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Event Review: Student Ethics Conference

13 January 2014
By George Dickson
Medical student, Norwich Medical School
Appeared in BioNews 737

As the weather turned cold in December, the topics heated up at the Norwich Medical School for the Student Ethics Conference, whose tagline was 'Go Forth, Increase and Moralise'. Medical students from all around the UK were invited to submit abstracts on a theme of reproductive ethics and law, though other aspects of medical ethics and law were also welcome.

An impressive number of attendees gathered to discuss issues on a wide variety of subjects - most notably, an address from keynote speaker Dr Gillian Lockwood, medical director of Midland Fertility Services. Dr Lockwood gave a rousing speech entitled 'Chance, Choice and Children' describing her inspiring transition from her role as a statistician to study medicine, wanting to help children with facial deformities. However, this goal was adjusted - 'instead of making babies beautiful, why don't you make beautiful babies?' - leading her to her current role.

Dr Lockwood raised an interesting question: 'Can anyone have a baby?' With recent advances in fertility treatments and further options for struggling families it seems like anyone can, but Dr Lockwood discussed the parental factors such as age, co-morbidities or smoking that affect the efficacy of fertility treatments, their drain on resources and its potential effects on the mother. Is NHS facilitation of this basic human right always appropriate?

For some, continuing advances in fertility technology are allowing women to create their own designer family. Dr Lockwood explained their respective advantages and disadvantages with humour, passion and a personable affectation that made her an engaging speaker that must represent quite a boon for her patients. These methods offer no guarantees of course, and their ethical merit is questionable, but who is harmed? Are parents to blame for wanting the best child they can have? There are contentious means for making a child more intelligent, more athletic; whereas some parents state they don't mind 'as long as it's healthy'. NHS services obviously strive towards making as healthy a baby as possible, but do the ends justify these other means? Dr Lockwood posed another question: 'Can one have any baby?' The conference went one further: 'Should they?'

Students were encouraged to discuss matters that are important to them in the form of an oral presentation. A variety of topics were discussed, from neuro-enhancement to the gap between medical student ethical principles and their practice. Competition proved intense and it seemed that awarding just one winner was an ethical dilemma in itself. Congratulations and Amazon vouchers went to Jake Moss from St. George's University of London for looking into the reality of reality-TV doctors; and Chris Woods from Hull York Medical School for his intensive look into rationing of IVF within the modern NHS.

Mr Woods presented a strong utilitarian case for providing funding for reproductive technologies 'even at the cost of some life-saving but expensive therapies'. He stated that alternative models of healthcare resource allocation rest upon flawed concepts when considering quality-adjusted life-year gains from the lives of any offspring. However, divergent moral sentiments may prevent appropriate levels of funding.

The conference also included a selection of parallel workshops of topics including surrogacy and media effects upon healthcare policy. These sessions were interactive, interesting and informative using a wide range of multimedia to stimulate discussion of the situations that are increasingly affecting healthcare professionals today. Definitive answers not included.

A large number of posters were prepared exploring issues such as compulsory vaccination and whether children should be included in medical trials. Well dones and redeemable coupons go to Edward Palmer from King's College London for his progressive look towards doctor's duties in supporting paedophiles; and Megan Toksvig-Stewart from University of East Anglia for her examination of differing views surrounding elective caesarean section.

Miss Toksvig-Stewart identifies the reasons that elective caesareans have increased dramatically over recent years and compares this to medical rationale for recommended vaginal birth. She explores the gap between the autonomy for a mother to choose her method of birth via patient-led care and the professional's duty to do no harm to mother or child through surgery.

Dr Anna Smajdor has organised a conference which advances the education of medical practitioners and students in the understanding and practice of medical ethics and law to further integrate these disciplines into clinical practice. This has been delivered with good effect by engaging professionals and enthusiastic students from around the UK which serves to bolster awareness, conscientiousness and cognitive approaches to analyse some of the pressing issues facing healthcare providers today. This event has truly equipped its attendants to Go Forth, Increase and Moralise.

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