On 5 March 2021, over 100 participants joined to celebrate the 20th anniversary of bioethics at KU Leuven. Professors and students both past and present gathered from around the world to reflect on their time at Leuven and the ongoing changes to the field of bioethics.

The programme throughout the years: a personalist approach

For the past two decades, the Master of Bioethics has brought together students from a range of backgrounds to critique and analyze some of the most pressing questions in contemporary society. After an opening address from Professor Chris Gastmans, Director of the Centre for Biomedical Ethics and Law, Professor Pascal Borry explained how the program has evolved in this time. What started off as a part-time program (from 2000-2005) grew into a full-time masters as part of the Erasmus Mundus program (2006-2016) in collaboration with the Radboud University Nijmegen and the University of Padova. In recent years the program underwent another evolution and is now based only in Leuven, where it now hosts its fifth cohort.

Despite all of these changes over the years, the study of bioethics in Leuven has always maintained a concern for patients and society at its core. The Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Professor Paul Herijgers, speaking on the importance of bioethics in the Faculty remarked, “We all work for the vulnerable person, the vulnerable patient. And the patient is vulnerable not only from the physical but also the psychological, social, and the spiritual point of view.” This personalist approach was one of the key motivators to establish a European Master of Bioethics, departing from the mainstream Anglo-Saxon tradition that focused instead on principlism and individual autonomy. This was explained by Professor Henk ten Have in his keynote address where he reflected on the impetus to create a European approach to bioethics and how this developed over the various program iterations to take on a global perspective. Professor Emeritus Paul Schotsmans contributed to this reflection by explaining how the Master of Bioethics had developed in Leuven.

Alumni testimonials

As part of the day’s festivities, alumni Professor Ana Borovečki, Her Excellency Professor Esther Munalula Nkandu, Geert Craenen, and Paulo Rodrigues who have all gone on to have successful careers in medicine, academia, and international relations recounted their experiences at Leuven. For many, when they began their bioethics studies, it was challenging. Due to the interdisciplinary nature of bioethics, alumni were forced to abandon the comfort zone of their previous disciplines. Students were pushed to question established norms and their preconceived notions. Throughout the course of their studies, students developed their abilities to critique and reason. These skills that they gained with the support of their professors and peers have been an invaluable asset in their careers beyond Leuven.

From dream to reality: towards the future

Through professors’ and students’ shared passion, determination, and willingness to constantly evolve what started off as an ambitious pipe dream to lead Europe in the study of bioethics became a reality. Since the start of the program, KU Leuven has trained almost 300 alumni from 76 countries. With the lessons they learned at Leuven, alumni are now better able to contribute ethical perspectives and guidance on current debates on pressing topics research integrity, as presented by Professor Kris Dierickx, and other topics, such as such as COVID vaccine allocation. Finally, the day’s discussion was concluded with some closing words by Vice-rector of Biomedical Science Professor Chris Van Geet.

Although due to the circumstances we were not able to celebrate this milestone in person, we hope to bring together members of the bioethics community through future events and our online platform KU Leuven Connect, because as we know the rich learning environment and personal connections forged in Leuven have always extended beyond the classroom walls.

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