18 November 2014
ByAppeared in BioNews 780
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
Rather 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.
This more 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 line-up.
The grand 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.
I was 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 heard.
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.
We then 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.
Dr 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'.
The final 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.
From 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 strengths.
Whatever 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.'