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By Dr Trevor Stammers

The Centre for Bioethics and Emerging Technologies (CBET) at St Mary’s University, Twickenham was certainly well represented on the programme at this year’s annual Cambridge Consortium for Bioethics Education, the seventh such global gathering in Paris for bioethicists.

Trevor Stammers, Co-Director of CBET chaired and presented at the first session of the conference and Matt James Programme Director of the MA in Bioethics and Medical Law chaired the second session and presented on the second and third day.

The involvement of the arts and humanities in bioethics education was a major theme this year and the first presentation was given jointly by a consultant paediatrician at the Children’s Hospital in Melbourne and the director of the city’s Ian Potter Art Museum. As part of their ethics education, medical students visit the gallery and are asked to reflect upon a particular piece of art and relate it to their medical studies and the ethics of patient care. Delegates were then divided into groups and given a photograph or painting on which to do the reflection exercise for themselves. A drawing of a family by Henry Moore was the first to be examined and led to interesting questions about child autonomy and who decides when parents disagree on medical treatment. Later a photo of a retired and sad- looking Dame Nellie Melba gazing pensively at one of her beloved pet birds in its cage led to questions about what constitutes human freedom and happiness and how the losses of growing old might be mitigated.

On the last day of the conference there was a presentation on teaching bioethics using opera. A clip from the recent opera Silent Night about a Christmas truce in the trenches in Word War 1 was used to introduce questions about alienation and how this may be overcome. Often patients and doctors speak in different languages metaphorically; this opera was sung in 5 different languages and demonstrated clearly how attempting to find points of commonality in diversity is not easy and often takes an emotional toll and can be a cause of moral distress.

I presented an example of how poetry highlights the effects of different pedagogies in medicine. Two contrasting poems by the surgeon poet, Richard M Berlin, were presented to illustrate how a climate of fear and coerced response induces anxiety in students whereas a climate of trust and engagement can promote success and pride in their achievements.

Matt James in a session on assessment in bioethics education, made full use of this recent experiences of leading the MA programme through a successful revalidation this past year by giving a synopsis of the ups and downs of that journey and setting delegates the task of devising an assessment for the topic of stem cell research. The four groups came up with very different ideas, all of which tested knowledge but only one tested relevant application of that knowledge in a way which many students of the subject are likely to face in real life namely making a grant application.

A development emerging from the Consortium is an international network of working groups. These groups are composed of people from institutions around the world working together to develop bioethics education in their countries. The final session of the Consortium focused on short reports on the varied activities of the Working Groups. As chair of the UK working group, Matt shared on some potential future ideas the working group is considering. It was clear from the feedback sessions that diversity between bioethics and other disciplines is something that makes the network unique and at its core there remains a steadfast commitment to break out of the bioethics ‘silo’ and build fresh and collaborative links with other disciplines.