More than twice the amount of expected attendees came to a two-day conference on human personhood Friday and Saturday when 200 people listened in on lectures and participated in discussions.
The conference’s organizers senior Lillian Quinones and sophomores Sarah Becker, Dietrich Balsbaugh, and Caitlin Weighner partnered with the World Youth Alliance to hold The Modern Identity Crisis: Emerging Leaders Conference. The conference explored modern bioethics and personhood and further developed the meaning of what it is to be human in four interdisciplinary breakout sessions.
“Witnessing the intellectual earnestness and the good-spiritedness of speakers, professors, and students was truly amazing,” Weighner said. “It took so many months to plan this and, to be honest, there were many times that I wondered if it was worth it. But if the conference helped a single person towards a fuller and more authentic life, even in some small way, we have to believe it was worth it.”
The conference began with a lecture by Ashley Fernandes, the associate director of the center for bioethics and medical humanities at Ohio State University College of Medicine and an associate professor of pediatrics at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. Fernandes unfolded the morality behind physician-assisted suicide, refuting the idea that a patient’s choice, a doctor’s compassion, or the dignity of death should allow a doctor to enable a patient in ending his own life.
Later that evening, University of South Carolina Philosophy Professor Christopher Tollefsen delivered the conference’s first keynote address, speaking on “The Ethics of Medicine and its Counterfeits.” Tollefsen distinguished between two phases of medical history: old medicine and new medicine. Old medicine, Tollefsen said, makes a goal of human flourishing, addressing biomedical and spiritual goods. New medicine, however, follows only the requirements of law, the limits of technology, and the autonomous desire of the patient.
“Medicine has lost its way with no clarity as to the way it should lead,” Tollefsen said.
“The norms are so fuzzy that they won’t protect the patient or the doctor.”
When Fernandes gave his keynote speech Saturday afternoon, he implored the audience to “remember the person.” He begged the students in the audience to always respect the human being as they enter any career, and he emphasized the need for Christian doctors and nurses.
Alumna Naomi Virnelson ‘16 traveled from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, where she is pursuing her masters degree in nursing. She came to the conference to learn about the ethics that could apply to her future career.
“Through my graduate school career, I’ve learned that I have to seek these ideas out on my own, rather than rely the school i’m attending to give them to me,” Virnelson said. “I want to take the philosophical and metaphysical foundation seriously so I can practice medicine the right way in an increasingly secular and hostile environment.”
While Virnelson attended the conference primarily for its medical implications, she also enjoyed the interdisciplinary breakout sessions on Saturday morning and afternoon.
Philosophy Professor Blake McAllister and Religion Professor Jordan Wales partnered to speak on culture wars and artificial intelligence while Philosophy Professor Nathan Schlueter and his wife, Elizabeth Schlueter, spoke on transgenderism.
Later in the day, History Professor Matthew Gaetano spoke on personhood in history while Philosophy Professor Ian Church led a discussion. As Politics Professor Adam Carrington examined the right to life in the U.S. Supreme Court, philosophy Professor Lee Cole spoke on the person and the trinity.
“I wanted to select an issue that I could address from within my own discipline, and I wanted to draw upon my particular area of expertise within philosophy, while also forcing myself to extend and deepen my own reflections in the writing process,” Cole said. “I’ve thought a fair bit about what it means to be human, but, more recently, I’ve been trying to articulate what the designation ‘personhood’ adds to a conception of the human.”
Senior Maria Grinis is a Spanish major on the pre-medical track. She said she attended the conference to be able to better answer questions on ethics as she completes her interviews for medical school.
“Overall, I found that the conference provided me with a foundational understanding of the roots of many of the heavy-hitting issues in the medical field: the right of conscience for the physician, the intrinsic nature of human dignity, the goal of medicine to restore the patient’s full health,” she said.
Junior philosophy major Katarina Bradford said the conference delighted her.
“I have never been to a conference specifically dedicated to the rigorous philosophical defense of the human person and dignity,” Bradford said. “Hearing such defenses from world-renowned speakers, including our faculty, was nothing short of inspiring.”
After the overwhelming attendance at the conference and its clear impact on the audience, Weighner said she’s tempted to organize another one.
“If there’s a next time, we hope to get even more students and faculty involved,” Weighner said. “I think it’s a very fruitful thing for professors and students to have shared intellectual experiences — I loved seeing professors and students attending for the entire weekend. Having those experiences in a conference context hopefully allows the conversation to be sustained and to go a bit deeper.”