Reflections on Three Years of Travel for Asian Bioethics

- Yeruham Frank Leavitt, Ph.D.
Chairman, The Centre for Asian and International Bioethics
Faculty of Health Sciences
Ben Gurion University of the Negev
Beer Sheva, Israel
PLEASE NOTE NEW TEL. NUMBER:Int'l + 972-7-6477413
PLEASE NOTE NEW FAX. NUMBER:Int'l + 972-7-6477633
Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 9 (1999), 13-14.

Three years ago Darryl, Jayapaul (Azariah) and I began activities under a Japanese Ministry of Education, Sport and Culture grant for encouraging bioethics in Asia. We conducted and participated in seminars, workshops and meetings in over fifteen cities in Israel, Japan, India, Turkey and the Palestinian Autonomy. We made dozens, perhaps hundreds of contacts, many of which with people with whom we since became close friends. We expanded Email networks, wrote articles and learned so many things about Asian cultures and ethics that it will take me many years to sort out my thoughts on paper. One of the most gratifying thing was the response to bioethics in India where we not only founded the All India Bioethics Association (under the chairmanship of Jayapaul Azariah) but also were very happy to see a "snowball effect" in which a number of people who attended the workshops during one year went ahead and organized bioethics workshops at their own institutions the following year.

In January, l997, Darryl, Jayapaul and I had given lectures in the morning at a workshop at the Institute of Fisheries in Cochi. Then we had the rest of the day free to walk around Cochi and do some shopping. Jayapaul, always ready with a witticism, asked: "Do you know what a workshop is?" Then he answered himself: "Some of the time you work. Some of the time you shop".

There is a lot of truth to what Jay said. But actually some of the most worthwhile things, some of the most bioethical things, the real bioethics, happen informally and outside of the framework of the often grueling and sometimes dry lecture and seminar schedule. Indeed some of the most meaningful things can come as an unplanned surprise. Space and time will not allow me to discuss all of the surprises I had during our travels, so I'll just try to discuss three of them here:

Bioethics and the unfortunate of the world

Upon arriving in India for the first time, in l997, I had a few free hours to wait for my flight from Bombay to Madras. So I walked around Bombay, in the area of the domestic airport. From a distance I saw a community of homeless people, living in cardboard cartons. My first thought was: "Poverty is probably only in the mind." I really believed that these people must be perfectly happy in their poverty, probably doing yoga and meditation, oblivious to their material circumstances. But as I approached nearer and saw their sad faces and sick bodies I realized that I was very, very wrong. These people were really unfortunate.

Later on, at conferences, I heard it said that: "The poor people in India are happier than the rich are in Western countries." This is a beautiful romantic statement which might be true of some poor people in India but I do not believe that this is true of most poor people in India. And reflection over the succeeding year lead me to conclude that bioethics must do something for the health situation of the unfortunate of the Earth. Indeed medicine and nursing cannot be ethical unless they are egalitarian, because if you give one kind of health care to the rich and another kind to the poor then you are not being guided by bioethical principles like beneficence and autonomy and the like. Your guide is not ethics but money.

Think of how much time we have wasted debating the ethics of germ-line and enhancement gene therapy when we have now begun to wonder whether there will ever even be practical gene therapy for clinical medical diseases. And at the same time millions of people are suffering and dying because they don't even have the basics of first-aid, sanitation and nutrition. At the same time the "New World Order" which is increasingly ruled by multi-national corporations for whom the only values are cash values, is making poor people and their biomedical needs irrelevant unless they can be exploited for profit.

After looking for a long time for a target population we visited the Delta Project Campus for Dalit people (the "untouchable" caste) about 80kms southeast of Madras in Tamil-Nadu. (see Henry Thiagaraj's announcement in EJAIB 8 (l998), l84) Seeing the enthusiasm for the liberation movement among these people made me feel that in spite of their poverty the most exciting thing in India today may be to be a Dalit and be involved in their liberation movement. The moving factor in this movement are the women, and they understand the need for health education and ethical nursing and medical services. Many people in our Faculty of Health Sciences in Beer Sheva, including advanced nursing and medical students, are enthusiastic about volunteering to help in this project, and we are now seeking funding for airfare and basic expenses. I hope to have more to report on this in future issues of EJAIB.

Cross cultural bioethics

At the most recent bioethics conference at Loyola University in Madras, Avi Gold, a graduate student at our university, lectured on the question: "Is monotheism an obstacle to universal bioethics?" Avi will publish a version of his lecture in a future EJAIB. I come from a culture, Judaism, which is supposedly monotheistic, supposedly believing in one and only one God and that all religions which believe in other gods are to be wiped off the face of the earth. The Bible seems to say this pretty clearly, so it is a shock when one finds oneself working together on bioethics projects and becoming good friends with Indian Hindus and Japanese Shintoists who are in their daily lives involved with many, many gods. Indeed Judaism must share the earth and learn to cooperate with people of many different faiths, in spite of the intolerance which we were taught in the past.

I am now reading a book which I received as a gift in India called "The Foundations of Indian Culture" by Sri Aurobindo, who argues that one-sided conceptions of God are small-minded because God is really so infinite, so beyond our grasp, that we need many different religions, many different gods, to approach the infinitely varied sides of this infinity. At the same time I have heard from a number of people both in India and in Japan that the thousands of gods of Hinduism or of Shinto are really just different revelations of the One God. Conversely reflection for many years on the Bible and on Maimonides' philosophy, especially his angelology, has led me to the conclusion that Judaism is not a monotheistic religion anyway. The angels in the Bible, who speak to the prophets, are really the same beings who are refered to as "gods" in polytheistic religions. Indeed "monotheism" is not a Hebrew word, nor does it translate any Hebrew or Aramaic word known to me. I think it is just a misconception foisted on us by European scholars and having nothing to do with authentic Israeli Judaism. (I treat this matter in greater depth in an article to appear in the next few months in Korot, a journal of history of medicine.) And those Jews, and Christians as well, who have learned enmity towards worshippers of other gods, whether they be Asian or Native American or whatever, are victims of a tragic mistake. The Biblical enmity towards "worshippers of strange gods" was directed against Middle Eastern religions of the time, especially ancient Egyptian and Canaanite. It had nothing to do with religions in other parts of the world and should not be allowed to interfere with loving relationships with our bioethical partners in many parts of today's world. We have too many common problems of environmental and community health to allow religion to be an obstacle to cooperation.

Personal relationships

A couple of years ago Darryl wrote an editorial on whether cloning or personal relationships is the proper subject of bioethics. The strange new thing which developed for me over these three years of bioethical travels is the many close friendships which I now have with people around the world. Friends in the Eubios family will remember when I was proud of my primitivity and refused to work with a computer. But many of the people whom I met on these travels convinced me to use the Email more and more. I now find that I am closer, via the Email, to many friends around the world than I am to most of the people living in our apartment building. It's a strange new world.

Go back to EJAIB 9(1) January 1999
Go back to EJAIB
The Eubios Ethics Institute is on the world wide web of Internet: