Research project on Cultural Issues in Bioethics - Announcement and invitation for advice and cooperation

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 12 (2002), 229-231.

An interdisciplinary group of researchers in the humanities and social sciences has launched a new research project in bioethics at German universities, entitled "Culture-transcending Bioethics. Conditions, Prospects, and Challenges" (KulturŸbergreifende Bioethik. Voraussetzungen, Chancen, Probleme). Out of a total of eight individual projects, five are based at Bochum's Ruhr University, two in Bonn and one in Goettingen. An associated project is located in Munich. The German Research Foundation (DFG) has granted funding for two years. Hopefully, funding will continue beyond this point, and the scope of regions and topics can be enlarged progressively. The projects start around January 2003.

The research group will investigate cultural and culture-transcending issues in bioethics. While it will contribute to comparative bioethics, the interest also reaches out for systematic features, highlighting the foundations of international, intercultural and interdisciplinary understanding in bioethics. Among other things, it will provide evidence for the relevance of a cultural perspective on bioethics for humanity. It addresses diverse issues raised by the global activities of biomedical technology and the world-wide disparity in bioethical regulations. It scrutinises issues of global and regional health-related justice, which are fuelled, e.g., by cultural and ethnic re-configurations in the aftermath of migration. Special attention will be paid to the empirical and conceptual impact of intra-cultural diversity, for example, within the "West", on policy-making and decision-making. More generally, the purpose is to find out more about the fabric and dynamics of cultural issues on many levels in applied ethics.

Ethical biomedical issues at the beginning of human life, for example, in human medical genetics, assisted reproduction and "eugenics" in medical research as in clinical practice, are a common focus. The meaning of concepts, such as health and disease, and social issues, such as the patient-doctor relationship in the respective countries and regions, will be studied. Throughout the investigation, the meaning of "culture" in ethics will be revisited. The group will identify normative claims raised by certain cultures in bioethics and compare their foundations. It will thus contribute to a better understanding and management of disagreements within our global village.

In assessing the discourse, a common frame of questions will be addressed. Who are the participants in the discourse? What are the main issues? Which are the leading opinions and tendencies? How are certain concepts, such as "personhood", the "human being", or "community" evaluated? Whose interests matter? What are the determining political, social, demographic, or economic factors, and how are they reflected within the discourse? These and other questions will guide the projects on the individual level, and help them to combine, compare and analyse the findings as a group.

On this basis it shall be attempted to identify the main lines of conflict and agreement between cultures in bioethics. The discussion will explore potential normative clues and procedures for maintaining differences under conditions of mutual respect, learning, and understanding. Given the contemporary dominance of "Western" styles and concepts, this project tries to find out how bioethics could benefit from integrating cultural perspectives and ethical concepts from different cultures. This investigation is expected to reinforce a general model of ethics that transcends mere utilitarian and pragmatic tendencies. The tension between cultural relativism and universalism will be treated with particular attention.

The research group "Culture-transcending Bioethics. Conditions, Prospects, and Challenges" brings together the following individual projects.

1 Concepts of the Human Being in Current Bioethics in China

China, with her wealth in human capital and cultures, her booming economy and research, her increasing engagement in the international arena, and her claim to probe into particular "Chinese ways" towards modernity, has become representative for developing countries. China might become a key in the formation of a cross-cultural bioethics.

This project focuses on the ways the "human being" is addressed in contemporary China's bioethics, referring to the Mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan. It assesses concepts with a claim to be fundamental or typical for China's culture, as expressed in certain practices, e.g. in reproductive medicine.

(contact: Prof. Dr. Heiner Roetz, Ruhr-University Bochum, Chinese History and Philosophy, email:; Dr. des. Ole Doering, email: )

2 Bioethical Conflicts and Concepts of the Human Being in Japan. An Investigation of the Intellectual Discourse, Institutional Regulation and Public Opinion Making, and their Combined Impact

Japan is the only Asian country whose level of modernization is on a par with that of the Northern Atlantic industrialized countries. She is therefore a significant object for cross-cultural research, as well as an important partner in the international dialogue.

This project treats bioethical conflicts in Japan from three different thematic and methodological perspectives. It will explore (a) the philosophical dimension of the debate, especially the normative concepts related to the human being in Japanese bioethics, and the arguments brought forth in favour of these norms; (b) the dimension of bioethical policy making, i.e. the ways how institutions and politics generate regulations concerning biotechnology; (c) the social dimension of bioethics in Japan, with a focus on society's value orientations regarding bioethics. Special attention will be given to contributions that emphasize a specifically Japanese orientation in values relevant for bioethics.

(contact: Prof. Dr. Josef Kreiner, Bonn University, Japanese Studies, email:; Prof Dr. Wolfgang Marx, Bonn University, Philosophy; Dr. Christian Steineck, email: (a); Dr. Robert Horres, email: (b); Dr. Dieter …lschleger, email: (c))

3 Discourses in Bioethics in South-Korea

South-Korea belongs among the most important Asian countries in terms of economic strength and political influence. Its progression towards modernity has been depicted as a model, making Korea's modern development a first rank issue of scientific interest. Recently, Korea has set up ambitious and rather advanced biotechnology programmes. Korean society is significant as a melting pot of many different cultures providing an exemplary case for studies of the impact of cultures on bioethics.

This project will give an account of the current bioethics debate and the state of the art in biotechnology in South Korea. It will focus on the concepts of the identity and integrity of human life, as reflected in discussions of issues of human genetics and abortion. It will study recent trends in the development of the discourse, identify patterns of argument, and register the relevant normative terminology, by an analysis of debates in public, political and experts' circles, with an additional special focus on the Christian communities. Traditional concepts of the human being as can be found in traditional Korean medical ethics will also be described.

(Contact: Prof. Dr. Marion Eggert, Ruhr-University Bochum, Korean Studies, email:; Prof. Dr. Christofer Frey, Ruhr-University Bochum, Ev. Theology, email:; Dr. Phillan Joung, email:; Dr. des. Huh Joon, email:

4 Buddhist Bioethics. Foundations and Current Positions

Buddhist doctrines and ethical paradigms are of crucial significance for Asia. This project focuses on the description and analysis of contemporary Buddhist discussions in bioethics, with a particular interest in the Therav‰da and Mah‰y‰na traditions. Special attention will be reserved for themes, such as human cloning, where according to Buddhist tradition, ethical problems are seen in ways that differ fundamentally from those of the "West".

It will also investigate the anthropological and philosophical foundations of the respective positions in bioethics. The guiding question will be, how doctrines, such as the Karma, reincarnation, the concept of personhood and the maxim of "doing no harm" can be reconstructed to fit into the current bioethics debates.

(Contact: Prof. Dr. Konrad Klaus, Bonn University, Indology, email:;Dr. Jens Schlieter, email:

5 Bioethical Issues in the Context of Islamic Law and its Interpretation by Members of the Medical Porfessions

This project is dedicated to the current inner-Islamic ethical discussion, which devotes much attention to bioethical issues. This topic is obviously relevant for cross-cultural studies in bioethics, given the significant number of societies influenced by Islam.

The project focuses on the relationship between the paradigmatic concepts and legal reasoning in Islamic jurisprudence and medicine among contemporary Muslim physicians. It attempts to elaborate statements relevant for bioethics, together with their fundamental principles, in the context of Islam. This will be discussed as a timely example to explore the role and range of Islamic law in matters of problem-oriented decision-making.

(Contact: Prof. Dr. Gerhard Endress, Ruhr-University Bochum, Oriental Studies, email:

6 Utilitarian Culture of versus Normative Culture. Intra-cultural Differences in "Western" Bioethics

This philosophical project explores a fundamental structural conflict, which can be found in European bioethics. Here, a rigoristic type of ethics, which maintains the absolute protection of human dignity and the protection of all forms of human life, on the one hand, is confronted with a utilitarian type of ethics, which tends to buy the benefit of an enhanced quality of life for a majority of people for the price of accepting a reduced status of the rights of other human beings. This conflict bears its effects on contemporary legislation. This impact will be discussed as related to the European history of different traditions of philosophy of law.

This project draws attention to the fact that cultural difference, as a cause of ethical conflict, cannot be reduced to a problem of a contradiction between the "West" and other cultures. It shows how it can be helpful to identify cultural differences within the "West", or other cultural regions, respectively. Thereby, we are informed about the historical developments and traditions behind "our" ethical consciousness, which can instruct us in coping with the challenges of biomedical progress, without being entrapped by cultural tensions, inconsistencies and dilatoric compromises.

(Contact: Prof. Dr. Walter Schweidler, Ruhr-University Bochum, Philosophy, email:

7 The Concept of Informed Consent and its Concrete Application in International Bioethics

Informed Consent is generally accepted in international declarations as a key concept of bioethical practice, formulating a condition for medical intervention, for purposes of therapy and research. This general principle needs to be qualified in light of the given concrete social and cultural context, in order to become sufficiently meaningful and instructive in practice. These concrete interpretations can be influenced by considerations emphasising either the individual orientation (individual informed consent), or the social orientation (community consent), as guiding the act of giving consent. It has been found that those differences can be distinguished along the lines of European or Northern American and Chinese bioethics.

This project will study the real understanding of informed consent in some societies in Asia (China, Taiwan) and the "West" (Germany, USA) and its accurate meaning in normative documents issued by international organizations, such as WHO and UNESCO.

(Contact: Prof. Dr. Claudia Wiesemann, Goettingen University, Ethics and History of Medicine, email:; Dr. Dr. Nicola Biller-Andorno, WHO, Geneva, email:

8 Cross-cultural Health Literacy. Historical Roots and Current Challenges

This project introduces the concept of health literacy ("Gesundheitsmuendigkeit"), as it can be found in regulations and admonitions for health care, healthy nutrition, a good life and preventing disease, according to relevant historical and contemporary documents of medical literature in China, the Near East, and Europe.

This project approaches the issue of culture in medicine from the grass-root perspective of patients and customers of medicine in different cultures. Hereby, the focus is on the users of medical products, so as to be better prepared to comprehend the problems, motives of action and values in everyday's medical and pharmaceutical practice. The expected results shall be made available in order to inform the beginning discussion about the capacities and limits of predictive and preventive medicine, as part of the emerging global markets.

(Contact: Prof. Dr. Hans Martin Sass, Ruhr-University Bochum, Philosophy, email; Dr. Dr. Ilhan Ilkilic, email:

Associated project: AIDS Policy in USA/Germany and China

In this project, the policies of two culture spheres, i.e., USA/Germany and P.R. China are compared in order to examine how different political systems and cultural backgrounds shape the respective reactions to a common threat, in this case: the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and to what degree these differences are responsible for parallels and differences in the ethical decisions taken in this situation. These descisions include how to communicate with the major groups at risk, whether to involve the entire population, how to balance the rights of individuals with the welfare of society, how to define culpability, and whether to stress re-integration and education or expulsion and criminalization of persons with a risky lifestyle.

The project should enable us to understand how, in an age of increasing globalization and cultural and scientific exchanges, regions with different cultural identities and socio-political systems can maintain idiosyncratic ethical positions vis-ˆ-vis a common bio-ethical challenge.

(Contact: Prof. Dr. Paul Ulrich Unschuld, Munich University, History of Medicine, email:

The organisers invite bioethicists with an interest in cultural issues as partners to co-operate and welcome critical comments and suggestions in line with the major purposes. We thank all who have supported us up to now with their advice and their readiness to co-operate.

An internet website is under construction ( It is planned to make research results available in electronic and printed form, depending on the work in progress.
For all inquiries, please contact Prof. Dr. Heiner Roetz (speaker,, Dr. des. Ole Doering (, or Dr. Hu Hsiang-ling (co-ordinator,

Prof. Dr. Heiner Roetz
Fakultaet fuer Ostasienwissenschaften
Ruhr-Universitaet, D-44780 Bochum, Germany
Tel 0049-234-3226254; Fax 3214440
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