The second Annual Conference on Global Bioethics was held on April 21-23, 2006 in New York. It was organized by the IHEU-Appignani Center for Bioethics in NYC and sponsored by Genetics Policy Institute and the Alden March Bioethics Institute of Albany, NY. Almost 150 people attended the cocktail reception among them UN missions, representatives of the IHEU member organizations from all over the world, diplomatic missions in the US, academics and humanist activists. 70 people attended the conference sessions on Saturday and Sunday.
Taking a broad and cross-disciplinary approach to addressing medical and bio-technological issues in contemporary society, conference session topics included: stem cell research, genetic engineering and human dignity, reproductive and sexual rights of women, the United Nations as a forum for bioethics, ethical issues in infectious disease control, and the challenge of evolutionary theory.
On Friday, April 21, 2006, the keynote speakers at the cocktail reception held at the Turkish Consulate General were Professors Art Caplan and Paul Kurtz.
Professor Art Caplan, one of the world’s leading bioethicists, addressed the opening reception of the conference. His address was an amalgamation of predictions and prophecies of controversies that lay over the horizon for bioethics and bioethicists-delivered, of course, in his trademark plain-speak, charismatic style that has made him the “natural” in the U.S. for media-outlet and public bioethics commentary. Caplan disclosed that a vaccine for cervical cancer would soon become available followed by a great public debate. Sounds like an unquestionably great advance in science, right? Not so, argues Caplan, who rightly noted a host of problem associated with this new drug. First, he says, there is the omnipresent problem of resource distribution and affordability; the new vaccine will cost $200, if not more and may be out of pocketbook range for the women who could benefit from it most. Public provision of the vaccine is an option in theory, but in fact would bankrupt most city and state departments of health. Likewise, there is the issue of making the vaccine available to women in the developing world, where cervical cancer plays a leading role in morbidity and mortality but whose citizens are least able to afford it. Caplan concluded by reminding the audience that bioethics must stay abreast if not ahead of science if bioethicists are to have any meaningful, practically useful contributions to make.
On Saturday, April 22, 2006 2nd floor, 777 United Nations Plaza.
Professor Glenn McGee made the first presentation “The importance of being regional: in defense of the American federalist system of state experimentation as a model for bioethics” by reviewing the developing area of investment and regulation by the U.S. states in biotechnology and medicine, and arguing that ultimately, while certain matters such as abortion rights are better served by debates at the national level, there is room for regionalism both political and moral in the world of bioethics in the U.S. and the world.
The first panel discussion of the conference was an invigorating debate between Professors Marcy Darnovsky, James Hughes, and Stephen E. Levick regarding the future intersections between biotechnology and society. The subsequent panel discussion was almost entirely a contrast between Hughes and Darvnovsky’s opposite views. The former is an optimist about trans-humanist science and the latter a pessimist about its propensity to detract attention from today’s real world problems.
Following Darnovsky, Professor Adrienne Asch argued in her talk that foreseeable reproductive technologies, e.g. those centered on the ability to select for or against certain genetic traits, may in fact cause harm to families and societies by creating undue and unwarranted expectations of children conceived by such artificial means. Though explicitly discouraging any sort of ban on these technologies, Asch tried to carve out a middle ground-a world where healthcare professionals highlight and potentially discourage use of such technologies to minimize perverse expectations and thwart harm to children, their parents, and society.
The same day of the conference, Professor Alyssa Bernstein analyzed the recent UNESCO Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights within a social contract framework, particularly focusing on the inadequacies of the declaration with respect to the moral demands of Rawls’ theories of distributive justice and the obligations of modern developed states to assist lesser developed countries in their quest to secure and maintain a basic portfolio of human rights.
An excellent panel on women’s rights ended the first day of the conference. Marin Gillis, Taina Bien Aime, Laura Purdy and Bonnie Spanier were the leading figures of the panel.
Professor Laura Purdy talked about a new “culture of life” imposed by the Religious Right on the U.S. It holds that intentionally killing humans is always wrong, except perhaps in self-defense. It precludes euthanasia, abortion, embryonic stem cell research, although not capital punishment, war, or weakening of life-saving public health measures. It also requires that any sex act be open to producing new life, ruling out contraception. Implementing this principle is leading the Religious Right to promote abstinence-only sex education, and to limit information about and access to contraception (condoms, in particular), with harmful consequences to women, gay men, and children.
Professor Spanier’s focus was on U.S. government efforts to curtail reproductive and sexual rights particularly by using bogus science to support the far right’s political position against women’s autonomy.
Marin Gillis talked about how religious conservatives have sponsored “disinformation campaigns” regarding “Plan B” which prevents a fertilized egg from implanting. Pharmacists don’t deal well with ambiguity. Their profession is based on being precisely accurate. Legislators in some states are changing the rational landscape by legally defining pregnancy as conception. Even when facts and definitions are on your side, Dr. Gillis argues, new findings in science can change the landscape of that ethical debate in the future.
Taina Bien-Aime, Executive Director of “Equality Now,” an international human rights organization that works for the protection of the rights of women and girls, gave a graphic list of horrendous abuses faced by women around the world today. Examples of genital mutilation, rape within marriage, and wife obedience laws result of increasing social restrictions placed on women in recent years. These examples do not seem to concern the United States that much which has not even signed on in support of international laws against the abuse of children.
Sunday, April 23, 2006; Main conference room, 2nd floor, 777 United Nations Plaza
James Stacey Taylor argued against one of the most common complaints that is offered against the view that we should solve the shortage of human transplant organs by legalizing markets in them.
The third important panel discussion was held on Sunday, whose protagonists were Professors Janet Dolgin, Louis M. Guenin and Stephen E. Levick. Professor Dolgin attempted to analyze the current debate over human embryonic stem cell research (ESR) as a natural extension of the abortion debate, what she termed the “etiologic cause” of the ESR debate.
Stephen Levick asked the audience to “empathically imagine the blastocyst.” His presentation was geared toward understanding a conservative stance against ESR in which blastocysts are indeed ascribed moral importance and significance as human beings-a position which many on the other side of the debate routinely treat with contempt and little regard.
Coleen Lyons then talked about the potential opportunities for collaboration that exist between private international corporations and poor countries with emerging markets who are struggling to meet the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Lyons believes that the private business sector alone has the practical expertise and discipline to both generate and distribute the funding necessary to meet the MDGs. She argues that the government-focused current system is wrought with corruption and inefficiency, and that private businesses themselves have a greater economic incentive to ensure the stability and growth of emerging markets in the developing world, which in turn means providing the basic staples of living as outlined by the MDGs.
For more details about the conference and the abstracts of the presenters please see the conference program.