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Bio-Humanities Symposium: Beyond Therapy and Enhancement

Event Type
IPRH, supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
PRH Lecture Hall, Fourth Floor, Levis Faculty Center (919 West Illinois Street, Urbana, IL)
Mar 30, 2018   9:00 am - 6:15 pm  
Originating Calendar
Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities (IPRH)

Beyond Therapy and Enhancement: Restructuring Ethical Debates on Biotechnological Innovation

The rapid growth of biotechnologies since the mid-1970s has provoked sharp questions about the risks and values that guide the development of life science research and its commercial applications. This one-day symposium invites an interdisciplinary group of participants to reconsider the ways in which ethical debates about biotechnology proceed. Champions of biotechnological innovation—from recombinant DNA development and stem cell and tissue engineering, to IVF, gene editing, and gene drives—have promised a bright future of healthier human beings and more productive plants and livestock. These technologies have also generated concern about the risks they might pose to the environment and human health, and the changes they portend for the categories of “life” and “humanity.” Yet, all too often, rushed bioethical debates reduce biotechnologies to the twin possibilities of therapy or human enhancement, a framing that precludes a broader conversation about the roles of biological knowledge and biotechnology in our social and political lives.


Since 1975, biologists have by and large successfully claimed that their own standards of self-regulation are sufficient to check the dangers and risks of novel biotechnologies. However, as these technologies move from scientific curiosities to powerful off-the-shelf tools, careful consideration of the processes of decision-making regarding appropriate use and regulation becomes ever more pressing. Many biologists have begun to recognize the limits of self-regulation, at the same time as humanists from a wide range of disciplines have begun to incorporate new biological ideas and biologically-grounded concerns into their theoretical and creative work.


We are convening this symposium in order to think about what it means to broaden our bioethical literacy at the same time as both humanist scholars and the public at large have increased biological literacy. This symposium asks participants to identify and articulate the types of argumentation that are or should be at play in debates about the ethical implications of biotechnological innovation. Such modes of argumentation might, for example, expand the spatial, demographic, and temporal purview of ethical evaluation. They might touch upon questions concerning the role of scientific expertise in ethical thinking, the freedoms and constraints posed by engineering, and the place of moral and ontological beliefs in discussions about the relations among humans and between humans and their environs. Alternatively, they might question the timing of bioethical questions: do they arise at the prospect of the application of biotechnologies? or are they in play in the material practices and processes of biological research itself?



Krishanu Saha, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Medical History & Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin. His interests lie in using human stem cells together with emerging engineering methods in material science and synthetic biology to make smarter therapeutics, model human disease, and advance personalized medicine. As a Society in Science-Branco Weiss Fellow, he worked with Sheila Jasanoff at Harvard University on “The Constitutional Foundations of Bioethics: A Cross-National Comparison” from September 2010 to December 2011. He is also affiliated with Robert F. and Jean E. Holtz Center for Science & Technology Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Shobita Parthasarathy, Associate Professor of Public Policy and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan. She studies policy and politics related to science and technology, as well as the politics of evidence and expertise in policymaking, in the United States, Europe, and India. She is the author of numerous articles and two books. Her second book, Patent Politics: Life Forms, Markets, and the Public Interest in the United States and Europe (University of Chicago Press, 2017) compares recent controversies over life form patents in the United States and Europe and demonstrates how political culture, ideology, and history shape patent systems in fundamental ways. Her first book, Building Genetic Medicine: Breast Cancer, Technology, and the Comparative Politics of Health Care(MIT Press, 2007), compared the development of genetic testing for breast cancer in the United States and Britain. Findings from this book helped to inform the 2013 US Supreme Court case over gene patents.


Jeantine Lunshof, University of Groningen and Harvard Medical School, Department of Genetics (Church lab), She works on systems biology-based concepts of health and disease and on normative models for genomic sciences and biological engineering. She is ethics consultant with the Personal Genome Project since 2006, and with the past and the current Center for Excellence in Genomic Science: Causal Consequences of Variation (CCV, 2010-2015),  and Center for Genomically Engineered Organs (CGEO, 2015-present) at  Harvard Medical School. In 2006, she developed the innovative model of Open Consent that forms the normative backbone of the Personal Genome Project. She obtained her PhD degree at VU University with a thesis concerning the impact that developments in genomic sciences have on practical ethics and normative theory.


Luis Campos, University of New Mexico, is ahistorian of science and Senior Fellow with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center for Health Policy.  His scholarship integrates archival discoveries with contemporary fieldwork at the intersection of genetics and society.  He is the author of Radium and the Secret of Life (University of Chicago Press, 2015), and is co-editor of Making Mutations: Objects, Practices, Contexts (Berlin, MPIWG, 2010). 


Jane Calvert, Reader Science Technology and Innovation Studies, University of Edinburgh, her area is the sociology of the life sciences, and her current research focuses on attempts to engineer living things in the emerging field of synthetic biology. Her work draws on the sociology and anthropology of science, the philosophy of biology, and science policy


Julia Diekämper, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akamdemie der Wissenschaften and Naturkundemuseum (natural history museum) Berlin. She is project coordinator for GenomELECTION, funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, a project which focuses on ethical, legal and scientific communication aspects in the field of molecular medicine and crop breeding. Her research group focuses on public debate relating to new genome editing technologies such as  CRISPR-CAS-9. Her previous work focused on public discussions and legal frameworks of preimplantation diagnostics in IVF. 

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