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By Dr Trevor Stammers

The 13th World Congress of the International Association of Bioethics took place in Edinburgh from the 14-17th June 2016.

To my surprise, though other UK Universities had sponsored the event, St Mary’s was the only UK university to be represented in the exhibition hall for the whole duration of the event. In comparison to the previous Congress in Mexico in 2014 which had well over 1,000 delegates attending, this one only attracted around 700 though most countries of the world were represented by at least one delegate.

There was a plenary session given by Prof Ashok Acharya from Delhi University on the question “Do we need a metanarrative of health for the global South?”, but the vast majority of speakers seemed to be from Europe or the US. Certainly the Western supremacy of individual autonomy was very much in evidence, regardless of the specific topic under discussion.

When in her opening keynote address, Baroness Ilora Finlay spoke of her campaigning against female genital mutilation she was widely supported but when she then turned to an examination of what she considered widespread abuse of assisted suicide in Oregon and the Netherlands, the conference Twitter feed and impassioned criticism from delegates - at least those near to me in the vast hall, made it clear that those who disagreed with her felt she should not have been invited to speak.

So much for liberal tolerance and good on the organising committee who, to give them their due, seemed to have invited speakers with a very wide spectrum of opinions guaranteed to upset everyone attending on at least one issue! In fact liberal intolerance was very much in evidence in some of the sessions I attended.

The speaker who most concerned me was young Finnish researchers who gave a paper contending that those who object to performing abortions, should not be allowed to train or qualify as gynaecologists. Furthermore in her view, not allowing them to do so was not imposing any harm on them or if it was, it was not to be compared to the harm of denying a woman’s right to have an abortion. I commented in the question time after her talk, that if all gynaecologists did were to carry out abortions or if all abortions were carried out by gynaecologists, then there may have been some weight in her suggestion but in fact neither of those is the case. Consider a medical student whose mother died of ovarian cancer and he wants to become a gynaecologist to pioneer new treatments- could she not see that it was inflicting considerable harm not to allow him to qualify because of his conscientious objection to carrying out a procedure he may never need to do? She replied by saying that though not a vegetarian she would be quite happy to have a vegetarian sandwich if eating with me if I were!

This was not only sidestepping the question, it inverted the logic of the analogy. If she were the vegetarian, she would presumably not be so willing to have a beef burger, just to accommodate me. Reason as Hume put it, “is the slave of the passions” and logic is often abandoned when one is determined there should be no accommodation of views of those who disagree.

There were however some excellent presentations, especially the concluding plenary keynote from Baroness O’Neill who argued forcefully that is was impossible to define in law what constitutes “personal data” as opposed to just data about persons. Therefore legislation drafted to protect privacy on the alleged grounds that personal data is protected was in her view doomed to failure. She proposed rather than what is needed are laws that can, where appropriate, be used prosecute careless handling or loss of any data rather than trying to determine whether is personal or not.

The next IAB world congress in 2018 is due to be held in Delhi. It remains to be seen if the European dominance of organisation and content of the programme changes to include approaches less wedded to the rule of a utilitarian understanding of personal autonomy. The world is just not that small anymore to ignore alternative perspectives.