What we’re up against

The CFP: An International Conference on Human Rights and Biomedicine.
The invited speakers: 10 men and 1 woman.
So, Robin Fiore wrote in expressing her disappointment at the sex/gender imbalance, and calling attention to the fact that women might have particularly important insights on topics in biomedicine (especially since, though she didn’t call attention to it, one of the suggested topics was “the protection of foetuses”.)

The reply:

Dear Robin (if I may),
Thank you for the interesting opinion. The conference organizers have extensively discussed the conference themes and speakers in advance. We agreed to select academics with an outstanding scientific reputation in their field of expertise. Secondly, for dialectic reasons we invited speakers with rather controversial ideas. Although the organizers recognize the scientific relevance of e.g., organ donation and clinical trials from a feminist perspective, our aim is – with all respect – to discuss the themes from a broader perspective. To comfort you, I can say that we have also had some suggestions to include shamanism and health care rights as a conference theme, but I
fear that the response would not be that overwhelming as it is now. Secondly, two other invited speakers were women but to capable/willing to write a contribution for the conference book, a precondition for invited speakers. Nonetheless, I feel confident that our colleague and friend Deirdre Madden will intrigue the audience, which exists for 61 percent of women! Finally, the organizers are open for your suggestions to organize a parallel session on femenist ethics.

Now, obviously part of the problem is linguistic. But linguistic error does not explain the apparent equation of feminism and shamanism. Or the thought that feminism is not a sufficiently broad perspective to be represented when discussing such things as “protection of foetuses”. If you’d like to share your thoughts on the CFP and the way that the Fiore’s email was handled, write to m.ghari@erasmusmc.nl and let him know. Fiore tells me, by the way that in the past conferences like this have been responsive to complaints of this sort. And she advises that it’s important not to provide cover for their lack of high-profile women speakers by organising a panel presentation with women and/or feminists. (And definitely not shamanists.)

The organisers are being invited to respond to this post in comments.

Update: As you can see in the comments, the organisers have now responded very positively. Hurrah! Well done everyone.

11 thoughts on “What we’re up against

  1. I sent this letter. It is very gentle and hopefully educational. I hope that there are many other responses

    I am writing to express my concern over the under-representation of women among the key note speakers for the International Conference on Human Rights and Biomedicine. I became aware of this issue because of a post on the blog Feminist Philosophers (https://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2008/06/04/what-were-up-against/).
    The exclusion of women from the key note speaker list can have several unfortunately consequences:
    • For the women in your audience to be fully included as conference participants, we need to be able to see excellent women’s scholarship treated with the same respect as men’s scholarship, and we need to see and engage with women in positions of respect and authority. This is especially important for our junior colleagues who we have an interest in encouraging to pursue careers in these areas.
    • The exclusion of women’s scholarship does a disservice to the intellectual rigor of the conference.
    • The exclusion of women does a disservice to those who provide funding for the conference.
    It is common for conference organizers who have abundant good will to have looked and failed to find women who meet the needs of a conference. This can speak to the effectiveness of our search efforts rather than the absence of women who are excellent scientists or who pursue controversial work. Your organization seems amenable to inviting speakers from across Europe and the United States. Surely in those populations there are women who are excellent scientists or are conducting research on controversial areas. Often these excellent women fail to come to mind because we have not seen them at past conferences. This produces an unfortunate cycle.
    I see that your list of topics includes equitable access to health care, clinical trials, patients’ rights, genetics and health care rights. These topics have a significant impact on women and hence a feminist perspective is a central rather than marginal approach. Including feminist perspectives among the keynote speakers is as important as including women among your key note speakers.
    Dr. Carla Fehr

  2. The link to the conference should be: http://www.biomedicineconvention.nl/

    I am not sure what is more disturbing: The exclusion of women as speakers at this conference or the condescending reply to Dr. Fiore…

    I am pondering a response that ties the disrespect toward women evident in both to the human rights theme. Once I come up with something clever, I’ll post here as well.

  3. Here’s what I sent…

    To the organizers of the conference:

    I was rather disturbed to learn that the “International Conference on Human Rights and Biomedicine” not only felt it unnecessary to invite more women as speakers, except for the one token, but are also rather condescending when this discrimination is pointed out to them, as evident in a reply to concerns raised by Dr. Robin Fiore posted to https://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2008/06/04/what-were-up-against/.

    Health care, as you know, is a human issue. It just so happens that the human population is roughly 50/50 male and female. That alone should be reason enough to ensure an equal representation of women amongst your invited speakers. In addition, growing up female gives us a unique experience, due to widespread discrimination. That experience has been formally documented in research done by feminist scholars. You cannot discuss “contemporary issues in biomedicine and human rights” without including that perspective, especially in an important event such as this International Conference. To exclude women as speakers in this discussion is – with all respect – a violation of our human right to be heard.

  4. I am happy to report that the conference organizers have changed their view and we are working out a solution, so let’s keep the correspondence positive and respectful so as not to undo the good that our efforts may produce. My thanks to all who added their voices to mine, especially Jender.

  5. I would be interested to know whether any of the speakers at this conference on “human rights and biomedicine” are disabled and/or will be presenting a disability studies perspective, that is, a social-political understanding of disability. It doesn’t look like it. Interesting, especially since disabled people recently had their human rights enshrined in a UN document.

    Given that one of the (controversial) issues to be discussed at the conference is genetics, that all of the speakers on the speakers’ roster thus far seem to be mainstream bioethicists, and that some of them have argued for genetic selection and selective abortion in order to ensure “the best offspring,” disabled people also seem to have been discriminated against by the organizers. Indeed, I would suggest that the phrase “protecting embryos and fetuses” in the conference announcement is intended to refer to preventing the birth of disabled infants.

  6. Dear all,

    First of all I deeply regret the rather unpolite and impropper response to the question raised by dr. Flore. Indeed, the unintended comparison with Shamanism was painfully and impertinent. Therefore, again I have to apologize.

    What I also mentioned to dr Flore in my response earlier today is our intention to invite keynoters based on their scientific expertise. Although we have invited several female speakers, sofar, only two of them have responded positively. So, that makes 2 to 10.
    Still, the organizers are fully aware that women are underrepresented, even more the feminist approach. Moreover, we realize that the specificness of women’s health related issues deserve serious attention during the Biomedicine Conference. This is why I welcomed Flore’s suggestion to include the feminist approach. As a consequence, we will reschedule the Conference program , including the feminist dimension to health, meaning that the organizers will invite a high profile female scientist discussing “Bioethics from a feminist approach”.

    Furthermore, I am pleased to inform the readers that prior to the Biomedicine Conference 2009 we will, more then now, emphasize the balance between the speakers’ gender.

    Finally, I do hope that this response has triggered the reader to reconsider participation to the Conference. Please, visit our website restoring the feminist omission asap.

    Yours sincerely,

    Andre den Exter

  7. Shelley
    Why _assume_ that protecting embryos or fetuses means selection. The principle of charity argues against your interpretation absent evidence. You can’t just lob a rhetorical bomb and allege that “some” have taken a particular position, if you can’t identify them by name. At least not on a blog that has a philosophy audience.

  8. I’m not just lobbing a rhetorical bomb, Robin. How about John Harris? Furthermore, I didn’t “assume,” I “suggested”. I am afraid that feminist bioethicists often tend to overlook or disregard the consequences of many of the claims of mainstream bioethicists for disabled people.

    Let me note, however, that in fact a CFP will shortly circulate for a special issue of the International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics (which I will guest edit) on just theme. The title of the issue will be: From the Margins to the Center: Feminist Disability Studies and/in Feminist Bioethics. (And most of the authors of the issue are expected to be philosophers.)

  9. FP wrote: “Update: As you can see in the comments, the organisers have now responded very positively. Hurrah! Well done everyone.”

    For the past week, I have been wondering how to respond to these remarks given that they seem to completely obfuscate and ignore the fact that this conference is almost certainly oppressive to disabled people and does not seem to include a disability studies (or disability rights) perspective. Indeed, for these reasons, I found the enthusiasm which the remarks exuded particularly offensive. Although I drew the attention of the FP blog and its readers to this additional exclusion, none seem too interested in following up on my interventions with a call for a response from the organizers or a letter of complaint to them. Nor did one of the organizers who wrote on the blog subsequent to my initial comment feel compelled to respond to me: “responded very positively” for whom? It occured to me at the time these events ensued that they made the “We” in the title “What We’re Up Against” explicit, though this probably went unnoticed by most readers of this blog. And I thought about this incident again when I read one of Linda Hirshman’s remark disparagingly quoted in a commentary linked to this blog, according to which “feminists should focus on women’s concerns”. Intersectionality=lack of focus?

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