Policy ForumBioscience and Law

Biotechnologies nibbling at the legal “human”

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Science  20 Dec 2019:
Vol. 366, Issue 6472, pp. 1455-1457
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaz5221

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Summary

The law has always viewed living human beings—and the tissues, organs, and other body parts derived from them—as special and different from the nonliving, nonhuman. But bioscientific advances are nibbling away at classical legal boundaries that form the bedrock of the normative structures on which societies are based. Recent developments such as in human genetics, neuroscience, and cell and tissue research pose qualitatively different challenges than what has come before, seeming to blur legal distinctions between human beings and other living organisms, between living human beings and dead ones, and between human tissues and cells and nonhuman ones. Although cognizant of the important bioethical and philosophical debates surrounding the issues raised, we focus on how legal systems may respond to these bioscience challenges to traditional binary, legal classifications. Determining whether some “thing” is now some “one” carries with it profound implications for the rights and obligations the law recognizes for “humans.” Although it may be tempting to think that these new developments require us to reconsider the time-honored legal definitions of humans, living humans, or human tissue, we suggest that current legal dualisms can be applied in ways that provide adequate flexibility to allow weighing the many issues that surround developments in genetics, neurosciences, and cellular bioengineering and challenge how we legally define what is “human.”

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