PSAI Annual Conference 2018 panel on ‘The Politics of Science and Biomedicine in Ireland’

Issues of bioethical concern in the Irish context was the subject of a panel on ‘The Politics of Science and Biomedicine in Ireland’ on the 12th October 2018 with presentations from Dr. Maureen O’Sullivan (School of Law, NUIG), Dr. Padraig Murphy (School of Communications, DCU) and Oliver Feeney (COBRA, NUIG).

Dr. Maureen O’Sullivan’s presentation was on ‘Deliberation and participation in research with moral connotations: some lessons from Brazil and Spain’. The outline of her presentation was:

This presentation deals with the vexed question of how deliberation and participation can be integrated into decision-making in morally fraught ethical issues from the abortion debate to biotechnological inventions and trans-humanism. It seeks to establish that, given appropriate experiential-based models, the voices of the masses can be included in a terrain currently cultivated almost exclusively by experts. Using a model of participatory budgeting from Brazil, which initially failed and was later adapted, and a digital literacy plan from Spain, this talk will show that universal inclusion in difficult subjects and technologies can be aimed for and actualised. Some deliberative democratic theory shows that participants may come to soften their views as their exposure to different viewpoints in a deliberative forum is facilitated. This can avoid polarisation and lead to a gracious acceptance of “defeat” where effort has been made to explain differing opinions. The scope of participation can be enhanced by employing innovative, peer-to-peer based recruitment methods drawing on digital and real-world connections where the recruiter adapts to the given environment and does not employ unmodified, standard modes of outreach. People with a lower level of education can be included meaningfully by programmes to support their knowledge and powers of articulation which help build their confidence to speak in public and debate the matters robustly. Public education in ethical issues may be inappropriate if not conducted in a participatory manner but the devil, in the adage, is in the design and successful models will be cited. This presentation will also endeavour to deal with the obvious contradiction of the expert recommending that non-experts be included: yet to do otherwise is to presume, paternalistically that they wouldn’t be interested anyway. The presentation seeks to combat such assumption.

In the ‘Propositions of Life Itself: first steps towards aligning biopolitical theories with Irish reproductive politics’, Dr. Padraig Murphy presented the following thesis:

There will be much written and discussed in Irish sociology and medical humanities about how Foucault is writ large upon the current landscape, with the specific case studies of post -8th amendment referendum, the Gardacil and CervicalCheck controversies, and the forthcoming Assisted Human Reproduction Bill. This is a continuation of my study of reproductive technologies and argumentation in biology education, Biotechnology, Education and Life Politics (Murphy, 2014). I progress with this journey by focusing specifically on the performative and rhetorical nature of Latour’s ‘Proposition’ in this clearly strengthening type of emerging politics for this island: what is argued, what made visible, pronounced or denounced in mediated and media discourse around the woman’s body, the embryo etc. In so doing, I attempt to bring the Italian wave of rights biopolitics (Agamben, Esposito, Hardt and Negri, Tim Campbell etc) into the heart of the better-know sociobioethical /STS concerns of Strathern, Jasanoff, Rose, Haraway, etc. and instead of using the education space this time, I focus empirical work on public debates of biopolitical interest.

Dr Oliver Feeney presented ‘Bioethical oversight, genome-editing and the Assisted Human Reproduction Bill – some considerations from the divergent Irish and UK approaches’ which discussed the following:

While revolutionary developments in genome-editing, such as CRISPR-Cas9, have focussed greater attention on the ethical, legal and social implications (ELSI) of genetic and biotechnological research more generally, such ELSI attention and associated regulation have been better established in some countries more than others. In the UK, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and Nuffield Council on Bioethics have offered regulation and guidance on controversial and pressing bioethical issues of the day. This has entailed a robust approach to emerging genome-editing challenges and opportunities in the context of responsible licencing of research as well as the development of detailed reports and extensive discussions. On the other hand, Ireland defunded the Irish Council for Bioethics and the National Advisory Committee on Bioethics emerged with less independence and narrower terms of reference. As a result, and despite the international interest, recent developments in genome-editing have been largely unaddressed in the Irish context. While the General Scheme for the Assisted Human Reproduction Bill is currently being developed and promises an independent regulatory authority, many important areas, including genome-editing, continue to be under-discussed and without the level of political and public engagement that is warranted. This paper outlines the differing approaches taken by Ireland and the UK in their bioethical and political responses to new biomedical developments over the past decades. The paper proceeds to highlight how the current development of the Assisted Human Reproduction Bill – also considering subsequent biomedical regulations in areas such as genome-editing – will likely be less socially, legally and ethically robust than is required, as a consequence of the weak Irish political approach to addressing pressing bioethical issues. 

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