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Ancient Knowledge Systems and IGC Bioethics

Published: September 13, 2012, Author: Rÿser Rudolph C.

The UNESCO International Bioethics Committee and the member states of the Intergovernmental Bioethics Committee commenced the 19th Session of the IBC at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris on the 11th and 12th of September to consider the “Draft Report of IBC on Traditional Medicine and its Ethical implications.”  The draft contains numerous flaws and perhaps most importantly it lacks a scholarly foundation from indigenous peoples.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization International bioethics Committee (IBC) had asked more than 100 specialized research institutes throughout the world to answer questions intended to secure information about traditional medical practices, their institutional framework and legal regulation. The IBC also called upon traditional health practitioners from different regions of the world to participate in discussions presenting their points of view and experience with traditional medicine.  Absent an understanding of ancient knowledge systems, their structures and how they work, and relying on only what can be called a cursory and largely superficial consideration of the present state of existing scholarly understanding about ancient knowledge, the International Bioethics Committee of UNESCO may now only draw one conclusion:

1) Seventy percent to 90% of the peoples living in developing countries and perhaps 40% to 60% of the citizens living in so called developed countries rely on traditional medicines and healing practices  as a primary source of health care or in the case of developed countries as a frequent source of health care.

2.) In many countries there are more traditional healers than there are conventional medical practitioners,

3) The effectiveness and benefits of traditional medicines and healing practices are not measured or understood by conventional medical systems,

4) Users of traditional medicines and healing appear to benefit from treatments for mental disorders, chronic health conditions including rheumatism, metabolic disorders, neurological anomalies and conditions including diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and obesity, abdominal pains, diarrhea, jaundice and malaria.

Concerned that traditional medicine may forestall access to “modern medicine” the IBC suggests that “cultural familiarity” cannot be used to obstruct such access. In reality, like the World Health Organization that also seeks to classify traditional medicines and healing practices and argues that such practices “should be respected, preserved, promoted and communicated widely and appropriated based on the circumstances in each country” (Beijing Declaration), the argument is that states’ governments should “ensure appropriate, safe and effective use of traditional medicine” under state laws and standards.

The problem with the IBC approach and ultimately that of the World Health Organization is that they conclude that states’ governments should assume regulatory control over traditional medicine and healing practices when UNESCO, the WHO or states’ governments do not understand, have no means to understand or seems unwilling to understand the ancient knowledge systems that are foundational to traditional medicines and healing practices anywhere in the world.  How can a State respect, preserve, promote and communicate traditional medicines and healing practices about which they understand virtually nothing?

The ultimate violation of ethical practice would seem to be inherent in the UNESCO, WHO and states’ government approach to relegating traditional medicine and healing practices to a “precious resource” that is only useful if it is placed under the guiding hand of “modern medicine” so such practices can be clarified. This approach, of course, ignores the infancy of “modern medicine” and the confounding errors of modern medicine–witness the inability to heal and prevent chronic disease-representing 80% of human illness. Achieving the “highest attainable standard of health” so urgently and earnestly sought by the International Bioethics Committee might well be best achieved by first seeking to understand the structures of ancient knowledge systems on which traditional medicine and healing practices are based before urging state institutional control over the very thing it does not understand.

Discussions of traditional knowledge in the international arena and in academic institutions have only begun to scratch the surface of understanding the structures of ancient knowledge systems. The systems of knowledge provide not only health and healing (and has been done so for thousands of years), but created the very basis for civilization: architecture, water engineering, agronomy, astrophysics, quantum physics, the hugely fragmented sciences, social order, political organizations, mathematics, music and the arts, and much more.

A good prescription for the International Bioethics Committee would be to directly engage indigenous scholars around the world who individually and collectively contribute to defining the fabric of ancient knowledge on which communities and civilizations base their traditional medicines and healing practices.  Perhaps the best model for proceeding is to consider the examples of Ghana, Tibet, the Diné, the Mayan DayKeepers, Mapuché healers and support a sustained effort to have these and thousands of other indigenous peoples explain the structures and elements of the ancient systems of knowledge on which they base their medicinal and healing practices.

At the moment, UNESCO, IBC, the WHO, states governments and academic institutions interested in benefiting from ancient knowledge act as if they are “one hand clapping.”  To make a full and effective sound they must work with indigenous peoples, their scholars and their practitioners in a concerted effort as collaborators–not controllers. Now, that would be ethical.

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