Personhood, Cultural Ethics, and Biomedical Research: African vs. Euro-American Perspectives

Personhood, Cultural Ethics, and Biomedical Research: African vs. Euro-American Perspectives

Ike Valentine Iyioke (Michigan State University, USA)
Copyright: © 2019 |Pages: 17
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-6310-5.ch010

Abstract

This chapter rides on the premise that the concept of personhood, as embedded in research ethics principles, needs re-examining. As the base upon which the principles were developed and falsely universalized, it needs pointing out that personhood in the Euro-American sense differs markedly from what it is in non-Western cultures. A careful delineation of this understanding should be a teaching moment for researchers, clinicians, bioethicists, students and academics as they confront multicultural perspectives in health research. Hence, it helps to properly inform and effectively erase presumptive tendencies, so people can avoid any voluntary or involuntary unethical behavior, which may arise from ignorance particularly in multicultural settings.
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Introduction

This chapter rides on the premise that the concept of personhood,1 as embedded in research ethics principles, needs re-examining. Having been ignored and/or taken for granted thus far, that need has become urgent. As the base upon which the principles were developed and falsely universalized, it needs stressing that personhood in the Euro-American2 sense differs markedly from what obtains in non-Western cultures such as in Africa. A careful delineation and recalibration of this understanding should be a teaching moment for researchers, clinicians, bioethicists, students and academics as they confront multicultural perspectives in health research. Hence, it helps to properly inform and effectively erase presumptive tendencies, so people can avoid any voluntary or involuntary unethical behavior that might arise from ignorance particularly in multicultural settings. The core task of this chapter is to contrast the African with the Euro-American perspectives on personhood in relation to biomedical research.

While most clinical studies today are initiated and registered in the Global North (predominantly in the U.S.), many of the actual trials are sometimes outsourced and offshored (DuBois, 2003; Petryna, 2009); often to the Global South (Rehnquist, 2001). Owing to this intensified practice of transnational biomedical research, plus the considerable controversy about the mainstream ethics of research which is narrowly constructed with Western individualistic philosophy, the following question which is shaped by the realities of globalization will serve as guide. In what ways can researchers remain respectful of other cultures as transnational borders continue to disappear? To contextualize, how can researchers ensure compliance, guideline consistency, and checks and balances across borders as well as recognize and respect multicultural systems and not project hubris?

The proposal in this chapter is, to some extent, related to, though also different from, that of Marshall and Koenig (2004) who sought for answers on how global bioethics might account for profound - and constantly transforming - sources of cultural differences. This proposal is similar in the sense that it highlights something that is distinctively and culturally ethical in an African context. But at the same time this chapter’s agenda – personhood – is much more specific than that of Marshall and Koenig’s. Analysts including Marshall & Koenig (2004), Levitt & Zwart (2009), and Olweny (1994), have worked to bridge the divide in bioethical discourse, and have managed to elicit some measured response from relevant US agencies which review the regulation and oversight of internationally sponsored research (Nuffield Council on Bioethics, 1999). Nonetheless, more dissenting voices in the Global South who seek to expand the debate have largely been ignored (Bhutta, 2002).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Communalism: As a feature of African life, it is the African perception of a social/spiritual relationship which incorporates all the categories, stages, and modalities of the society; also called bio-eco-communitarian (BEC).

Cultural Ethics: In the context of this chapter, cultural ethics differs from ethical culture, even as both share some mutual features. The latter refers to a type of belief centered on ethics, not theology, whose mission is to encourage respect for humanity and nature and to create a better world. But cultural ethics recognizes that while most ethical guidelines are universally replicated at different cultural milieus; certain standards are specific to certain environments. And just like ethical culture, observers of cultural ethics commit to personal ethical development in their communal relationships with others and in activities involving social justice and environmental stewardship.

Personhood: Is a consummate construct in African thought that connotes relational, ascriptive, and communalistic attributes that define the African.

Bioethics: A branch of philosophy that emerged in the 1970s in the US (and elsewhere) following a period of bewildering problems and abuse of human subjects. Hence, it is the systematic study of the ethical and moral implications of new biological discoveries and biomedical advances, including genetic engineering and drug research. The major principles central to bioethical thinking are: respect for the person’s autonomy; fairness; non-maleficence; and, beneficence.

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