Highlights from the International Association of Bioethics World Congress


Scientists, clinicians, lawyers, and philosophers from all over the world gathered in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, to discuss the tradition and the future of Bioethics. From the chimpanzee politics of Frans de Waal to the rejuvenation theories of Aubrey De Grey, IAB 2012 was engaging, entertaining, and inspiring for all involved.

The opening ceremony featured a stark look at humanity’s destructive relationship with the environment through the eyes of Sir John Edward Sulston, and many of the graphics poignantly emphasised the urgency of issues such as environmental destruction and overpopulation. But, just when it all seemed dark and hopeless, the mood in the programme shifted and we were treated to some magic and juggling from recent graduates of the Codarts program at the Rotterdam University for the Arts.

Frans de Waal then took the stage to discuss empathy and conflict resolution in chimpanzees and also convinced everyone in attendance that grapes are, unequivocally, better than cucumbers (but have the chimps had them in sandwiches, we wonder). Finally, to end the night, we were all encouraged to be honest, bold, and blunt in the Dutch-style by making acquaintance with a few strangers. Good advice, as we had the good fortune of speaking with George Agich (whose interactive symposium on Clinical Ethics the following day shook up the standard presentation format to great effect) and Kristine Bærøe, whose research on Translational Medical Ethics is something we’ll look out for in the future.

Highlights from Day 2 included a symposium featuring some excellent empirical work on community research involvement around the world, and we particularly like the research coming out of the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Collaborative Research Programme (see, for example, a recent paper from Sassy Molyneux in BMC Medical Ethics). We hope more researchers take similar methodologically innovative and rigorous approaches in the future. We also enjoyed Douwe Draaisma’s use of cinema in the exploration of ethics and memory.

IAB 2012 also demonstrated that ethicists love The Beatles (including solo work), as each speaker in the plenary sessions chose a piece of music for their introduction. While we share great love for The Beatles, we appreciated the occasional departures including John
revealing that he listens to Like A Rolling Stone before playing squash (we assume air punches are also involved). We did not, however, like the choice of Teddy Bears’ Picnic, as the concept of that one gives us nightmares.

Day 3 saw the philosophical dissection of the complex issue of Global Health, and Solly Benatar’s impassioned take and call for action was eye-opening and inspiring. We were also encouraged to ponder the future of the fundamentally nterdisciplinary subject of Bioethics and the role of the philosopher in an increasingly empirical field.

Idealism and pragmatism clashed in the evening’s Political café, where philosophers were pitted against politicians to discuss key issues in ethics and policy. Set against a backdrop of a house band and rows of wineglasses, it reminded of us that the original meaning of symposium is “drinking party” and we took great delight in the convivial argument of serious issues because, after all, whether we agree or disagree, we’re all in this together.

The conference ended, as all conferences should, with mariachi music and the announcement that the next IAB World Congress will be held in Mexico in 2014. We look forward to seeing all the familiar faces–and some new ones, too.


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