Bioethics in times of Conflict: Commentary on Hlaca

- Frank J. Leavitt
Center for Asian and International Bioethics,
Faculty of Health Sciences,
Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Beer Sheva, Israel
Fax: Int+972-7-6239396

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 8 (1998), 113-4.

I was first planning to be very critical about Nenad Hlaca's article because it does not have the objectivity which we are used to seeing in scholarly and scientific writing. Hlaca writes as a Croatian and does not hide his criticism of the Serbs. I was tempted to write that if "bioethics is love of life" then we should try to love everybody equally and rise above our loyalties to the particular ethnic or religious or national group to which we belong.

But then I realized that I would be hypocritical to write such a thing. Just as Hlaca is a Croat, so I am an Israeli Jew. I also live in an area of war and conflict. And to be absolutely honest I have to say that I am not above the conflict. I am part of it. Sometimes I envy my international bioethicist friends who live in quiet and peaceful parts of the world, like Japan or New Zealand, and who can take an attitude of detached bioethical concern towards what is going on in Dubrovnik, Hebron or Belfast. But Hlaca and I don't have that luxury.

I think nonetheless that it should be possible to try to be bioethical even when one is part of the conflict. One thing we can do is to try to improve our knowledge of the ethics of military medicine. This means things like no medical experimentation on prisoners, first-aid for the wounded on the other side, etc., even if the other side does not play by the same rules. It also means trying to encourage cooperation in epidemiology, public health and sanitation, and environmental health even between opposing sides in armed conflict. All of these things are common matters affecting both or all sides equally. Pathogens and radiation do not take political or religious sides and do not recognize borders. A disease epidemic on one side will quickly get to the other. There is rudimentary cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in these matters and we have to work to improve this and to expand such cooperation to other areas of conflict in the world. And working together in matters of public health might lead to mutual respect among individuals, building personal relations. I have a friend in Hebron, Eddie Dribben, who is fond of saying: "When there is a battle you fight, but when there is no battle you drink tea". I suggest we sit and drink more tea with people from the other side. There is no reason why individuals shouldn't try to treat one another respectfully and ethically, even when their nations are warring.

I realize that what I am saying is not practical in every area of conflict, but I know that it is at least partially practical in some. And getting a little bioethics is better than getting none at all.

Maybe we could have a little informal gathering some evening after the formal meetings in Tokyo (IAB4) or Tsukuba (TRT4) in November 1998 for bioethicists who live in war or conflict zones. I anyone is interested please contact me.

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