Student Reflections on the Manchester Bioethics and Health Law Conference 2023

In this post, two of the students on our Healthcare Ethics & Law masters course reflect on the Manchester Bioethics and Health Law conference which CSEP held at the University of Manchester in January 2023.

Aydin Rezazadeh

It was a dream come true to recently attend the Manchester Bioethics and Health Law Conference, my first academic event of the kind! During the conference, I was most fascinated by the panel discussion on ’Assigning Sex and Affirming Gender’, which examined the role of parents and other parties in gender decision-making.

The first paper, presented by Ed Horowitz, explored the ethical concerns of the rights of parents in gender decision-making for children and discussed the Tavistock case - which ruled that consent for the use of puberty blockers should be obtained from both children and parents. The presentation highlighted the importance of considering the experiences of parenting gender diverse children, and the stigma associated with it, when examining parental decision-making.

The second paper (presented by Fae Garland) focussed on medical interventions and decision-making of parents in the case of intersex minors. This discussed Malta’s ’Gender Identity, Gender Expressions and Sex Characteristics Act 2015’ - an act which dictates that there should be no medically-unnecessary sex assignment surgery for intersex children until they reach the age of informed consent. The presentation debated the benefits and potential challenges of granting children the right to be their own decision-makers, against the context of cultural expectations on parents, and the potential social impacts of late disclosures of intersex conditions.

The third paper (given by Kate Goldie Townsend) offered a further insight into the role of medical ’experts’ in decision-making, debating where practitioners make decisions out of medical necessity versus norm maintenance. These presentations were eye-opening to the constant tension between the interests of the children in question and their autonomy, and the social expectations of their parents and of medical practitioners involved in decision-making.

On a personal level, attending this conference gave me a significant insight into a career in academia. The opportunity to witness experts in the field speaking about their most recent research and their passions, as well as seeing how tightly knit and inclusive the community around healthcare ethics and legal research is, opened new doors for my own future. What I found especially interesting was the application of the foundational, theoretical side of medical law and bioethics that we are learning in class being applied to cutting edge research that is having a direct positive impact on public policy. While I lacked the experience and knowledge to fully understand everything that was being discussed, I enjoyed listening to different debates during the panel, and I found myself considering pursuing this path in my own future.

Furthermore, the discussions and presentations offered valuable ideas for my dissertation, as well as interesting points to further explore in my own reading. I am very interested in areas around reproduction and the future of reproductive technologies, and as such the panel on the topic not only opened my eyes to ethical and legal issues in this field, but also pointed me in the direction of where to explore in further research. I would highly recommend that any postgraduate masters students who are passionate about this field attend any similar events take place next year as it was academically interesting, personally enriching and inspiring, and was altogether a very fun day spent with like-minded people!

Imogen Westwood

I recently attended the Manchester Bioethics and Health Law Conference, and what a brilliant event it was! It was the first conference I have attended of this kind, and I was not disappointed. I could not have asked for a better start to the event than the incredible keynote speaker, Heather Widdows, who delivered a talk on "Lookism: the last acceptable discrimination".

I learned that "lookism" is prejudice or discrimination based solely on a person’s appearance; it was bizarre to put a name to a phenomenon that many people, myself included, have experienced first-hand.

Heather spoke about the ’beauty premium’ and the ’ugly penalty’ and how the way we look has serious implications in our day-to-day lives. Lookism is undeniably present in our society, but how can we solve such an inherent, and arguably evolutionary, problem? She discussed whether an ornamental law - that is, a law which enshrines a political or social view, but is not particularly enforceable - would be an appropriate solution. My takeaway was that there is much to learn about this form of discrimination, and a lot of work to be done if we wish to eradicate it as a form of prejudice. It is a rich and interesting area that I will certainly be exploring in my own time.

Another talk that stood out to me was one from the University of Manchester’s very own Rebecca Bennett. I have read so many of Becki’s papers that it felt like meeting a celebrity! I wished I could ask her about one-thousand questions about all things law, ethics and philosophy, but instead I politely listened to her very interesting talk on the ethical challenges of introducing whole genome sequencing into newborn screening. What piqued my interest in particular was how Becki conceptualised technological advancements such as screening: she saw them as inevitabilities.

This is thought provoking as if this is the case, the purpose of ethical analysis is not to determine whether a specific technology should be implemented, but how it should be realised and implemented in the safest, most appropriate way. This shifted my understanding of the purpose of academia; it is not just to discuss hypotheticals but inform and influence real issues that may unavoidably impact our lives.

Overall, the conference was enlightening and gave me much food for thought. It sparked ideas for my dissertation and highlighted areas that I would love to explore in my spare time. My lasting impression of the CSEP conference is that the realm of ethics, philosophy and law is a complicated but fascinating one. There are so many ways to apply your knowledge and explore concepts you had never previously given thought to. I would absolutely recommend future conferences to students who are umming-and-ahhing about whether to attend to do so.