What can we learn from diverse cultures that could/should change our approaches to teaching bioethics?

Dr Yvonne Cadet_James1, Dr Ben Gray2, Professor Emma Kowal3, Dr Richard Matthews4, Dr Camilla Scanlan5

1James Cook University, Cairns, Australia, 2University of Otago, , New Zealand, 3Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia, 4Bond University, Robina, Australia, 5University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia

The term ‘Bioethics’ has been popularised in response to advances in science and medicine over the last fifty or so years. Despite the fact that bioethical discussions have occurred throughout the world, the dominant approach has been one derived from an Anglo-American culture perspective. The kinds of ethical issues discussed, and the values and theoretical perspectives that have been drawn upon, have tended to come from a narrow range. For example, the dominant value in the brief history of bioethics has clearly been individual autonomy (defined as having the freedom to make choices), and the answer to many problems in bioethics has been the provision of so-called ‘informed consent’. This model assumes that individuals are the relevant social unit and that key values relate to protecting individual interests. Much of the teaching of Bioethics in higher education settings in Australasia has adopted this approach.

This picture of bioethics has been challenged over the last few years from many different directions. One particular challenge claims that it fails to recognise that there are many different peoples, cultures and ethical traditions that might be drawn upon during discussion of bioethical issues. There is, surely, an ethical imperative to ensure that such voices are heard.

This workshop provides a unique opportunity to bring together expertise ranging across a number of different perspectives including cultural perspectives.

The goal of this interactive workshop is to explore how we can use the diverse cultural perspectives of our world to inform issues in bioethics and how we can thus teach bioethics in a more relevant, and culturally safe and sensitive manner.


Yvonne Cadet-James is a Gugu Badhun woman from the Valley of Lagoons in north Queensland. She has an extensive background in health as a registered nurse and an academic. Yvonne’s focus is on Indigenous health and education and in her present position at James Cook University she is involved in teaching, research and community development activities. She is currently chief investigator on several research projects examining empowerment as a tool in improving Indigenous health wellbeing. Yvonne’s other area of interest is research into her family’s history and language.

Emma Kowal is Professor of Anthropology at the Alfred Deakin Institute and Convener of the Science and Society Network at Deakin University. She is a cultural anthropologist who previously worked as a medical doctor and public health researcher in Indigenous health. Much of her work is at the intersection of science and technology studies, postcolonial studies and indigenous studies. Her publications include the monograph Trapped in the Gap: Doing Good in Indigenous Australia and the collection (co-edited with Joanna Radin) Cryopolitics: Frozen Life in a Melting World. Her current book project is entitled Haunting Biology: Science and Indigeneity in Australia.

Ben Gray has worked in General Practice for 30 years, first in Waitara Taranaki where he had significant engagement with the Māori community and for the last 25 years in Wellington at a high needs central city practice with an ethnically very diverse population. He currently works at University of Otago, Wellington in the Primary Health Care and General Practice Department. He convenes the course in Professional Skills Attitudes and Ethics and 2014 completed a Masters in Bioethics and Health Law with a dissertation titled How does the concept of cultural competence affect the practice of bioethics and health law.

Richard Matthews is a bioethicist, philosopher and social justice theorist. He has had academic roles in Canada and Australia, and has practical experience as a clinical and public health ethics consultant in Ontario, Canada. In that role he has worked as an anti-racism and health ethics consultant at the Meno Ya Win Health Centre in Sioux Lookout, Ontario – Anishnaabe Treaty 3 territory as well as in Thunder Bay – on Robinson-Superior Treaty land. He has specific research interests in violence and in health ethics with Indigenous peoples. He is the author of a book (The absolute violation: why torture must be prohibited. 2007).

Camilla Scanlan is an academic at University of Sydney. Her interest lies mainly around the nexus of ethics, law and clinical practice, and extends to the study of personal and professional ethics.

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