern about the universality of the problem, pushed us to use as a document, the UNESCO Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights.

Because of the nature of the document, the spontaneous idea was to take advantage of this course to develop a small transdisciplinary session within the University. In France, the bioethics laws were planned to be reviewed in 1999; so it fitted well the concerns of some French Law students. The convergence of the Biology and Law departments towards bioethics appeared as an opportunity for people who are actually separated (physically at Cergy, and by their areas of studies) to meet and work together.

3. WHO?

It was agreed to associate Biology and Law students both for the discussion and the lecture. F.H. has a specialty of biochemistry and Mademoiselle C.B. is a PhD law student whose area of investigation is Civil Law and whose research topic, in bioethics, involves a comparison between two countries. C.B. observes the same problem in two countries, and needs skill to switch quickly from one view point to another, simply by a change of context. This responds to the justified student request to explore things at an international level. Also, being a Ph.D. student from another University and thanks to her freshness it allowed us to go beyond what sometimes people feel are inherent internal bottlenecks. In conclusion, as shown in figure 2, the team of teachers went from 1 to 3, including 3 persons with 3 disciplines, 3 generations (Director, Ma_tre de Conf_rences, Ph.D. student) and from 3 different institutional origins. This small bioethics project was offered to only two categories of students (Biology and Law), and 1 student from the French Literature department was actually also present. (As if, the frame we had designed was opening at least 1 extra door to others). Therefore, students stemming from 3 disciplines were actually represented.


As mentioned earlier, a discussion session was organised (3 hours divided in 2 hours of classical oral exercise + 1 hour of web sites consultation) followed by the lecture by G.K. In the discussion session, Law and Biology students were mixed and the teachers were a biologist and a law specialist. 5. OBSERVATIONS

Quite spontaneously students raised questions and made comments. The presence of C.B., from that respect, has been crucial: close to them in their course of studies, she facilitated greatly an open and spontaneous questioning as opposed to a formal theoretical lesson. However, there was a barrier between Law and Biology students: they did not address each other, they were not putting things in common and were not exchanging. Despite a curiosity, and a certain wish to be in contact, they immediately segregated from each other. For example, starting from the UNESCO document, Biology students were at first sight only interested by the Biology aspect; none of them asked "What is a Declaration?" and, conversely, no Law student asked "What is a genome?" It was surprising to see each group actually only asking questions in the area of where they are supposed to have some basis, and NOT in the area where they did not know. Therefore, the teachers raised the questions and tried to have the students of the specialty answer (like a game). In the direction of Law---->Biology, the Law students could give definitions, but they shared the reading of the text with major difficulty (the sensibility, the sense of nuances or the acceptation of an argument beyond the yes and no solution was accepted with difficulty by the Biology students). In the direction of Biology----> Law, even the definitions were a problem because biologists assumed some prerequisites which were likely given at high school to the Law students. And, naturally, these notions were forgotten. Scientific terms, notions, logic and ASSUMPTIONS, currently made in Biology, appeared naturally foreign to the Law students. Hence, in both ways, problems of language emerged, for different reasons. However, students started picking up "the game", and could actually become aware of the limits of their own discipline in challenging the efficiency of the other discipline. For example, the biologists would first challenge the law students in complaining about the lack of efficiency of the Declaration, rather than starting from their own limitations in knowledge and ask the law student, what can you do with this? Reciprocally, the law students wanted to develop rules very quickly without having a full understanding of a material, which is one aspect of the representation of life. The limitations of international Law were raised essentially by C.B. Only G.K. could actually, during the course, give precise answers from both sides and then bring the students to detach themselves from their specialty and consider the philosophical questions with an anthropological perspective (very numerous and concrete cases were brought up to students). The complexity of the question was then clearly assessed, making clear that the problem is difficult, but hope is present in the hands of students.

As far as the web site consultation is concerned. It was planned AFTER the first 2 hours discussion. There were two main objectives: First the localisation on the web of the UNESCO Declaration and the whole work around it to elaborate it. A special attention and care was devoted to the evolution of the text. The second goal was essentially for the students to realize that after the course they could pursue on their own this work and dig up aspects they were particularly interested in. Because this topic is both a problem of society and may raise some personal questioning, we wanted to make it clear to them that they were not left alone. In fact less students came back to me after conducting this small project than last time; and instead I received one document selected on the web by one student. One chapter was a report written by Darryl Macer!


In this project, the selection of the document was critical. As the project is small, there is little time to have students understand both the questioning in bioethics and the difficulty of the actual realization of a document. It proved to be pertinent to take a document, which has been accepted by many countries in the world, rather than a theoretical text, which sometimes eludes the complexity of the problem, because the questions remain abstract. The UNESCO declaration addresses the question at a global level in stressing the importance of diversity of individuals. In the context of the University of Cergy-Pontoise, it is of crucial importance. The common denominator probably remains to be sorted out but the question is explicitly asked by everybody/tout le monde. The UNESCO declaration met the requirement asked by students: a deliberate imperious necessity for a universal document; in fact, one biology student actually amplified this aspect in an extra dimension saying: "we are indeed talking about all genomes" _@en fait, il s'agit de tous les g_nomes".


This small experience belongs more to a sensibilisation to bioethics rather than a classical course. Because of the experimental aspect of it, no evaluation in form of an examination was made. Only one question was asked in an examination of the Biotechnology students.

In the preparation of this paper, we actually realized that what appeared as a language problem among the students was actually solved by the mastery of one language, i.e. French by G.K. I (F.H.) also observed some coincidences which may or may not relevant: I read that some linguists believe that the birth of language for mankind coincided with the perception of time. In the description of universality for people French language uses the global aspect of it (the population), instead English language stresses the singularity (the individual). It is remarkable that precisely for the definition of a living unit in biology, the biologists are nowadays questioning the pertinence of the cell (body) as opposed to the molecule (element - like DNA). At a time when the definition of life is being reevaluated it is hence not surprising that the questions linked to the human genome raise so much emotion, and hence it is so delicate to teach and to write legislation.

I was helped in the preparation of this talk by the chance to have learnt French as a native language and to present this paper in English! That can be understood as the importance of the study of foreign languages and also as a warning for people in bioethics not to develop their own language. If not, there is a risk for more difficulty for students to communicate with each other and miscommunication will be perpetuated. The risk of becoming experts is to exclude most people when instead these questions should be addressed to the larger number of people everywhere. SOS stands for Save Our Ships. We may remember that "experts built the Titanic and amateurs Noah's Arc", unless SOS means "Save our Souls"!

Finally, and precisely for the same reason, it seemed important that education in bioethics can be given early, at least in high school, possibly integrated in some disciplines to avoid compartmentalization. In figure 3, all these comments are summarized, and a little spiral may suggest: where does this lead us, or what are we trying to reach? Certain claim love or may be beauty, Asian cultures often speak about harmony. What is surprising is that as the perception of the universe increased by one dimension, language emerged as a new skill for mankind. We may then wonder how to conciliate what appears at first sight as paradox in two languages ("language" is contextual in English!). The mathematicians are bringing one possible answer by the theory of fractals (autosimilarity at different scales). It would give a dynamic definition of life and substitute the notion life (static) by the notion of generation (life + time dimension).

This leads us back naturally to the debate between Pasteur and Pouchet on spontaneous generation, one century ago. In Rabat, at the 6th session of the UNESCO IBC, one aspect was raised and named the "transgenerational effect". During the discussion session, the students were very struck by one traditional Iroquois saying: "If I am doing this today, how will this affect the 7 coming generations?"...My background is Biology, but to conduct this project I asked, for help, people in the Law department obviously but also the French literature department, the foreign languages department, the Chemistry department and the Mathematics department. Concretely however, the success was really to bring together the Law and the Biology departments. That could only be achieved by the projection of a solid document, the Universal Declaration for the human genome and human rights.

To end up, at TRT5 held in Tsukuba last 11/99, I was struck when I heard an Indian medical doctor stressing the importance of the perception "sick" people might have. I would like here to quote a poet G. DRANO "Que voit-elle, elle qui voit"? "What does she sees, she who sees?".


F.H. would like to thank Professor UEDA-san and Professor SATOH-san of the University of Tokyo for two fruitful discussions after TRT5. May also C. HULEN, Professor of microbiology at U.C.P. receive the expression of my gratitude for his constant support and contribution in the "creation" and implemenmtation of the biotechnology course at U.C.P. Last but not least, merci a Caroline Prebissy for teaching me how to use the scanner, and the biotechnology students for their support.

- Birth of the universal declaration for the human genome and the human rights (1999), Ed. UNESCO.
- Declaration for the human genome and the human rights (UNESCO) Adopted, unanimously and by acclamation, on November 11th 1997 by the UNESCO General Conference ( October 21st - November 12th 1997); Adopted, on December 9th 1998 by The United Nations, at its 53rd session, through the Resolution 53/152; URL :
- Drano, G. (1994) " Salut Talus " Ed. Rougerie.
- Gaudillire, J.P. : Lectures to students on the controversy Pasteur-Pouchet and Pasteur-Koch (first one on February 15th 1996).
- Kaplan, J.C. et Delpech, M. (1989) Biologie molŽculaire et mŽdecine, MŽdecine-Sciences Flammarion
- Morin, E. (1997) " Amour, poŽsie, sagesse " Ed. Seuil.
- One question asked by an anthropologist to Dr Montagnier in the UNESCO " 21st Century Talks " series, on December 16th 1998. The theme was " What will we suffer from in the 21th century ? Science and the Challenge of Emerging and Re-emerging diseases".
- Singer M. and Berg P. (1991) "Genes & Genomes" Ed. University Sciences Books.
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