Cultural relativism clashes with human rights
“The right to life is universal and does not depend on ethnic background.” This seems hardly controversial in today’s world. However, a new documentary highlights a clash between cultural relativism and universal human rights in Brazil which raises unsettling questions for Western bioethics. “Hakani” deals with the controversial practice of some Indian tribes who kill new-born infants who are born to single mothers, are deformed or are twins. Infanticide is said to be practiced by 20 of Brazil’s 200 “ethnicities”. Normally the children are buried alive.
A bill under study by the Brazilian Congress would ban infanticide as inconsistent with the universal right to life, but it has many opponents. Many regard it as an unjust imposition of Western values upon the Indians. In a feature in USA Today, Antenor Vaz of the Department of Indian Affairs says that it would be dangerous to “criminalise indigenous actions.” The state, he says, should not use the moral judgements of modern culture “to regulate the indigenous cultures who have survived in this land a lot longer than us whites.”
Some NGOs also support this position. “I’m not going to defend infanticide,” Fiona Watson of Survival International, a group that defends the right of native tribes all over the world, told USA Today. “But I think you have to understand that in the context of Indian culture, “it’s not considered murder.”
“In fact,” she says, “it’s often considered something which is a kind thing to do. If you have somebody who is born into your community who is not going to survive, who is very badly deformed and you are an indigenous people who are living deep in the jungle, you don’t have access to medical care, that is the kindest thing to do.”
Another anthropologist offered another explanation which is relevant to Western bioethics debates. For the tribes, anthropologist >Mércio Pereira Gomes explains, the Indian only considers a human being as a person when he is received by the community. “When infanticide is practiced, from the cultural and not biological point of view, the human being is not considered as complete.
The film is backed by an evangelical Christian NGO and relates the story of a girl, Hakani, rescued by two missionaries, Marcia and Edson Suzuki. They claim that her tribe buried her alive because she was disabled. She was rescued by her older brother. Eight years later, after being treated for a thyroid condition, Hakani walks and talks normally. Ms Watson and Mr Vaz told USA Today that the missionaries are the real villains of the story. They have been exaggerating the number of infanticides and destroying ancient cultures.
Because many Indian settlements are so isolated, estimates of the number of infanticides vary wildly. The Suzukis claim that there are 200 every year; others say that there are only 5 or 10.
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