2020 World Congress

Statement on bioethics, structural racism and white privilege

From the organizers of the 2020 World Congress of Bioethics

endorsed by the International Association of Bioethics (IAB)

and by the International Network on Feminist Approaches to Bioethics (FAB)

In the last few weeks, yet another police killing of an unarmed black man led to protests across the US, demanding—once again—social justice. Communities that were already experiencing a disproportionate Covid-19 burden, in terms of unemployment, hospitalizations and death, now risk their health in protests that were, and continue to be, overwhelmingly peaceful. 

The incessant stream of police brutality against racial and ethnic minorities—just like the unprecedented pandemic—shows in cruel clarity the profound historical and structural inequities that exist in the Unites States of America in terms of wealth and health.  The disparities between black and white communities are especially shocking.  And around the world we now see people rise in solidarity, outraged by these inequities, as well as by those that affect minorities and marginalized communities in their own countries in different, but related ways.  

Several years ago, the International Association of Bioethics invited Penn’s Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy to host the 15th World Congress of Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. The Penn based-planning group proposed the conference theme of “Solidarity and Autonomy – Bridging the Tensions.” Inviting the bioethics world to meet under the concept of solidarity, we feel obliged to comment on the current developments and its implications for our field.  

The most obvious place to diagnose absence of solidarity is the political context created by the current US administration.  The shortcomings are apparent and painful, and we share the justified outrage many have expressed. But this is a time of soul searching for communities and individuals as well. As is known to many in bioethics, the private is political, too. We shape social justice by personal decisions such as where we live and how we raise our children. Work is also political—and bioethics as a field is no exception.

In bioethics, empirical and conceptual work that addresses implicit and explicit bias against minorities in policy and practice is one essential response.  Penn’s motto is “Laws without morals are empty.” Indeed, we face an urgent need to assess, in research and advocacy, to what extent laws and policies in the area of bioethics are designed and implemented in ways that genuinely respect and value all people as equals. 

In addition, there needs to be a profound reckoning with who does bioethics.  To contribute to social justice in research and policy, bioethics—locally and globally—needs to pay far greater, and genuine, attention to diversity in training, appointments and promotions, and move beyond naïve ‘colorblind’ approaches.  This includes understanding, and responding to, the immense powers of personal and institutional self-interest that can stand in the way of progress towards a more diverse bioethics community. 

Genuine solidarity requires us to move beyond convenience, convention and self-interest. It also calls for actively promoting the visibility and impact of bioethics work done in regions of the world that face challenges and barriers. This has been one of the main missions of the International Association of Bioethics for decades. 

The way the world has responded in recent weeks demonstrates the pervasiveness of various forms of structural racism and inequality that systematically advantage some groups’ interests.  In the US, and around the world, the legacies of colonialism, slavery and dramatic historic power imbalances still shape research and practice in medicine, healthcare, and bioethics. We must all seize the opportunity to make current events a turning point, which starts with no longer accepting these conditions as a somehow given, neutral or objective background.

In the last few weeks, nothing has changed, and everything has changed. We thus call for addressing structural injustice through necessary and urgent reforms. In academia and beyond, we particularly need to eliminate long-standing institutional racism, and enable authentic dialogue.  We commit to doing our part within bioethics to make our field inclusive, diverse and respectful of all. 


The International Association of Bioethics’ 2020 World Congress of Bioethics will take place from 6/19-6/21 at the University of Pennsylvania. As usual, the Feminist Association of Bioethics will meet before the IAB, also at the University of Pennsylvania, 6/17-18.