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Event Review: In conversation with Dr Amy Gutmann

23 March 2015
Appeared in BioNews 795

In conversation with Dr Amy Gutmann

Organised by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics

Conference Centre, British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB

Tuesday 17 March 2015

'Geoff Watts in conversation with Amy Gutmann', organised by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, Tuesday 17 March 2015

On 15 March 2015, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics held its annual public lecture, where speakers are invited to 'give an international perspective on a bioethics issue of their choice'.

While this international perspective has long been common to the annual lectures, as of last year the Nuffield Council have seemingly shied away from the more conventional notion of a lecture. This year, the 'lecture' had a talk show vibe to it, and not a PowerPoint slide in sight. Although still professional, the result was a refreshingly relaxed and energetic atmosphere.

Dr Geoff Watts and Professor Amy Gutmann

The focus of the questioning was political scientist and philosopher Dr Amy Gutmann, chair of the US Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (the Bioethics Commission). Dr Gutmann is also president and distinguished professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

The hour-long conversation was hosted by a charismatic Dr Geoff Watts, a Nuffield Council member who is also a science writer and broadcaster. His questioning provided, not so much an in-depth interrogation of a particular bioethical issue, but more of a general opportunity to hear about Dr Gutmann's career and the workings of the Bioethics Commission.

During the course of the evening, Dr Gutmann explained that the Bioethics Commission is a group of just ten members that advises President Obama on bioethical issues arising from medicine and scientific progress, and promotes policies that ensure such research is performed in an ethically acceptable manner. She spoke of the importance of interacting with the public, both to inform their work in a process called 'democratic deliberation', and also to gauge the success of their policies given that they have no real legislative authority.

Occasionally I feel that there can be an undertone that ethics and scientific progress are two incompatible or opposing forces – science wants to push forward, but ethical concerns are holding it back. However, Dr Gutmann spoke with clear authority and knowledge on how ethical principles are embedded in everything, and therefore the need for balance between science and ethics. She explained how groups such as the Bioethics Commission and Nuffield Council are important not because science will move forward regardless, but because scientists want to do ethically sound work that will benefit the public.

Using the Ebola epidemic as an example, she argued that we should not rely on a crisis to 'focus the mind' on what can be harmonious and helpful relationship between ethics and science. Importantly, she also spoke passionately on the need to not only consider ethical principles but actually action on them in a practical way to make progress on controversial issues.

It was also interesting to hear Dr Gutmann's opinion on how the Bioethics Commission interacts with religious groups, the legal system and the media. After being questioned whether organised religious groups have caused difficulties or picketed any meetings, I was particularly impressed by her mature explanation that you should not be quick to dismiss opinions simply as 'belonging to a particular religion'. Despite ethical attitudes often being heavily influenced by religion, she was careful to explain the need to be tolerant and not put too much emphasis on why someone has an opinion, only what it is.

Drs Watts and Gutmann had a friendly rapport on stage, which added to the feeling that you were somehow involved as opposed to simply a spectator. Although the discussion seemed a little disjointed in places, in fairness this was due to Dr Gutmann's clear enthusiasm for bioethics and her job, which is not really something to complain about. My only real criticism is that for a public lecture it was slightly academic in places, and some of the more niche vocabulary and references had me struggling to keep up. However, these moments were quickly navigated by Dr Watts to help maintain the inclusive feeling.

The ethical debates surrounding biomedical and scientific progress are important and fascinating, but also incredibly difficult. As much as I enjoy debating these topics, I often go around in circles, unable to settle on how the ethical considerations could be used to complement progress while protecting the public and informing our legal system. It's a bit childish, but my reaction is usually to get frustrated and confused, then avoid engaging in the debate any further.

So, as well as learning a lot and enjoying the evening, I came away particularly thankful that there are people out there with the passion and intelligence to tackle these difficult questions. And, as Dr Gutmann emphasised numerous times, possess the ability to use these qualities to make practical progress on controversial issues.

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