Bioethical Transparency and Vegetarianism: Report as a Member of the Board of Directors of the International Association of Bioethics (IAB) and of the Asian Bioethics Association (ABA).

- Frank J. Leavitt, Ph.D.
Chairman, The Centre for International Bioethics
Faculty of Health Sciences
Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Beer Sheva, Israel
Fax: + 972-8-6477633
E-mail: yeruham@bgumail.bgu.ac.il
Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 12 (2002), 212-4.


At the 1998 meeting of the Asian Bioethics Association (ABA), in Tokyo, I was nominated as Vice President for West Asia.I do not know why I never thought to write a report to our members. I apologize for this shortcoming of mine.. Now that I have been re-elected a Vice President of ABA at the 2002 meeting in Seoul, In mid-2001 I was elected to the Board of the International Association of Bioethics (IAB). I owe it to those who put faith in me by electing me, that I should write a report. So I will combine reports of my involvement in both organizations in this document.

I attended the founding meeting of the East Asian Association of Bioethics (EAAB) in Beijing in 1995. At the 1997 Asian Bioethics Conference in Kobe, the EAAB became the Asian Bioethics Association (ABA), covering all of Asia, from Japan in the East to Israel and Turkey in the West of Asia. I recall joking with some of the feminist founding members about the fact that ABA in Hebrew, means father.

Credit for pioneering the idea of Asian Bioethics goes to a number of persons, especially Prof Hyakundai Sakamoto, of Nihon University in Tokyo, who talked about the idea as early as the IAB Congress in San Francisco (IAB3), in 1996. Encouraging Asian Bioethics is intended to be an antidote to the Western, and perhaps especially American hegemony in bioethics.(I comment below, on the phenomenon of the IAB's becoming self-perpetuatingly Western.) It is actually incredible that a country, USA, where in the 21st Century, they still have a medical system in which the treatment one gets depends on one's ability to pay, should be looked upon as a model for medical ethics. But just forming an ABA is not a sufficient remedy, as I shall remark in my comments on the recent Seoul meeting.

My work for Asian bioethics has primarily been as Associate Editor of this Journal, EJAIB . As readers know, our policy has always been to encourage Asian bioethicists to submit articles and discussion. The Mystical Bioethics Network column, edited by Erin Williams and myself, moreover, seems to have almost exclusively Asian contributors.

The ABA has just held its 2002 conference in Seoul, Korea, organized by Prof. Song Sang-Yong of Hallym University. The spirit in Seoul was entirely different from that at the IAB conference just a couple of weeks before in Brasilia. Although both conferences were efficiently organized and beautifully hosted, the ABA conference was smaller, with more of a family atmosphere.Everyone was accessible for questions, debate and discussion. There was no lack of professionalism, but it was not forced and competitive as in the West. There was a genuineatmosphere of seeking truth together, without paying too much attention to how we sound, or to whether what we say will help us professionally.

The only criticism I have is that some of the papers gave the impression that the purpose of Asian bioethics is to see how much Western ethics we can import into Asia. This is surely not what Prof Sakamoto intended. I think there is too much of a tendency to judge Asian medical systems according to the extent to which they put into effect American principles. Asian bioethicists need not be bashful about the contributions which Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Shinto, Jainism, and I almost forgot to mention Judaism, can make to bioethics.To give one example, instead of criticizing Israelis and Japanese for reluctance to donate organs, we should try to understand more deeply those aspects of Judaism and Shinto which tend to conflict with defining death as brain death. It was always a little incongruous that I, an Israeli, should have been Vice President for West Asia. West Asia is overwhelmingly Muslim, and we Jews are a tiny minority. Therefore, along with a series of new positions, the position of Vice President for Asian Ethnic and Religious Minorities was formed. These include Jews, Dalits, Druze, Sikhs, Jains, Kurds, Zoroastrians, and many others. I would like to do all I can to help these minorities acquire more of a voice in Asian Bioethics.I will welcome suggestions as to howthis can best be accomplished.

I have decided to publish my Report on my year on the IAB board here as well, because I assume that most of those who voted for me are members of the Eubios family, and because the EJAIB editor, Darryl Macer, also a member ofIAB Board also felt that I should be transparent. I'll begin with some matters having to do with our everyday work on the Board, and then I'll move to some larger issues having to do with vegetarianism, a global conference month, Western bias, and bioethical transparency.

I see my own function as doing whatever I can to try to promote ethical life and health sciences, and indeed ethical life itself. Most of the Board's work, so far as it seems to me, has to do with planning and carrying out conferences. This is legitimate insofar as such conferences lead to discussions and personal relations which advance the cause of ethics and deeper thought about the meaning of life.Three kinds of conferences are involved: IAB World Congresses held at different venues every two years; and smaller, more local conferences, in which the Board participates, held in various venues on alternate years to the Congresses; and other conferences, which are not organized by the IAB, to which the Board gives its endorsement. There is a policy that local organizers of conferences of the first two kinds pay the travel and local expenses of Board members(unless they can and will do so themselves), to attend the conferences. Board members are expected to assist in various aspects of planningand organization, to give major lectures and to chair sessions. It is assumed, correctly or not (!), that members of the IAB Board of Directors are particularly distinguished bioethicists who will significantly add to the quality of a conference. This policy was not widely known to all IAB members until this year. But at the 2002 meeting in Brasilia, the Board explained it to those members who attended, in the interest of transparency. It should be noted that although the Board carries on most of its work by email, we cannot work properly unless we meet in person at least once a year. Nor can all Board members pay their own expenses to attend these meetings.So the policy seems to be justified because it allows these annual meetings to take place. If the policy did not exist, then only people who can afford to pay their own travel and expenses to often far-away conferences, could stand for election to the Board. This would result in a kind of affluence bias.

It was understood that a condition of the Board's endorsing conferences of the third sort, be that the conferences must be open to all members of the IAB. The Board endorsed a conference in the United Arab Emirates this year.I enquired as to how I might obtain a visa to attend this conference, since the UAE has no embassy orconsulate in my country, Israel.In spite of repeated emails on my part, I received no cooperation from the organizers of the UAE conference.At the same time, another member of our Board, Hasna Begum, from Bangladesh, was unable to obtain a visa to attend our 2001 meeting in Massa, Italy. And complications, which also involved visaproblems, made it also impossible for her to attend the 2002 meeting in Brasilia. I therefore proposed to the Board a resolution which would make all endorsement of conferences contingent upon the organizers' undertaking to make all effort to help all delegates obtain visas to enter the host country. My proposal requires "making all effort", but does not necessarily require that they be successful. My reasoning is that we should not absolutely outlaw IAB meetings in countrieswhich have un-bioethical policies, because such meetings might engender some discussion which might be an influence for positive change. We did not have time to discuss my proposal at the Brasilia meeting, but we agreed to deal with it by email, or at the next meeting of the Board.

I have to confess that at the 2001 meeting in Massa, Italy, there was a misunderstanding, and I lectured on a subject other than what had been expected. I apologize publicly, even though it was in my opinion a legitimate misunderstanding. To go into details would be tedious for the reader. But I ought to remark that it is a shame that I was not even informed of this error until a friend mentioned it to meover dinner after the 2002 meeting in Brasilia. I think that as bioethicists we should be more open about questioning and criticizing each other. How else can be improve? I wish to inform all Eubios readers, just as I inform my students, that I am always happy to receive criticism of all kinds at any time. No one need ever be worried about insulting me. Standing on honour, and getting insulted at honest criticism, is an un-bioethical trait. I am not going to trouble the reader with all details of the work of the Board, but I am always happy to answer any questions by email.I shall devote the rest of this report to some of the larger issues.

Food for vegetarians and others with specialrequirements: The two meetings which I have attended so far as a Board member, Massa (2001) and Brasilia (2002), had food and accommodation of the highest standard, but no special provision was made for people with special dietary needs. The growing international interest in vegetarianism, whether for reasons of ethics or of health, suggests that within the bioethics profession - perhaps more than any other profession - provision ought to be made for strictly vegetarian food. This does not mean picking among the pieces of meat to look for some vegetables. It means balanced, fully nutritional, satisfying meals. A conference which serves strict vegetarian food can also satisfy people with religious dietary restrictions.Some people object to making special provision for religion. But it is in the interest of every conference to make it possible and pleasant for all to attend, if only for financial reasons. Hindu Brahmins are strictly vegetarian to the extent that the more serious among them will not eat food from a kitchen where meat dishes are also prepared. It should be noted that "strict vegetarian" for Hindus allows milk (although usually not eggs or fish). But a strictly vegetarian Hindu will also eat "vegan" food which has no animal products whatsoever. A conference which can guarantee the availability of food strict enough to satisfy a Hindu Brahmin should have no trouble getting a certificate of kashrut (kosher food) from an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, provided that any milk involved be certifiably from cow, goat, sheep or buffalo. And food which is acceptable to Orthodox Jews will also be acceptable to religious Muslims. So making certifiably strict vegetarian food available at a conference should really enhance both the incomeand the pluralism of any conference, by facilitating the attendance of more Hindu Brahmins, Orthodox Jews, religious Muslims, and people who are vegetarian for other reasons.Should conference organizers have questions, I can help put them in touch with the proper rabbinical authorities (although I am not a rabbi myself), as well as with knowledgeable Muslims and Brahmins.

Global conference month: A problem for anyone attending any international professional meetings is the frequent conflict with one's academic year.It is unfair to students to cancel and reschedule classes. Although students should understand that we have to attend conferences and participate in international discussions in order to have something to teach them, we should nevertheless try to make the academic year as easy as possible for our students. . Although universities in different parts ofthe world have different calendars. I suggest that international professional bodies, starting with the IAB and ABA, try to reach a global agreement on an International Conference Month, during which all scientific and academic conferences will be held, and which will interfere as little as possible with academic years around the world..

Western bias:Darryl will be publishing something in more detail on the geographical statistics on IAB membership. But I can say, the policy considerations lean clearly westwards. The American Thanksgiving (a Christian religious holiday) is taken into consideration when planning conference dates.I do not think a conference would be scheduled to conflict with the Jewish Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).When I point out that other peoples and faiths also have their needs, my suggestions are passed over on the grounds that American attendance is particularly important for reasons of numbers and registration fees. I do not think I am being unfair to suggest that the IAB is becoming self-perpetuatingly Western. This does not mean that we should not support the IAB.But we should seek ways to promote more Asian and African and other non-Western membership, and representation on the Board. At the same time, it is particularly important to encourage the Asian Bioethics Association, not for reasons of antagonism but in the hope that we shall eventually reach unity and harmony.

Bioethical transparency: Our meetings in Massa and Brasilia were beautiful in every way, and the organizers devoted heart and soul to making it a perfect experience for all of us. I trust that our Massa, Brasilia, and other conference hosts will understand, therefore, that no offense is intended when I raise the question whether such ideal venues, and beautiful experiences for the delegates, are the only and best way to serve bioethics. Every country I know of can be proud of its unique, delicious food, but must also admit that it has residents who cannot afford to eat it. Every country has beautiful hotels and resorts, as well as homeless people living on the streets. Every country has beautiful nature spots, as well as places of environmental embarrassment. Every country has policies, aswell as people who fiercely criticize these policies. In my opinion, the interests of bioethics might be better served if conference organizers were to do more to facilitate the exposure of delegates to the "other" sides of the country of venue: the poor, the dissatisfied, the opponents of the regime, the environmental catastrophes, etc.

I do not want the reader to think I am putting myself forward as a good example. But perhaps I can best illustrate what I mean by giving an example from my own experience. Some years ago, a Japanese researcher came to Israel for a conference, and spent about a week with us. On her last day with us, while walking together, I saw a memorial notice, for a neighbor who had been killed by a terrorist.I translated the Hebrew and explained to her. She remarked that during her entire time with us, I only showed her the Jewish side of the conflict. She asked why I did not show her the Muslim side as well. At first I thought I was quite right in what I had done.I was not running a conference at the time, but was merely a private host. But upon more reflection, I began to think that perhaps the cause of truth would be served better if all sides were to be given a hearing. If you really believe in what you are doing, then why not help peoplesee all sides, and come to their own conclusions? If you are on the side of truth, then their agreement with you will be even stronger than if you had shown them a one-sided picture.

A few years later, I became a partner with Darryl Macer and Jayapaul Azariah, in a Japanese Ministry of Education, Sport and Culture Research Grant to develop an Asian Bioethics Network that included conducting bioethics seminars in Japan, India, Israel and Turkey. This was at the time which used to he called the "Middle Eastern Peace Process". I did not believe in this "Peace Process" from thevery start, and I think that history has already shown it to have been very disappointing. I do not think that peace, itself, is a ridiculous goal. But I think that this was a ridiculous way of trying to achieve it. I was then, as I am now, a committed Israeli Jew.But I did believe that neighbors, whether at war or at peace, ought to cooperate together in matters of public and environmental health. It seemed to me to be a bioethical cause, to foster such cooperation on something that affects all of us. I saw the possibility of contacts with the Palestinian Authority as perhaps opening the doors for more cooperation of this sort.

I also believed that Darryl and Jay and other international guests to the bioethics seminars which Iconducted in Beer Sheva, ought to be helped to see all sides of the issues and to let truth be their guide. I therefore initiated and helped facilitate meetings, in which Darryl and Jayapaul participated, with representatives of the Palestinian Authority, as well as individual Muslims. I brought representatives of the Palestinian Ministry of the Environment to a bioethics seminar in Beer Sheva. Darryl, Nobuko, Jay and I traveled, on our first visit to Gaza City, in a Palestinian Police jeep, going at about 130kph on crowded city streets guarded with Kalashnikov rifles, because they feared for the safety of their guests and to be shot at for carrying a Jew in the jeep. On another occasion, I took them in my car to a bioethics meeting at a Muslim home in Bet Umar -- between Hevron and Bet Lechem. Our hosts were concerned that their neighbors might attack because I, an Israeli Jew, was visiting.I was glad I was driving a Citroen, an automobile famous for its ability to take corners at high speed.Our hosts opened the iron gate to their courtyard as we approached. I turned in quickly, and they shut the gate just as quickly. Perhaps someday Darryl and Jay and I will tell the whole story of those exciting times. Meanwhile, I just wanted to give a taste, in order to indicate the extent to which one must go if one is serious about bioethical transparency of the kind which might even result in some mutual human understanding in the long run. One risks having one's guests told things which totally disagree with what one believes oneself.One might also risk one's skin, to no little extent. But I think it is worth it. We are trying to make the world a little better, aren't we?

I hope that bioethics conference hosts in other countries will also consider making a little more effort to expose their guests, or at least those guests who are interested, to the "other" sides of their countries. If we believe in truth, then we have no reason to fear it.

In conclusion, I can only say what I believe to be true. Whether this is popular on the IAB Board or not, I intend to continue to voice my suggestions. Whether my approach is appropriate to the IAB Board will, of course, be decided upon when I come up for re-election about three years from now.

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