American Society for Bioethics & Humanities (ASBH) conference & International Neuroethics Society (INS) meeting

Paolo Corsico, PhD student, University of Manchester School of Law, received an IME conference grant to present at the American Society for Bioethics & Humanities conference, & the International Neuroethics Society annual meeting, 2018. Read his report below

By lorrainep · December 15, 2020

California, October – November 2018

Last October, I received an IME conference grant to go to California and attend two of the most important bioethics conferences worldwide. Thanks to the generous support of IME, I was able to take part in the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities (ASBH) annual conference in Anaheim, on October 18-21, 2018. Ten days later, I took part in the annual meeting of the International Neuroethics Society (INS) in San Diego. As a European postgraduate student in bioethics, I was eager to learn about trends, priorities, and novel challenges in medical ethics as they are experienced by colleagues in North America.

It is hard to describe how vast, inclusive, and far-reaching was the array of issues addressed by more than 600 presentations during the four-day ASBH conference. You need a mobile app to navigate the programme at ASBH. Still, it is difficult to decide which sessions to attend. The keynote speakers addressed what I believe to be two overarching themes of the conference: new ‘epidemics’ and global health challenges, and the relevance of health humanities in contemporary culture and clinical education.

The first keynote speaker Jonathan Metzl, professor of sociology and psychiatry at Vanderbilt University, Tennessee reflected on the relationships between mass shootings and mental illness. In his inspiring lecture, Metzl noted that:

The US gun violence epidemic is made worse by polarized debates, which are fuelled by stereotypes around mental illness and race.

Three stereotypes characterize the problematic narrative according to which ‘mental illness is the problem in mass shootings’: 1) the mentally ill are disproportionately violent, 2) psychiatric expertise can predict gun violence, and 3) gun violence is the result of ‘dangerous loners’ or ‘violent cultures’.

The way in which we build narratives around mental illness and gun violence is stigmatizing. We must challenge such stereotypes, give up polarized debates, and start working together to build a safer society.

With reference to the health humanities, Despina Kakoudaki, director of the Humanities Lab at the American University in Washington DC engaged the ASBH audience with a fascinating overview of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Her keynote shed light on the cultural understanding of artificial bodies and robots. Kakoudaki argued that the discourse on artificial bodies has been ongoing for centuries. This discourse includes the ancient ideas of ‘artificial birth’ and ‘mechanical body’, as well as the modern idea of ‘mechanical slaves’ and that of ‘existential cyborgs’. Two key points of her lecture were that:

Real robots are now changing our world. However, real robots are sometimes non-recognizable in everyday life, as embodiment and location of artificial agents influence the perception of their agency.

If robots become self-aware, like Frankenstein, they might demand rights and liberty. This is a real political issue that we ought to address.

The INS annual meeting, entitled “Cutting Edge Neuroscience, Cutting Edge Neuroethics” was held at San Diego Central Library on November 1-2, 2018. Smaller than ASBH, but by no means less engaging, the meeting aimed at rethinking the role of neuroethics for the occasion of the 10th annual conference. Central themes were the growing expansion of digital neuro-technologies in health care domains, and the impact of neuro-technology on individuals’ identities and public policies.

I particularly appreciated the opening keynote address, delivered by the president of Mindstrong Health, Tom Insel. Dr Insel highlighted the disruptive potential of digital phenotyping—that is, the measurement of individual cognition, emotion, and behaviour by using data from smartphones and wearables—to address ‘disorders of behaviour’. The key messages of his keynote were that:

Digital phenotyping has the potential to revolutionize the way we manage disorders of behaviour, by giving us access to data that are objective, continuous, ecological, and passive.

Ethical challenges emerge within two domains: 1) issues of value, which include the efficacy of novel tools and user engagement, and 2) issues of trust, which include transparency, agency, and responsibility.

Emily Postan from the University of Edinburgh then gave an engaging ‘rising star plenary lecture’. Postan argued that access to neuro-information has the potential to affect our identities and that our primary concern should not be with the abuse of neuro-information by others, but with the use that we ourselves make of it. Postan’s central claim was that beliefs about the brain and the mind influence our self-narratives in positive and negative ways. We should ensure that access to neuro-information benefits the construction of our self-narratives and the development of our personal identities.

I believe that any student in bioethics and medical humanities would greatly benefit from attending ASBH and INS. Not only for the opportunity to network with fellow ethicists from all over the world, nor for the conferences’ cutting-edge approach to ethics and policy debates. Most importantly, I think that early career bioethicists should attend the ASBH and INS annual conferences because they are outstanding opportunities for personal and professional development. I am deeply grateful to the IME for having supported me.

Paolo Corsico, PhD candidate in Bioethics and Medical Jurisprudence, CSEP, School of Law, the University of Manchester

Below: American Society for Bioethics & Humanities Conference, Anaheim

ASBH, Anaheim