Towards a Humanist Bioethics

Biotechnological developments raise a variety of ethical questions that compel one to reexamine one’s traditional morals and how they now apply to novel circumstances.

It was in the interest of addressing these complex questions with careful analysis and ethical considerations, devoid of dogma or oversimplification, that the IHEU-Appignani Center for Bioethics hosted its second Annual Conference on Global Bioethics this April in New York City.

The conference aimed to examine bioethical issues from a humanist perspective, basing one’s moral framework on science and rationality rather than faith, and on core values such as freedom, autonomy, responsibility and solidarity without resorting to an appeal to the supernatural.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute of Albany Medical College in New York co-sponsored the program, which featured top bioethicists, lawyers, policy makers, humanist activists, scientific researchers and practitioners from around the world in an international and trans-cultural discussion.

Prof. Arthur Caplan, one of the world’s leading bioethicists, set the tone of the conference in his opening address. Caplan disclosed that although a vaccine for cervical cancer would soon become available, this advance would come with a host of problems, including distribution, public provision and affordability. 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.

Paul Kurtz, chairman of the Council for Secular Humanism and one of the leading humanist leaders in the world, gave a thought-provoking lecture on the idea that secularism and science, particularly biogenetics, go hand in hand.

Despite current opposition to biogenetics research, primarily from religious sources, Kurtz said that freedom of scientific research is crucial on two grounds: the utilitarian and deontological. The utilitarian perspective argues that the research outcomes of biogenetics are tremendously beneficial to humankind. The deontological perspective argues that humans have the right to inquire and gain knowledge despite the consequences.

New awards were conferred during the cocktail reception. The first, the IHEU Award for Humanist Bioethics, which honors Mr. Louis Appignani for his singular contributions to the field of humanism and to the IHEU- Appignani Center for Bioethics, was bestowed upon Prof. Glen McGee for his assistance, expertise and time in helping establish the Center.

Prof. McGee’s presentation reviewed the developing area of American investment and regulation in biotechnology and medicine. He argued that there is room for both political and moral regionalism in the world of bioethics.

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.

Following Darnovsky, Prof. Adrienne Asch argued that foreseeable reproductive technologies might create undue and unwarranted expectations of children conceived by such artificial means. Though discouraging the banning of these technologies, Asch tried to carve out a middle ground wherein healthcare professionals could highlight or potentially discourage use of such technologies.

Prof. Alyssa Bernstein analyzed the recent UNESCO Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights within a social contract framework. An excellent panel on women’s rights ended the first day of the conference, with Marin Gillis, Taina Bien Aime, Laura Purdy and Bonnie Spanier as the leading figures of the panel.

On April 23, James Stacey Taylor argued that we should legalize markets in human organs to avoid their shortage. A third important panel discussion was then held among Professors Janet Dolgin, Louis M. Guenin and Stephen E. Levick.

In relation to the issues raised on this day, Jason Lott argued that embryonic stem-cell technology could help solve the worldwide organ shortage crisis by providing a theoretically infinite supply of transplantable tissues.

Coleen Lyons then talked about the potential opportunities for collaboration that exist between private international organizations 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.

For more details about the conference and the abstracts of the presenters please see

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