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COVID-19: Human rights principles must guide health decisions

In a Statement published on 14 April 2020, the Council of Europe Committee on Bioethics recalls the fundamental principles, based on the respect for human dignity and human rights, which must guide medical decisions and practices in the context of the current crisis.

Health care systems are under extreme constraints and the increasing number of severe cases raises major ethical challenges that professionals and competent authorities have to address in the health care of patients. Difficult decisions have to be taken at collective and individual levels in a context of uncertainties and scarce resources, which may have important impact on individuals.

The Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine (Oviedo Convention), which is the only legally binding instrument at international level in this field, provides a unique human rights framework, including in a context of emergency and health crisis management, to guide decisions and practices both in clinical and research fields.

Drawing from the Convention, the Committee on Bioethics recalls a number of legal principles:

  • access to health care, in particular in a context of scarce resources, should be equal and guided by medical criteria, to ensure that guided by medical criteria, to ensure that the most vulnerable people, such as persons with disabilities, older persons, refugees and migrants, are not victims of discrimination;
  • the collection and processing of healthrelated data, which is essential in the fight against the COVID-19, should be subject to specific protective conditions;
  • any restrictions on the exercising to the rights should be prescribed by law and aimed at protecting collective interests, including public health;
  • special conditions may be applicable to certain clinical emergencies such as those faced by health care professionals in the context of the COVID crisis19
  • the rights of the persons undergoing research, aimed at developing appropriate therapeutic and preventive measures, should be protected (the Additional Protocol to the Oviedo Convention concerning Biomedical Research defines the conditions under which research on persons in emergency clinical situations can be carried out).

Finally, the Committee on Bioethics will facilitate exchange of information and analyse the ethical challenges raised during and in the aftermath of this pandemic, under its Strategic Action Plan on Human Rights and Technologies in Biomedicine (2020-2025) and on the basis of the reference Council of Europe human rights legal corpus developed in particular around the Oviedo Convention.

Strasbourg 14 April 2020
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