Neurosciences, Artificial Intelligence, Genetics: New Challenges for Biomedical Law


Ana Elisabete Ferreira, André Dias Pereira

Over the last 40 years, Bioethics has been trying to put in place and set its guiding principles - autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence and justice, to which - with a more European tone - the principle of vulnerability has been added.

Over the next 40 years, neurosciences, artificial intelligence and genetics will pose critical challenges to these principles, which is evidenced by the relevance that increasingly assumes the precautionary principle and the respect for the interests (rights?) of future generations.

This fact is of major relevance for biomedical law, which has in the principles of bioethics its fundamental pillars.


«Neurosciences» refer to studies carried out by a group of scientific disciplines. There are several heterogeneous disciplines on this field, of which biology, anthropology, molecular chemistry, computation and genetics stand out. These areas of knowledge, of course, are disseminated by many others.

The critical problems brought by neurosciences have to be studied by ethics, in a field we call «neuroethics». Practical neuroethics, which addresses issues such as cognitive enhancement, deep brain stimulation, and the more advanced pharmacology associated with neurodegenerative diseases is concerned with the mischaracterization of human being in its identity. Artificial cognitive alterations, carried out by a third party, can compromise personal autonomy, as it lowers the scope of personal choices. The regulation of cognitive enhancement devices and drugs is one of the challenging current debates at the European Parliament.


Beneficence refers to an action done to benefit others. The European Parliament Resolution of 16 February 2017, with recommendations to the Commission on Civil Law Rules on Robotics (2015/2103(INL)) is very expressive in its concerns about the increasing autonomy of artificial intelligence. Far from the catastrophic drifts where robots rebel against humans, there are serious aspects of our coexistence with AI that have to worry us: the affective and sexual relationships with robots, the breaking of traditional social bonds, our privacy and the reservation of our personal data, the lack of responsibility for the care of others (task that will be for the robots). Thus, the increase in AI can damage the principle of beneficence in two ways: (1) not all technology will necessarily be beneficial; (2) the facilitation of everyday tasks can make humans less sensitive and beneficent among themselves.


Francisco Mojica, researcher at the University of Alicante, is acknowledged for the discovery of CRISPR system, which permits a direct and efficient intervention on the genome.

The debate concerning research with the genome and genome intervention dates back from the end of last Century. However, due to this new technique, the debate is more urgent, since its application to human genome may become reality in a short time.

The huge challenge is now the respect for the principle of non-maleficence: in our legal system, Art 25 of the Portuguese Constitution demands to defend individuals against any offence to their physical or moral integrity. So, what kind of variations or improvement can parents want to their child, by modifying its DNA? The problem of parental consent in interventions in the fetus is not distinct if there is a genetic therapeutic intervention or any other medical intervention. The best interest of the child within a broad sphere of freedom to educate and raise the child shall be accepted or faced?

Therefore, if the State has the duty to protect the interests of the to-be child, the democratic and liberal State shall recognize the parental power as a fundamental right. This means that a genetic intervention - authorized by parents - to create negative features for their child, such as being blind, deaf, dwarf or depressive may violate the right to physical or moral integrity.

On the other hand, an enhancement procedure in the embryo (elevating the IQ or physical strength) cannot be seen, without further ado, as a violation of the above mentioned right.

ON THE DEFENSE OF THE PRINCIPLE OF JUSTICE: «Honeste Vivere, Alterum Non Laedere, Suum Cuique Tribuere»

On the light of this principle, the first concern with the most advanced technologies must be the right to access: universal, equitable and in similar conditions of requirement of safety and efficacy, for all human beings.