Bioethics in 2025: What Will Be the Challenges?
Organised by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics
Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London EC2Y 8DS
Tuesday 11 November 2014
than a list of what the experts think we'll be worrying about in ten years'
time, 'Bioethics in 2025: what will be the challenges?' was instead a
surprisingly thoughtful discussion. Focusing on what bioethicists and we as a
society are doing now, and on what we could do, the speakers asked whether we
are moving closer to or further away from a future we are happy with.
varied, philosophical discussion was no doubt aided by the Nuffield Council's
choice to move away from the traditional public lecture format to a panel of
four exciting new voices, which resulted in the selection of an impressive all-female
setting and the free caffeine got the evening off to a good start and made sure
that the packed lecture hall had a lively atmosphere. First to speak was Deborah Bowman, Professor of Bioethics, Clinical Ethics and Medical Law at St
George's University of London. With the admittance that bioethicists 'don't
have a great track record of predicting the future', she instead chose to start
by questioning what bioethics is and who bioethicists are, and whether this
needs updating to meet the challenges of the next ten years.
particularly struck by her call for bioethics not just to be about academics
performing 'intellectual gymnastics' but that bioethicists should actively
engage with and listen to everyone who makes up our society: like patients and
carers, children, or those from ethnic or cultural minorities. Professor Bowman's
challenge for 2025 was for bioethicists to have identified 'who is doing the
talking and who isn't' and to work out how to get those missing voices
Next was Dr Sarah Chan, Research Fellow in Bioethics and Law at the University of
Manchester. Her talk galloped through an interesting but ambitiously complex
range of topics: access to reproductive technologies ('who is being allowed to
be a parent and who are we neglecting?'), human enhancement, global inequity in
access to healthcare and why there is no need for the 'limits of our moral
community' to be bound by species.
had a bit of biology from Dr Molly Crockett, Associate Professor of
Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford. Her talk focused on the
scientific and ethical challenges of developing a 'morality pill'. As Dr Crockett
explained, however, it is not always clear what kind of behaviours we might
want to enhance, or whether the complexity of our brain chemistry prevents us
from ever being able to cause a predictable change. For example, the hormone
oxytocin, sometimes called the 'cuddle chemical', has been shown to increase
trust, empathy and cooperation but has also been linked to gloating and envy.
Crockett's talk caused a bit of stir later in the evening when a member of the
audience criticised her for saying that 'as a scientist in the lab I'm not in a
position to decide whether [my research] is or is not ethical', calling it a 'moral
abdication'. There was a palpably tense atmosphere as Dr Crockett clarified how
deeply she felt about the moral implications of her work but that it 'would be
irresponsible to do [her research] in isolation' without seeking the views of 'people
whose expertise [in bioethics] extends beyond mine'.
speaker was Dr Gill Haddow, Senior Research Fellow in Science, Technology and
Innovation Studies at the University of Edinburgh — or, as she described
herself, 'a sociologist who is totally jazzed to have been asked to talk about
bioethics'. With refreshing energy and good humour, Dr Haddow explored a
potential future where parts of our bodies are increasingly replaced by animal
or mechanical parts. She asked whether we would just be 'muddled bodies muddling
along' or whether, as new-age 'cyborgs', we would find ourselves struggling
with feeling not quite human.
first to last (not forgetting the drinks reception) the evening was as
enjoyable as it was enlightening, although I felt I had seen something of the
weaknesses of bioethics — 'the language we use alienates rather than includes
and makes issues that are intuitive more opaque and complex' — as well as its
challenges we may be facing by 2025, I am reassured that bioethicists armed
with new ways of thinking, involving and communicating with society, will help
us to be prepared. As Dr Chan eloquently put it: 'We cannot predict the future
but we can shape it. Hopefully for the better.'