Current DPhil in Medical Law: Q and A with Ayushi Agarwal

Ayushi AgarwalCurrent DPhil in Medical Law: Ayushi Agarwal

What is the title of your research and what is your research topic about? 

The title of my research is ‘The right to equality implications of human enhancement technologies’. Examples of human enhancement technologies (HETs) include pills that can temporarily enhance cognitive function, wearable-muscles that can allow an individual to play an instrument with which they have no familiarity, microchip-implantation which can enhance the capacity of the brain to store and process information, and genome editing, which can eliminate disease as much as introduce specific traits. One of the major concerns is to do with how the wide use of HETs might affect human society and the exercise of rights.

The age of the internet has shown that technology has the ability to play on and exacerbate existing human rights concerns, or even create new ones. As such, it is more than likely that the use of HETs too might have severe human rights implications, and that our existing laws might be insufficient to address them. My research, under the supervision of Dr. Imogen Goold, explores the equality concerns arising out of the use of HETs, including changes in employment practices and discrimination against the unenhanced, and the challenge to the idea of natural human equality as a new ‘sub-species’ of superhumans emerges. My aim is to draw conclusions that can assist regulatory efforts geared towards addressing the fairness and equality related harms of human enhancement.

Why did you choose to do your DPhil at Oxford?

I read for the BCL at Oxford in 2018-19, and had the opportunity to study Medical Law and Ethics, Comparative Human Rights and Comparative Equality Law. I dived deep into the ethics of enhancement debate for the first time during this year, as it was part of the MLE course. While having discussions on equality and human rights in my two other courses, I began to wonder why there wasn’t much research on the crossover – what about the human rights implications of the use of human enhancement technologies? Even though HETs could confer significant advantage on the user, not everyone will have access to them at the same time, leading to issues around equality of opportunity; workplaces could mandate their use in order to ensure higher productivity, leading to issues of autonomy and dignity; individuals could demand that HETs be provided as a part of healthcare, leading to questions about where these technologies should be provided by the State as under the right to health.

As the BCL neared its end, I found that my interest in this topic only grew. I was sure I wanted to return to Oxford for a DPhil to pursue research on this topic, under the same professors who had been instrumental in sparking this interest. Additionally, I felt that I would benefit immensely from participating in the events at the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights. I applied in 2020 and was so fortunate to receive an offer.

Why do you think this research is important?

Human enhancement technologies are being developed and adopted at a very fast pace. Studies have revealed that the use of Ritalin and Modafinil as cognitive enhancers for exams or the workplace is steadily increasing. At the same time, a market is also developing for experimental uses of new biotechnologies. For instance, a company in California sells genetic-engineering kits which range from three dollars to two thousand dollars. One of the product kits allows users to create a novel organism at home.

In the background of this, I think my research is important because while the law cannot arrest the development or adoption of such technology and its use, it is crucial to at least develop a regulatory response so that the harms arising from them can be minimised. 

How has your past research continued to feature in your current research interests or projects?

Prior to commencing this research, my research was focused on gender and human rights. I’ve written on why violence against women should be treated as a form of sex discrimination, how lockdowns around the world have aided domestic violence, the need for criminalising marital rape in India, and on the problematic depiction of sexual assault trials in cinema. This past experience has given me a firm foundation in human rights research and analysis, and equipped me with important skills such as information management and perseverance in the face of, well, confusion! I continue to take a keen interest in gender work, and make a deliberate effort to ensure that the scholarly sources of my research are diverse.