Teaching bioethics and biotechnology through children’s cyberpunk: Children’s literature in the university ethics classroom

Evie Kendal1

1Deakin University, Geelong Waurn Ponds, Australia

Literature can have great educational impact, particularly with regards to helping readers empathise with people suffering disadvantages they are not themselves familiar with, through depicting relatable characters and sharing their intimate struggles against racism, sexism, or other systematic discrimination. With particular attention to the use of literature in bioethics, Valentina Adami (2012) claims literary representations help us see cases as “embedded in specific human contexts and to understand the powerful emotions and intricate interpersonal dynamics that lie behind a bioethical case.” She claims the “bioethics-in-literature” approach investigates bioethical issues through the lens of literary fiction, allowing for a “richly rendered and vividly presented” alternative to the dull, clinical case studies often used in discourse.

According to Alison Lurie (1990), children’s literature has always been littered with “lessons… disguised as stories,” in which children are taught “manners, or morals, or both.” The instructional value of these “morality tales” for children has often been the sole determinant in identifying suitable children’s literature over time. However, while classical and popular literature are often invoked in bioethics scholarship and teaching, children’s literature is largely ignored.

This paper considers the role children’s literature could play in university ethics classrooms using the example of Eoin Colfer’s children’s cyberpunk novel, The Supernaturalist (2004). This text includes discussions of unethical pharmaceutical testing, genetic engineering, human augmentation, artificial intelligence, and the loss of autonomy and identity accompanying an increasingly globalised and digitised world. The dominance of capitalist organisations and corporate surveillance also contributes to the cyberpunk aesthetic of the novel. Bioethical issues surrounding the advent of new biotechnologies are effectively explored from the perspective of disenfranchised children and misunderstood animals, providing a good example of how the bioethics-in-literature model can promote ethical discussion in education.


Evie Kendal is a Lecturer in Bioethics and Health Humanities at the Deakin School of Medicine. Her recent research focuses on representations of emerging reproductive biotechnologies in science fiction and medical practitioners in popular television. Evie currently teaches into the Ethics, Law and Professionalism stream of the medical degree at Deakin University.

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