- Darryl Macer, Ph.D.
Yet another International Bioethics Committee is to be formed, from the Pope - perhaps with less diversity than others on the moment when "life" begins, but to be welcome. Comments to and from the UNESCO Bioethics Committee, who receives this newsletter, and the other international bioethicists, and groups, are encouraged. It is hoped that all those interested may join in the exchange of ideas, regardless of their academic society, and formal or informal associations. In the letters this issue, the issue of age is raised by M. Morioka, an issue often attached with rationing, and one which needs an answer - and a call is made by F. Leavitt for international bioethics and the interchange of persons as well as ideas. For those who want a bit more background on life in Israel, see US News & World Report (18 April), 53-60.
This issue sees the publication of Bioethics For the People By the People. The title of this book has more than a symbolic meaning. Bioethics is both a word and a concept. The word comes to us only from 1970, yet the concept comes from human heritage thousands of years old. It is the concept of love, balancing benefits and risks of choices and decisions. This heritage can be seen in all cultures, religions, and in ancient writings from around the world. We in fact cannot trace the origin of bioethics back to their beginning, as the relationships between human beings within their society, within the biological community, and with nature and God, are formed at an earlier stage then our history would tell us. The history of bioethical reasoning is influenced by our genes, and the forces that shaped these genes into the people, society and cultures that we have. We now have the power to change not only our own genes, but the genes of every organism, and the power to remodel whole ecosystems of the planet.
Some academics have tried to define what bioethics is, what are the basic principles, and how we should apply these to our lives. To make good choices, and choices that we can live with, improving our life and society, is certainly a good thing. The choices that need to be made in the modern biotechnological and genetic age are many, extending from before conception to after death - all of life. The timing of reproduction, contraception, marriage choice, are not new. Euthanasia, a good death, is also an old choice, forced upon us by our mortality. A key question is who should define bioethics - and this book says that the people should. This is not a complete description of Bioethics "by the People", but it is intended to refocus our attention on where we should be looking to "develop" bioethics. People have been using ideas of bioethics over history, especially in religions, bioethics is the part of this behaviour, ethics, that relates to biological questions, and to all human relationships.
One way to examine the reasoning people have is to ask them in surveys of opinion. Scholars may go through literature, and historical studies, but often these studies are selected by their choices, rather than the peoples. We need to look at more than history, and more than policies that governments have developed, we need to reach into the hearts of people. In 1993 a survey was performed across ten countries of the world, including Australia, Hong Kong, India, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, The Philippines, Russia, Singapore and Thailand. The results can be compared to surveys in North America and Europe. The purpose was to look at how people think about diseases, life, nature, and selected issues of technology, biotechnology, genetic engineering, screening, and therapy.
In total nearly 6000 questionnaires were returned from 10 countries during 1993, and the results are included in this book. The questionnaires included about 150 questions in total, with 35 open-ended questions. People made very interesting comments. The diversity of comments was found to be the same in different countries, suggesting that reasoning about these issues goes deeper than cultures, or religions. Half of the book is looking at images of nature and life, two central issues of bioethics, through comments and pictures that people made. I believe these images to be important in looking at the future of society, and for looking at how our life affects nature through the use of technology. These images may change with time, and we can see what they are in the decades from now, and in more countries than we were able to survey.
As seen in the contents list and the brief index, there is more in this book than statistical data. Section I of the book looks at universal bioethics, which is not just a proposition, but I believe an observation - it is not something we only hope for, it already exists. Although societies are different, people and families are not. Section II has a series of papers on International Bioethics from different countries of the world, representing academic approaches and descriptions of these issues. At the end of section II is an extensive paper by Jayapaul Azariah looking at global bioethics and common hope, which comes back to the theme of universal bioethics see throughout this book.
I was in New Zealand from 8th March until early April, finishing the book and collecting further material, which you will see in the newsletter by the appearance of some 1993 references, and an over-full list which resulted in some small text size in places!