Conference Report: 16th World Congress of Bioethics, July 2022

Amy Williams, PhD Medicine (Law & Ethics), Lancaster University, received an IME Conference Grant to attend this conference in Basel, Switzerland to orally present her paper 'Is it ethical to burden infertile people with the task of changing social norms surrounding genetic relatedness?' You can read Amy's report below

By lorrainep · November 15, 2022

Conference Report: 16th World Congress of Bioethics
by Amy Williams, PhD Medicine (Law & Ethics), Lancaster University

I am grateful to the Institute of Medical Ethics for supporting my participation at the International Association of Bioethics’ 16th World Congress of Bioethics (IAB). The Congress was hosted by the University of Basel’s Institute for Biomedical Ethics in Switzerland. As always, the biannual event began with the Feminist Approaches to Bioethics Congress (FAB) on 18th and 19th July 2022, followed by the World Congress from 20th to 22nd July 2022. I was fortunate enough to attend both.

Delegates from across the globe attended in-person and online, representing a variety of disciplines including philosophy, law, critical cultural studies, public health and medicine. The daily programme comprised a series of parallel sessions, plenary sessions and keynote speakers. As to be expected, ethical issues related to the COVID pandemic featured heavily on the agenda, as did ethical issues relating to new and emerging technologies. I focused my attention on attending sessions most closely aligned with my PhD research in reproductive technologies and feminist methodologies.

The theme of the FAB conference was, ‘Reimagining Feminist Bioethics’. The COVID pandemic, climate change and emerging technologies create new ethical challenges. Presentations demonstrated the continuing salience of traditional feminist critiques in bioethics but also offered the opportunity to consider how feminist approaches to bioethics might be reimagined to meet these new challenges.

The World Congress of Bioethics theme was, ‘Bioethics post Covid-19: Responsibility and transparency in a globalized and interconnected world’. Delegates were spoilt for choice with the volume and range of issues discussed. Ethical issues raised by the pandemic in public health, research, vaccinations and clinical care were explored alongside issues raised by new and emerging technologies, climate change, animal ethics, abortion, elderly care and medicine; representing insights from around the world. Justice and responsibility were recurring themes throughout the three days.

A FAB session chaired by Professor Catherine Mills on ‘Diverse perspectives on reproduction’ introduced me to wider range of work on reproduction. The session was opened by Hilary-Bowman Smart. She presented the first stage of her team’s empirical work on hospital review committees, exploring their role and approach to post 24-week termination of pregnancy. This was followed by Dr Michieal De Proost’s fascinating discussion on the vulnerability of men’s reproductive bodies and the practical implications of making men’s reproductive health a focus of feminist bioethical enquiry. Katy Fulfer then presented an exploration of the ethical questions that arise from applying a vegan ecofeminist lens to infertility treatments. The session ended with Serene Ong’s presentation of her empirical work on the relational dynamics of genetic testing and disclosure within families. So, an interesting and diverse mix of empirical and theoretical work in novel areas of bioethical enquiry.

Amongst the panel sessions I attended was one led by Dr John Appleby, ‘Regulating Revolutionary ARTs: Ethical, Legal and Scientific Perspectives’. This discussion brought together the scientific and ethical issues relevant to the regulation of novel and emerging reproductive technologies. Dr Appleby began by considering the challenges posed by in-vitro derived gametogenesis to the increasingly recognised right to knowledge of one’s genetic parentage. Dr Helen O’Neil joined online to provide an important analysis of where genome editing science is up to and what the regulatory challenges are for the new CRISPR-Cas9 technology. An important question raised by the talk was the ability of legislation to keep pace with rapid scientific developments in this area. Dr Elizabeth Chloe Romanis followed with a discussion about the status of the ‘entity in the artificial placenta’ during partial ectogenesis and responsibility for it. The presentation considered the current legal concepts relating to parenthood and the status of the embryo/foetus, highlighting the questions partial ectogenesis raises for the law in this area. Finally, Dr Jeffrey Khan discussed the difficulty of regulating innovation in reproductive technology as we move forward, analysing the different forms that regulation might take in a globalised community. His presentation gave an insight into the challenge of encouraging innovation and enabling the therapeutic potential of new technologies whilst also addressing the social harms and risks they can pose. Much of this discussion was relevant to my own work in genetic relatedness and ARTs, so I benefited from the analysis of the issues raised by these new technologies.

The short oral sessions offered bitesize insights into a remarkable breadth of work taking place in bioethics. For example, a session on reproductive technologies included Isabella Holmes on the epistemic distinction between information and knowledge in the context of predictive prenatal genetic testing; Dr Lisa Campo-Englestein on health professionals’ views of posthumous reproduction; Risa Suwannaraks on the ethics of addressing shortages of donor gametes from ethnic minority groups and many more talks touching on ethical issues in surrogacy; the justice of access to reproductive technologies on the basis of age, non-invasive pre-natal testing and consent models in genetic and genomic research.

A number of keynote speakers offered perspectives on inclusive bioethics. During FAB, Dr Keisha Ray presented on ‘Black bioethics and the future of health equity’ and then, on Wednesday, Dr Agomoni Ganguli-Mitra gave a keynote entitled ‘Bioethics as if Everybody Matters’ followed by Dr Christine Wieseler’s keynote presentation on ‘Disability Bioethics: Mapping the Rough Ground’. A theme that seemed to run throughout these talks was the call for greater awareness from those working in bioethics. The talks highlighted a need for ethicists to question whether their own work challenges or reinforces harmful biases, who is included and excluded and to critically address some of the problematic assumptions underpinning bioethical enquiry. For me, an important message from these keynotes and discussions at FAB was that the work of creating a more inclusive ethics should not be left only to those who specialise in Black ethics, disability ethics or feminist ethics but that every ethicist has a role to play which will require careful reflection on the way we ‘do ethics.’
Finally, the Institute’s financial assistance enabled me to deliver in person my paper, ‘Changing social norms: genetic relatedness and assisted reproduction’. I was delighted at the opportunity to present my first ever oral conference paper to an international audience. I benefitted immensely from feedback on my work which I intend to develop for publication.

It was a pleasure to spend time discussing contemporary issues in bioethics with experts, learning from the latest scholarship, building connections with fellow scholars and hearing about developments and future directions for the field. I also welcomed the chance to hear about and discuss some recently published texts. Relevant to my own work, I look forward to reading two forthcoming works. First, the newly published Routledge Handbook of Feminist Bioethics edited by Wendy Rogers et al and featuring articles written by many speakers at the conference, and second Dr Emily Postan’s Embodied Narratives. The congress was a fantastic, inspiring experience and I look forward to building on what I learned.