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Talking bioethics: Conference aims to increase public discussion of ethical issues facing science and society


March 12, 2009

To increase public discussion of bioethics in medicine and research, Wake Forest University will bring together communication scholars, bioethics scholars, scientists and others for the “Bioethics, Moral Argument and Social Responsibility” conference April 27 and 28.

From stem cell research to genetic testing to end-of-life decisions, the conference will address biomedical topics and engage a broad public audience in discussion of the ethical and public policy controversies surrounding them.

The event is free and open to the public, but registration is required.  Sessions will take place in Carswell Hall’s Annenberg Forum on the Wake Forest campus.

“Biotechnology, more than anything else, is going to change what it means to be a human being,” said Michael Hyde, Wake Forest University Distinguished Chair in Communication Ethics and co-organizer of the conference.  “That is what is so scary, and so wonderful about it.”

“The public should have a voice in public policy discussions related to bioethics issues,” said co-organizer Nancy M. P. King, professor of social sciences and health policy at the Wake Forest School of Medicine and director of Wake Forest’s newly established graduate program in bioethics.  “This requires the creation of opportunities for thoughtful discussion, which the conference will provide.” 

Among the conference faculty are two representatives from the President’s Council on Bioethics.  Diane Gianelli, director of communications for the council, will address the role of the media in the bioethics debate, while Rebecca Dresser, a member of the council and professor of law at Washington University, will provide perspectives on human dignity in health care. 

Carl Elliott, professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota, will deliver the keynote address at 9 a.m. April 27.  He will talk about the role of bioethics scholars in public discussion of issues related to ethics, health and society.  Elliott is a philosopher and a physician who has taken a critical look at bioethics, the pharmaceutical industry and the “quick fix” approach to health care in American culture.  He is the author of several books, including “Better than Well:  American Medicine Meets the American Dream.”

Other conference sessions include nationally known experts in communication studies and medical ethics, discussing topics such as whether the increased availability of genetic information should affect society’s views about individual responsibility, what societal responsibilities scientists should have, and whether anyone should wield moral authority about bioethics issues in a democracy. 

A panel discussion at the close of the conference April 28 will feature local leaders including John Bost, mayor of Clemmons; Dee Leahman, director of the Community Partnership for End of Life Care; Nancy Hall, a senior leader in the Forsyth Aging Project; and Michael Rakes, pastor of the First Assembly of God in Winston-Salem.

A special conference session will feature members of the Wake Forest debate team, including the current National Debate Tournament champions, and Wake Forest law students.  The students will demonstrate a mini-debate and a moot court argument on human dignity, then ask the audience if these two formal models of public argument are good ways to explore ethical issues.

“The conference brings together those who have a voice in the debate right now and experts who have national and international reputations,” Hyde said.

The conference is sponsored at Wake Forest by the Department of Communication, the Program in Bioethics, Health and Society, the Fund for Ethics, Leadership and Civic Responsibility, the Office of the Provost, and the ARCHIE Fund.

Wake Forest’s graduate program in bioethics is designed to provide students with knowledge and skills that enable them to better address the bioethics issues arising in biomedical research, clinical medicine and health policy.  The first students will enroll in fall 2009.

For information or to register for the conference, contact Carol Massa-Fanale at (336) 716-3589 or cmassa@wfubmc.edu.  The complete conference schedule is available at www.wfu.edu/bioethics.

Press Contacts:

Cheryl Walker
(336) 758-5237


Kevin Cox
(336) 758-5237


Carl Elliott, professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota.
Carl Elliott, professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota.
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