Research Ethics from a Developing World Perspective

By Athula Sumathipala and
Sisira Siribaddana
Sri Lankan Twin Registry, 63 pages

Reading this slim, scholarly volume gave me much pleasure because the authors are my former pupils. One of the pleasures available to an old, retired teacher is basking in the brilliance of past pupils. Of the two authors, one (Dr. Athula Sumathipala) is a psychiatrist; the other is an endocrinologist. Truth to tell, they were not among my swans in the Colombo Medical School, and I know that I was not their favourite teacher in the tumultous 1980s. The book under review proves beyond doubt that, contrary to my expectations, they have matured early into very competent professionals.

Their book is about ethics, which is a very difficult subject. Ethics is concerned with what is right and what is wrong. As soon as we try to tell the difference between right and wrong disagreement begins. There are ethical absolutists and ethical relativists. The absolutists say that there are moral rules which are binding on all human beings (e.g. don’t kill babies). The relativists say that there are no such rules and point to societies where infanticide especially female infanticide, has been and is being practiced.

So is there any sense in Drs. Sumathipala and Siribaddana attempting to formulate ethical rules to guide research? The answer is yes. Shakespeare’s Hamlet says that "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so". If so, everyone is entitled to say loud and clear what they think is the good way (i.e. ethical way) to do something. That is precisely what Drs Sumathipala and Siribaddana have done in this book. They have set out what they think are the rules that ought to guide bio-medical and genetic researchers.

Basically, they endorse the four well-known moral principles of western bioethics (do good; do no harm; be fair; respect human dignity). They assert that Sri Lankan society is heavily influenced by Buddhist and Hindu philosophies. They have, however, not attempted to extract from these philosophies any specific contribution to solidify or enrich their ethical guidelines. They ought to focus on the Buddhist epistemiological approach to ethics for possible insights. The writings of Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi on the subject should prove useful.

Drs Sumathipala and Siribaddana have played a key role in establishing the Sri Lankan Twin Registry. Such a registry is a sine qua non for research into genetic disorders. Perhaps even more important, such a registry could provide clues to the understanding of human behaviour. The problem is an old one: how much of our behaviour is instinctive (i.e. due to genes) and how much of it is learnt (i.e. due to culture)? This is not the place to embark on a detailed discussion of the matter, but do you know that a Danish study based on 3586 twins has shown that identical twins had a 50% chance of sharing criminal behaviour whereas only 21% of non-identical twins showed such a tendency.

Drs Sumathipala and Siribaddana must be commended for their initiative, energy and enterprise in writing this well-documented, important little book.
Prof. Carlo Fonseka