President Gutmann kicks off 15th World Congress of Bioethics

Bioethics, a field that just a few decades ago began to bud, is now flourishing. In fact, without bioethics, it would be impossible to grapple with all the dimensions of a pandemic like COVID-19, explained Penn President Amy Gutmann.

“I’d say that while this pandemic has cast into high relief so many issues, it’s also cast into high relief how important your work is,” said Gutmann on Friday, June 19, during the International Association of Bioethics’ World Congress of Bioethics. “The world has never needed you more than it needs you now. These are enormously challenging times.”

Gutmann was speaking to more than 600 bioethicists from across the world who tuned in online to the plenary session, a Q&A that was moderated by Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor Jonathan Moreno, whose research focuses on bioethics, culture, science, and national security. The duo, who worked together on President Barack Obama’s Bioethics Commission (Gutmann was chair and Moreno was a senior adviser), and who recently co-authored “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven but Nobody Wants to Die: Bioethics and the Transformation of Health Care in America,” kicked off the three-day virtual gathering.

Aside from chatting about what they learned while serving on the Bioethics Commission and their book, Gutmann dove into the straining—bioethical, indeed—decisions she had to make most recently as a university leader during the novel coronavirus outbreak, as well as her perspective—even more aptly as it was Juneteenth—on how COVID-19 has “simply ripped the bandage off” issues such as systemic racism, health care disparities, the social determinants of health, and income, wealth, education, and employment injustices.

With a nod to the conference’s theme—Autonomy and Solidarity: Bridging the Tensions—Gutmann said, “What we’re doing here this morning virtually but all around the world … we must act in solidarity to achieve liberty and justice for all persons and that includes respect for the autonomy of persons. That takes collective action, not just individual consent, to achieve.”

Every two years since 1992, the International Association of Bioethics has unveiled a World Congress of Bioethics in different cities spanning the globe. The 15th assembly, chock full of plenaries, symposia, posters, opportunities for early career researchers, and more, was set to take place in Philadelphia on Penn’s campus, introduced by the co-editors-in-chief (Shreya Parchure and Aditya Rao) of the student-run Penn Bioethics Journal and hosted by the Perelman School of Medicine’s Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy (Moreno and Harald Schmidt served as the gathering’s co-chairs). Due to the coronavirus, the entire format was moved online—a silver lining, an optimistic Gutmann said, as there “really couldn’t be a more critical time for the International Association of Bioethics to convene.”

Gutmann also shared insight on how she made, just this past March, “the most wrenching decision in all my years as a university leader”—to extend Penn’s Spring Break and then move 4,000-plus classes online, due to COVID-19.

“In an interesting way, it was emotionally wrenching but it was intellectually pretty clear,” she said, adding later, “That’s what bioethics teaches us, right? It doesn’t teach us to know when a pandemic comes but it teaches us that nothing less than lives were at stake. … Every day we didn’t delay made a difference.”

In discussing the role of bioethics in a pandemic, Gutmann focused on public health, and how it should be considered and invested in front and center. Scratching the surface of her passion on the subject, she noted, for example, “without a doubt, global health is local health,” encouraging the notion that “we all benefit from strengthening public health worldwide.” She also described her “three R’s”—resourcefulness, resilience, and responsiveness—which have guided her and the University through such trying times.

Questions from the audience interconnected Gutmann’s unique expertise in bioethics as well as political science, with topics touching on moral pluralism and populism as they relate to bioethics, and even the reality of public officials encouraging—or not encouraging—their constituents to wear face masks.

As countless challenges continue to persist, may they involve COVID-19 or racial injustices, Gutmann advised bioethicists to “stay focused and to be hopeful. Exercise your hope by finding whatever way is possible in your context to disseminate your bioethical knowledge and also your values.”

These are life-and-death matters,” Gutmann said. “And it’s exactly at moments such as these that we must engage.”

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