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.

Are you ethical? Sharing practices in assessing medical ethics workshop

A/Prof. David Hunter, Drew Carter 

Organised by the Teaching Ethics stream.

This workshop aims to share, discuss and develop good practices in assessing medical ethics, both by reflecting on the nature of medical ethics and assessment, sharing practices used elsewhere and finally by a hands on development workshop where groups design and share their own assessment tool.

Introduction: Some conceptual and practical challenges in assessing ethics

David Hunter (10 minute presentation with 10 minutes for discussion)

Can ethics really be assessed? Does someone demonstrating the ability to understand ethical reasoning show that they will behave ethically? In this brief talk I will discuss how taking a holistic approach to assessment that reaches beyond the demonstration of an academic understanding of ethical practices can help address these issues.

Sharing Good Practices:

(20 minutes for combined presentation, 15 minutes for discussion)

Representatives from Adelaide, Deakin & Flinders will give brief talks describing some of their assessment practices.

Design your own assessment item Workshop

(20 minutes for development, 15 minutes for sharing)

Small groups will be invited to develop and share a mini-assessment item – either an short answer question or a multi-choice question.

Normative ethics – Is that all there is? Is that all there is?

A/Prof. Paul Macneill1

1University Of Sydney, Sydney Health Ethics, SYDNEY, Australia

If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing

Let’s break out the booze and have a ball

If that’s all there is.

Peggy Lee

Peggy’s many disappointments included losing her home, losing love, the emptiness of the circus. If that’s all there is then, “Let’s break out the booze.” My disappointment is the loss of purpose in ethics. If normative ethics is all there is dear friends, then “Let’s break out the booze.”

In this paper I will contest the certainty ‘that bioethics is predominantly normative ethics.’ But, before we ‘break out the booze’ let’s explore, together, the possibility of purpose in ethics. In this postmodern age, talk of purpose and ultimate ends, is much denigrated. Nevertheless, I will persist with the notion that there is something more than ‘normative ethics’—and claim this ‘something more’ as a possibility that makes sense of ethics itself. My claim is that, in health care practice and in bioethics, we are aiming for some-thing—which of course is not a ‘thing.’ The Greeks called it telos. The OED defines telos as ‘end, purpose, ultimate object or aim.’

Defined in that way, as an achievable finished state, an end point, telos is eminently suspect. I will propose however, that telos is not an end point, but a process. A process of reaching for an ideal. A verb, rather than a noun. And if we do glimpse the goal we are striving for, we may not be able to specify it—at least in words. This is an art, beyond science. This is ethics understood as reaching for something—something we experience as authentic, true, extra-ordinary, and way beyond norms.

After a glimpse of that kind, we will have every reason to

“keep dancing … break out the booze, and have a ball.


Paul Macneill MA, LLB,  PhD

Paul was previously President of the Australasian Bioethics Association (a fore-runner to the AABHL); President and organiser of the 7th World Congress of Bioethics (Sydney); and is Co-ordinator of the Arts Bioethics Network within the International Association of Bioethics.

His critique of the narrowness of ethics and bioethics has led him to exploring ethics as an aesthetic, and explorations of ethics from comparative perspectives (esp Indian/Yoga perspectives).

His publications including Ethics and the Arts (Springer: 2014); ‘Balancing bioethics by sensing the aesthetic’ (Bioethics 2017); ‘The arts and medicine: a challenging relationship (Medical Humanities 2011); and ‘Art and bioethics: shifts in understanding across genres’ (Journal of Bioethical Inquiry 2011). He has presented many keynote addresses on bioethics in international bioethics conferences: most recently at the World Congress of Bioethics in Edinburgh (2016).

He is currently working on two books (provisionally) titled: ‘Philosophy and Ethics—East and West’; and ‘The Over-valued Idea’ (a critique of ethics and post-‘Enlightenment’ rationality).

Paul has taught ethics, law and professionalism for many years: in the UNSW Medical Faculty; Sydney Medical School; and the University of Singapore, School of Medicine.

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.

About the Association

The Australasian Association of Bioethics and Health Law (AABHL) was formed in 2009.

It encourages open discussion and debate on a range of bioethical issues, providing a place where people can ask difficult questions about ideas and practices associated with health and illness, biomedical research and human values.

The AABHL seeks to foster a distinctive Australasian voice in bioethics, and provide opportunities for international engagement through its membership, journal and conferences.

Members come from all the contributing humanities, social science and science disciplines that make up contemporary bioethics.

Many members have cross-disciplinary interests and all seek to broaden the dialogues in which all members of the wider community ultimately have an interest.

The AABHL is a supportive, creative and challenging community that provides a rich source of continuing academic refreshment and renewal.

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