Towards a Public Bio-Ethics… a review by Croy Thomson of the lecture given by Professor Sarah Cunningham-Burley

You need to add a widget, row, or prebuilt layout before you’ll see anything here. 🙂

Professor Sarah Cunningham-Burley: Towards a Public Bio-Ethics                                           06.03.24

“Ethics: moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity.” Okay, so far so amorphous, but stick with me and it all gets fascinating, not to mention unsettling, especially if you are a human being.

Having been introduced by Dr Colin Miller, Professor Cunningham-Burley made the intangible field of bio-ethics relevant to the realities of life. She adroitly outlined the two main fields encompassed by bio-sciences: living organisms, their life cycles and the environment; and bio-medical sciences covering the human system, how cells and organs function, and medical procedures.

She made the case for public debate of bioethics, whereby everyone has a say in defining how we “do the right thing” by each other. (What is the “right thing”?) She explained that the Nuffield Council On Bioethics (NCOB) exists to build a foundation of knowledge that can influence policy.

Professor Cunningham-Burley spoke for just 40 minutes but by the end of her talk and the subsequent 40 minutes of Q&A, it became apparent we were in deep, dark and often uncharted waters. The questions raised are, to this humble attendee, more compelling than the bare facts and stats behind the 30-year-strong provenance of the NCOB. So here goes.

We live in an age of invitro fertilisation, gene editing, abortion, organ transplants, animal welfare issues, assisted dying, stem cell research, foetuses as organ donors … the word “eugenics” wasn’t mentioned, but it lurked … and who decides on the “right thing to do”? Is it politicians? Religious leaders? The military? Oligarchs? Should scientists decide (did Oppenheimer do the right thing in enabling the creation of the atom bomb?). What if a government has no moral compass? Who gets PPE and who doesn’t? Who do law-makers turn to for advice? How do we foster informed deliberation responsive to policy challenges?  

Sample soundbites: “You cannot separate scientific discoveries from questions of ethics.” And, “Public engagement can ensure developments reflect public interests and values.”

The tiny petri dish of my mind seethed with awkward thoughts.  Do we really need ethics? Aren’t they a barrier to progress? Are ethics preventing the UK becoming a scientific superpower? Minus ethics are we just jumped-up animals without a conscience? What is it to be human?

I came along for a few insights into an esoteric scientific field and I ended up sitting beside George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and oh, isn’t that Mary Shelley? Are ethics our one true bulwark against greed, fear, indifference and megalomania? No wonder I take a drink at the end of these talks.

But there must be no end to the talking. The importance of debating openly, engaging widely and confronting the implications of scientific technological developments, is in the evolution of up-to-date ideas for the benefit of all. The provision of free debate is, I inferred, one of Professor Cunningham-Burley’s most urgent concerns, and surely the raison d’être of the Philosophical Society itself. Isn’t the Society a laboratory of ideas? So one of the “right things to do” is attend Society talks.

The Q&A always entertains: zingers included: “Who pays for all this?” And, “Who chooses the ethical topics and does anyone listen to the answers?”

Sarah Cunningham-Burley is Professor of Medical & Family Sociology at the University of Edinburgh. She is also Dean for Molecular, Genetic and Population Sciences; the University lead for Equality, Diversity & Inclusion; Co-Director of the Wellcome-supported Centre for Biomedicine, Self & Society; Chair of Nuffield Council on Bioethics (NCOB), the UK’s foremost bioethics body. The Professor graciously accepted her Society Paperweight and Minerva Medal. The NCOB is the only non-state-funded ethics council in the EU. The talk is available online.

Post a comment