I missed this paper when it first came out in 2022. Yet, it seems potentially quite important and I, therefore, feel like discussing it here:

President of the UNESCO Committee on Bioethics Stefan Semplici called on the governments of all countries to ensure free and wider access of their citizens to alternative medicine and pay for this therapy through health insurance. Alternative medicine based on tradition – traditional medicine, in many poor countries is the only treatment option for the population. In developed countries, and especially in China and India, it enjoys well-deserved prestige (for example, acupuncture and herbal medicine) and is often integrated into the public health system.

The International Committee on Bioethics of UNESCO announced the recognition of these alternative therapies as an option for medical practice and, at the same time, as part of the identity of the cultural traditions of various nations. The UNESCO Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights includes the right to the highest attainable standard of health (Article 14), the right to respect for pluralism and cultural diversity (Article 12) and traditional knowledge (Article 17). The purpose of this document is to establish criteria for the respect and acceptability of different types of medicine without compromising the assurance of quality and patient safety that is essential in all treatments.

In order to adapt the traditions of traditional therapies to advances in medicine, this international organization calls on governments and the scientific community to collaborate with practitioners of alternative therapies to evaluate their effectiveness and safety and develop therapeutic standards and protocols for integrating traditional medicine into healthcare system. The UNESCO International Bioethics Committee believes that these methods should be seen as complementary to modern medicine, and not just an alternative to it.


The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is an agency of the United Nations aimed at promoting world peace and security through international cooperation in education, arts, sciences, and culture. UNESCO’s International Bioethics Committee (IBC) is a body of 36 independent experts that follows progress in the life sciences and its applications in order to ensure respect for human dignity and freedom.

I have to say that I rarely have seen an announcement in so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) that is more confusing and less well thought through. The UNESCO Committee on Bioethics wants:

  • alternative therapies as an option for medical practice,
  • the highest attainable standard of health,
  • to collaborate with practitioners of alternative therapies to evaluate their effectiveness and safety.

When I first read these lines, I asked myself: who on earth wrote such nonsense? It was certainly not written by someone who understands healthcare, SCAM, and evidence-based medicine.

As discussed almost permanently on this blog, most forms of SCAM have not been shown to generate more good than harm. This means that employing them ‘as an option in medical practice’ cannot possibly produce ‘the highest attainable standards of health’. In fact, the UNESCO plan would lead to lower not higher standards. How can a committee on bioethics not realize that this is profoundly unethical?

Collaboration with practitioners of alternative therapies to evaluate SCAM’s effectiveness and safety sounds a bit more reasonable. It ignores, however, that tons of evidence already exist but fail to be positive. Why do these experts in bioethics not advocate to first make a sober assessment of the published literature?

I must say that the initiative of the UNESCO Committee on Bioethics puzzles me a lot and disturbs me even more.

I’d be keen to learn what you think of it.


6 Responses to UNESCO, bioethics, and so-called alternative medicine (SCAM)

  • Perhaps we should look at what background the former head of the committee Stefano Semplici has.

    Professor Stefano Semplici is professor of Social Ethics and a member of the Faculty of the PhD in Philosophy (jointly organized with The University of “Roma Tre”) at Tor Vergata University of Rome. He was the Chair of the International Bioethics Committee of UNESCO (where he was appointed in 2008) from 2011 to 2015 and of the Committee for Bioethics of the Italian Society of Pediatrics from 2014 to 2019. He is an Associate Editor of the journal «Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy» (since 2010) and was Editor and then Co-editor of the Journal «Archivio di Filosofia/Archives of Philosophy» from 2007 to 2016. He is also a member of the steering
    committee of the Institute for philosophical studies “Enrico Castelli” and of the Editorial Boards and the scientific committees of other institutions, journals and series.

  • It does of course not need saying but funds spent on the health related entertainment industry are better used to promote, improve and facilitate healthcare.

  • Wow – that’s complicated!
    First we have to remember that this fashion named “Revaluation of traditional Medicine” concerns not only the UNESCO, but the WHO as well.
    Second, we have to state that there still are many countries where most people have no chance to obtain adequate medical care, e.g. heart surgery if necessary, or antibiotics in case of infections, and even less psychological help in case of mental diseases.
    So one could say: Isn’t it better to use of some shaman healing ceremony than do nothing? For example, the “Vimbuzu Healing Dance” from Malawi, presented by the UNESCO in this Video: ?
    But it is not in the nature of institutions like UNESCO or WHO to admit that such traditions can be accepted only as a last resort. Who, after all, are the officials who work and live very comfortably and well-paid in Paris (UNESCO) or Geneva (WHO)? Many of them come from poor countries, and they tend to have a bad conscience because of their comfortable income and living standard. As to the representatives of the rich countries, they are anxious never to show any sign of cultural arrogance. Therefore, the natural way of both to find support and recognition is by flattering the poor countries, which can be done best by claiming that “tradition” and “culture” are of equal value in each country and each culture.
    Unfortunately, the best physicians of the developed countries do their own research and care little for talkative institutions like UNESCO or WHO. So their place is taken by dubious lobbyists who pursue their own goals. In the beginning, anything “traditional” was labeled as “alternative” or “complementary” by WHO and UNESCO. Then, all those representatives of obscure therapies like Osteopathy, Kinesiology, Reiki and so on demanded being included into the big brotherhood of “traditional, alternative and complementary medicine” – and they succeeded.
    One can imagine what happened when one of these obscure lobbyists was elected general secretary of the WHO: Margaret Chan, ever an obedient servant of China’s Communist Party, duped all those sleepy Western WHO officials when she added chapter 26 to the new ICD-11, thus converting an important tool of international medical communication into a propaganda instrument of China’s newly awakened cultural (and soon: military) imperialism.
    So in the new ICD-11 we find nearly the complete list of TCM syndromes like the following:
    SF5C 寒滞肝脉证 Liver meridian cold stagnation pattern,
    SF6A 水气凌心证 Water qi intimidating the heart system pattern,
    SF73 脾虚食积证 Spleen deficiency with food retention pattern,
    SF95 肾虚髓亏证 Kidney deficiency with marrow depletion pattern.
    Funny? Not at all.

    • “Isn’t it better to use of some shaman healing ceremony than do nothing?”
      This would only be a srtategy of hiding the urgent need to establish decent healthcare [like Mao did with his ‘barefoot doctors’]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Subscribe via email

Enter your email address to receive notifications of new blog posts by email.

Recent Comments

Note that comments can be edited for up to five minutes after they are first submitted but you must tick the box: “Save my name, email, and website in this browser for the next time I comment.”

The most recent comments from all posts can be seen here.