A Bioethics Society at last

Jamaican family physician Dr Derrick Aarons is head of a new Caribbean organisation that will concern itself with bioethical and often controversial issues such as homosexuality, genetic engineering, ganja smoking, mercy killing, medical malpractice and the like.

Aarons, who is the first in the region to attain a doctorate in bio-ethics, also makes history as the first president of the Bioethics Society of the English-Speaking Caribbean (BSEC), which has just been formed.

"The Society hopes to get a national bioethics committee established in Jamaica and in other English-speaking countries, to provide expert advice on ethical matters related to health and health care, research, the life sciences, and public policy in health and health care," Dr Aarons dislcosed.

Patron of the BSEC is UWI chancellor and Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) director emeritus, Professor Sir George Alleyne.

Launched during the recently concluded second Research Ethics Conference at the University of the West Indies, Mona, the BSEC comprises individuals interested in the discussion, teaching, research, or clinical aspects of bioethics.

Bioethics is a field, which aims, among other objectives, to provide ethics discourse and guidance in matters related to research, health care, and public policies relative to health, medicine, and biology.

Aarons explained that the BSEC formation arose out of a series of fora held, dating back to 1993, when the concepts of bioethics were first introduced to the Caribbean. The current membership comprises some 40 founding members from 19 territories.

"With the launching of the Bioethics Society, we have therefore assumed the mantle of engaging in meaningful discussions about bioethical issues of particular importance to the Caribbean. Further, however, we will have to assume an advocacy role to achieve the particular objectives set out in the society's constitution," he said.

Aarons, who practises in the northcoast resort of Ocho Rios, some years ago - as chairman of the Ethics Committee of the Medical Association of Jamaica (MAJ) - spearheaded a ground breaking code of ethics governing the confidentiality of doctors regarding HIV/AIDS patients.

The code of ethics was particularly far-reaching as it smashed a hallowed tradition of complete confidentiality between doctors and patients, under the Hippocratic Oath of 450 BC.

Aarons successfully proposed that doctors be allowed to warn third parties who were at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS from a partner who was diagnosed with the deadly disease, even if the patient requested confidentiality of the doctor, AIDS being regarded as a death sentence.

"When the oath was made, there was nothing like AIDS around," Aarons told the Observer in an earlier interview.

He also led the MAJ submission before the Ganja Commission, arguing that ganja should be decriminalised on the basis that while the weed causes harm, it was less harmful than cigarette/tobacco which was not illegal.

In its submission, the MAJ further proposed that persons under 18 years of age be banned from using ganja, because it harms short-term memory at a time when students need to retain knowledge. Adults, on the other hand, should be allowed to smoke it if they choose to, in the privacy of their homes, but not in public places. The Ganja Commission accepted the position.

On abortion, Aarons argued for the updating of the antiquated 1875 abortion laws, and proposed a conceptual model which put the mother and foetus at the centre of the concern, surrounded by other important lives that would be affected, and including other issues such as the religious, financial and social impact.

On another controversial bioethical issue - homosexuality - the BSEC president suggested that instead of approaching the debate from a position of right or wrong, debaters should look at the more fundamental issue of what made male or female.

"Is it our chromosomes, the genital organs, the sexual hormones that flow through us, or how we are brought up to look at ourselves? If we were to look at all of these inputs, it would not be as easy to come to a conclusion on homosexuality."

No to human cloning

Aarons' advice on the matter of human cloning, which is part of genetic engineering, echoed in the halls of the United Nations in Geneva in 2003.

In its preparation for a vote on the International Convention Against Human Cloning for Reproduction, Jamaica's foreign ministry asked for advice from the health ministry promptly contacted Aarons. The Jamaican delegation voted as Aarons advised.

"I recommended that research on cloning techniques should be regulated, with strict oversight that would enable scientists to find ways of correcting genetic abnormalities and to grow cells to provide tissues and organs as replacement parts to lessen the suffering of patients," Aarons disclosed.

by Desmond Allen Observer Executive Editor - Operations

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