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ABSTRACT

This essay focuses on two underlying presumptions that impinge on the effort of UNESCO to engender universal agreement on a set of bioethical norms: the conception of universality that pervades much of the document, and its disregard of structural inequalities that significantly impact health. Drawing on other UN system documents and recent feminist bioethics scholarship, we argue that the formulation of universal principles should not rely solely on shared ethical values, as the draft document affirms, but also on differences in ethical values that obtain across cultures. UNESCO's earlier work on gender mainstreaming illustrates the necessity of thinking from multiple perspectives in generating universal norms. The declaration asserts the ‘fundamental equality of all human beings in dignity and rights’1 and insists that ‘the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition’2 yet it does not explicitly recognize disparities of power and wealth that deny equal dignity and rights to many. Without attention to structural (as opposed to merely accidental) inequities, UNESCO's invocation of rights is so abstract as to be incompatible with its avowed intention.