This year, American Society for Bioethics and Humanities’ (ASBH) 2022 annual meeting returned to an in-person format in Portland, Oregon after the 2020 and 2021 meetings were held virtually, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The choice to return to an in-person format was met with some excitement and gratitude from some people, while others shared their concern for health and safety since the Covid-19 is still killing and harming people. Some bioethicists openly stated their disappointment at the in-person decision and were open with their decision to not attend because of their worries about health. Some people like myself, were in both camps—excited to return to in person but also concerned about becoming infected with the Covid-19 virus, especially since to my knowledge I have never had the virus.
But still, over a thousand scholars showed up in Portland ready to discuss bioethics and see their colleagues and friends after 2 long years apart. What can we make of this group of a thousand? Does our attendance reflect our views about public health, the Covid-19 pandemic, or concern for our vulnerable colleagues? I’m sure many would give a hearty and likely disgusted “yes.” While it’s possibly controversial and likely to be met with disagreement, I think it’s not that clear cut.
From my observations, about 75% of attendees consistently wore masks, particularly when in individual sessions. During the plenary sessions, I would even say the percentage was a bit higher than 75%. I was especially happy to see that in the handful of sessions on disability topics that I attended, where there were known and likely unknown people who were more vulnerable to the effects of Covid-19 infection, everyone wore masks and did their best to socially distance themselves. This is all to say that attendees seemed to show concern for their own health and their colleagues’ health. Safety precautions also seemed to happen at the individual level. For instance, when I passed a colleague and went to speak to him, he put on his mask, likely because I had mine on. Or when having tea with a colleague in the café in the convention center, we took our masks off to drink, however, when we were done with our beverages, but still wanted to sit and chat, we put our masks back on. And I witnessed others doing the same. Whether it was peer pressure or genuine concern for health and safety, the outcome was most people wore masks, protecting themselves and others and that is what matters to me.
Although it’s been almost 3 years since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the virus still had a strong presence in much of the meeting’s programming. People spoke about Covid-19 specifically, or how Covid-19 intersected with other topics like the ethics of clinical consultations, or racism and ableism in public health. Covid-19 was also very present in the plenary sessions from how Covid-19 worsened clinicians’ burnout to how Covid-19 data tracking contributed to contemporary Native American genocide.
I am aware that some of our colleagues who are immunocompromised or otherwise extra vulnerable to adverse health caused by a potential Covid-19 infection, those living with ill, disabled, very old or very young friends and family my read this and view our actions as selfish. They may even feel betrayed or left out of the ASBH community because they could not attend, choosing precaution over attending a conference. And I don’t think that any ASBH attendee should try to refute or otherwise downplay these sentiments, because they aren’t completely wrong. By the 2022 meeting of ASBH occurring in person, many of our colleagues (and their contributions) were left out.
Although measured and arguably minimal, we did take a health risk by attending a large conference during an ongoing pandemic. But just as I am admitting that our colleagues who did not feel safe attending ASBH this year have a valid point, I would ask that they not be dismissive of those of us who decided to attend the meeting. We are no less bioethicists, advocates, nurses, lawyers, physicians, public health scholars, medical humanists, lawyers, and other health professionals because we attended ASBH. We care no less about the health of our communities and the work we take great pride in. And although it may not seem like it, we care no less about our colleagues who did not attend.
We have all had to make tough choices during the Covid-19 pandemic. We have had to acknowledge that many of our actions and choices affect others’ abilities to make certain choices and commit certain actions. Our bioethics lives are no different; our choices as bioethicists can affect how others are allowed to participate in the profession. I, like over a thousand other people, made a choice, one that for me at least was difficult and not without reservations and concern for my health and others’ health. I’m not expecting everyone to agree, but it was something I needed.
For me ASBH came at the perfect time. I was feeling alone, tired, burnt out, wondering if my work in medical racism meant anything at all to anyone but me. So much of my bioethics work in the last two years has been done alone. Even in those projects where I collaborated with other scholars, seeing a sea of tiny pictures on virtual meetings, or no pictures at all because we were all too exhausted, too overworked to have the added burden of having our cameras turned on, I still felt isolated. I needed my community. I needed to feel like I wasn’t in this alone. I needed faces and smiles, and hugs, and pats on the back. I needed my people. And on that airplane back home, I felt rejuvenated and joyous; my heart burst with happiness because I missed being in spaces with people who thought like me, who worked like me, and who cared about what I cared about. ASBH helped me feel like I could keep going.
Still, I am aware of this singular, hard “I.”
I know the people who were left out of ASBH wanted these things too. I can imagine for some people it must feel incredibly disheartening and angering to hear how ASBH helped me to keep going yet not have access to the same resources. After all, I’m sure they could have used this boost of energy and sense of community too. And I don’t have a very good response and I don’t have the answers. I just want to acknowledge their frustrations to the extent that an outsider can imagine them, but also acknowledge my and my colleagues’ choices and that we are all doing the best we can, with what we got.
Keisha Ray, PhD (@DrKeishaRay) is an Assistant Professor at UT Health Houston, McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics.