Editorial: Bioethics dialogue in public

-Darryl Macer, Ph.D.
Director, Eubios Ethics Institute
Affiliated Professor, United Nations University
E-mail: asianbioethics@yahoo.co.nz

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 13 (2003), 161-3.


Over the past decades of development of bioethics in the modern sense one of the key points for the progress of bioethics has been that dialogue, debate and exchange of views should be in public and not behind closed doors. This in fact has been one of the important arguments that has been made to scientific societies and the formerly closed establishment, that discussion of ethics and values should be in public.

The Asian Bioethics Association (ABA) constitution reads: Article 3 (Objectives): "The basic objective of the Association is to promote scientific research in bioethics in Asia through open and international exchanges of ideas among those working in bioethics in various fields of study and different regions of the world. In order to achieve this end the Association will encourage the following work and projects: (1) to organize and support international conferences in bioethics in Asia; (2) to assist the development and linkage of regional organizations for bioethics; (3) to encourage other academic and educational work or projects to accomplish their goals consistent with the objectives of the Association."

The International Association of Bioethics (IAB) stated its position in the London Declaration (EJAIB 10 (2000), 174), "The International Association of Bioethics maintains the truth that freedom of discussion is necessary for bioethical reflection and an essential feature of democratic life. According to article 3.3 of its Constitution, the Association upholds the value of free, open and reasoned discussion, so that any thoughtful position is worthy of consideration. In public discourse, no individual or group can claim to have exclusive knowledge of the right ethical solution. Only reasoned and open debate can lead to justifiable conclusions."

Throughout the 1990s a series of open and public meetings on bioethics, both in Asia and internationally, have been held in many countries in Asia. In Japan, the efforts of Norio Fujiki, Hyakudai Sakamoto and myself, have led to over 20 international bioethics conferences. Always the meetings were made open to all to express their views. There have also been open bioethics conference in Beijing, Seoul, Manila, Taiwan, India, Israel, Turkey, and other countries. In this tradition the Fifth Asian Bioethics Conference (13-16 February, 2004, Tsukuba, Japan) and the Sixth Asian Bioethics Conference (23-25 November, 2005, Sanliurfa, Turkey) are planned. All are open.

We also welcome other projects and efforts in many countries to develop bioethics in the region and the world. However, ABA and EJAIB editors argue that the meetings should be open to all. It is hypocritical to close "Bioethics" meetings to a selected group of participants. This closed type of bioethics discussion is counter to many international statements on the need for open bioethics discussion. This is especially true of publicly funded projects in countries which have agreed the UNESCO Declaration on the Protection of the Human genome and Human Rights, for example, article 21. "States should take appropriate measures to encourage other forms of research, training and information dissemination conducive to raising the awareness of society and all of its members of their responsibilities regarding the fundamental issues relating to the defense of human dignity which may be raised by research in biology, in genetics and in medicine, and its applications. They should also undertake to facilitate on this subject an open international discussion, ensuring the free expression of various socio-cultural, religious and philosophical opinions."

There are many reasons for why the persons writing and signing the statements have insisted on open discussion. Even for sensitive issues like those debated in this issue of EJAIB, past human experiments conducted by Japan in wartime, the discussion should be open. In fact one of the complaints of people has been a lack of open discussion and debate. Academic peer review in the form of peer discussion is essential for scientific meetings.

It is therefore with regret that as editor I have to decline the publication of a statement submitted for publication in EJAIB in December, 2002 entitled the "Seoul Statement". It stems from a project which is titled "Dialogue and Promotion of Bioethics in Asia". Although I have requested the names of persons who signed this statement on bioethics before publication, they have not been sent and it appears to be the work of maybe 10-20 persons in a private meeting, and the first article endorses the project leader. The meeting is not from the Fourth Asian Bioethics Conference (ABC4), which also occurred in Seoul at a time close to that occasion. The statement should not be confused with the ABA and ABC4, and in fact the President of ABC4, Song Sang-yong, was not at the smaller meeting. The statement says, "Acknowledge the valuable outcomes of the Seoul Conference and recommend the further dialogue for the coming Kyoto Asian Bioethics Congress which will be held from 22 to 24 September 2003 and beyond;". This reference to an Asian Bioethics Congress refers to the Kyoto Conference "Dialogue and Promotion of Bioethics in Asia", 21-24 September, 2003. (A home page is still under construction 6 days before the meeting - see http://www.congre.co.jp/dpb-asia/).

The results will be published in March 2004. I have not yet received an information kit that I was told on 4 September would be sent to me. From a person who was invited I have seen a copy of the program, and it seems very interesting and of high public interest. People are giving "country reports" from 19 countries in "closed sessions". Without a chance for people from around Asia to come and discuss whether the chosen persons really represent their country image portrayed at the meeting, this meeting fails standards for open dialogue that bioethicists have worked hard to request in scientific research around the world.

Earlier in the year I spoke with the project convenor expressing my desire to attend. I did not receive any personal information about the project so accepted an invitation to Mexico at a similar time. I was told by the convener in response to my courtesy Email on 4 September from seeing an announcement on a Japanese listserve in mid-October,  that, "The conference is open to the public on 21st September, but closed from 22 to 24 September."  I also found that I was not alone in being excluded from the closed meeting, Norio Fujiki who many readers will know from his tremendous work in organizing meetings in the 1990s was not informed at all. Hyakudai Sakamoto was also not invited to speak and is not attending. Both those two senior figures in Asian Bioethics have said that they will speak at ABC5 in Tsukuba, which will be as always, open to all.

We hope that future projects on dialogue in bioethics in Asia will be open to dialogue, and all to participate. I invited the leader of that project to reply to the concerns in this editorial but after one week no response was received. Bioethics conferences with public funding and such titles cannot be the realm of private clubs. Readers I am sure will be very interested in the outcomes of the meetings, and hope that the results will be reported openly in open bioethics conferences in the future, consistent with the established norms of international science and bioethics. In a small field such as bioethics all should carefully protect the ground that has been gained in open and free discussion. I would hope that the participants of the closed meetings who include many respected persons in bioethics might see it timely in 2003 to call for an open conference next time. Otherwise the respect that we hold for all of them as scholars will be questioned, in the same way as persons have written to me with the above complaints about these meetings.
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