Judit Sándor

Judit Sándor is a full Professor at the Faculty of Political Science, Legal Studies and Gender Studies of the Central European University (CEU), Budapest, Hungary. She has participated in many national and international law and policy-making activities in the field of human rights, biomedical law and bioethics, including key roles in both national (Hungary) and international standard settings, and drafting of legislative instruments. In 2004-2005, she served as the Chief of the Bioethics Section at the UNESCO and was a key contributor to the drafting of the Universal Declaration on Bioetics and Human Rights. She has published eleven books and numerous articles and other writings in the field of human rights and biomedical law, and led and participated research projects funded by the European Commission in the fields of bio-banks, genetic data, stem cell research, organ transplantation and human reproduction.  Since 2005, she is a founding director of the Center for Ethics and Law in Biomedicine (CELAB) at the Central European University. Besides this, her other roles include a seat at the National Ethics Committee for Human Reproduction in the Hungarian Medical Research Council, a committee member of the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) Programme, and a member of the International Scientific Advisory Council of the German Reference Center for Ethics in the Life Sciences, and since 2007, she also participates in a French network of bioethics. In 2018, she was elected as the Governor of the World Association of Medical Law. Her main research fields within law include biopolitics, human rights, privacy rights, regulating new technologies, anti-discrimination law, and women’s rights. 

 Professor Sandor was profiled for ATLAS by Pin Lean Lau. Pin Lean is currently a Research & Teaching Fellow at Central European University and the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary. Read more about Pin Lean’s career and work at the end of this profile.


What motivated you to embark on a career in international law? And what were your first steps?

Since my childhood, I have always had a wide multidisciplinary interest. For a long time, I could not understand why l would have to choose between different disciplines, or even between the natural and social sciences. I was equally interested in literature, art, biology, and medicine. During my summer breaks, I worked at a hospital, but I also went to a music school, and enjoyed acting and writing. In the end, I think I chose to go law school because it was different from the choice of my family, who wanted me to go to medical school. It was also different from my childhood dreams to be a dancer, a musician or a psychologist. But I thought that law would provide me with the possibility to be useful, to be of service to others. I was looking for the right profession, using an almost scientific approach. I did numerous  work experiences in order to find the ideal profession. One of these was a visit to a courtroom. This was the final push. 

I watched a trial where a young judge, a woman, spoke to a male offender, a recidivist, who was accused of committing grievous bodily injury (again, not the first offence). It was in a small town where everyone knew each other. The judge had asked him about his mother’s words and reactions, when she learnt that her son had committed yet another crime. The defendant was devastated. I did not know at that time that this procedure was quite irregular. I liked the personal tone of the judge, the humanity of this trial, and I thought that it represented a classical moral dilemma about crime and punishment. Later, after my graduation from law school, I realized that the different pieces of the puzzle: my interest in science, law, art, medicine, they all have important roles in shaping my profession. 

I practiced law first, and then I became a law professor. In this job I needed all the skills that I had learnt throughout. My research field began into the legal aspects of bio-medicine, privacy and human rights; later on, I focused on new emerging technologies, artificial reproduction, and biotechnology in general. I had to understand science, think scientifically, and I had to write in a way to connect the different disciplinary perspectives, and to make these attractive to my students. 


What would you say have been the high points of your career thus far?

It was always important to me that my work be relevant to more people than just myself; I wanted it to be useful and beneficial to other people. I participated in various public discussions on genetics, biobanks, reproductive rights, end-of life issues, and on the ethical aspects of emerging technologies. I also designed surveys in the process of drafting laws. I took part in numerous media events, on television and radio, and I was interviewed for many newspapers, mainly in Hungary. In the course of my work, I consulted with doctors and scientists, drafted laws and argued for human rights, gave public lectures to non-lawyers, helped patients in articulating and defending their rights. Between 2014 and 2019, I was a member of the Presidential Board of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union. I am also a Member of the International Advisory Board of the German DRZE. 

I strongly believe that my professional work should not be just a chore to be finished and forgotten as soon as possible; it should be something in which I can truly believe. We live in a strange world, where many of these above-mentioned important professional activities are, essentially, pro bono jobs that are not taken seriously enough. Many employers try to standardize people and suppress innovation and creativity, in hopes of creating an unrealistic expectation of “the perfect worker”; it is part of how work is organized in our world. I believe this is a huge mistake: it is important to craft your own individuality, uniqueness and character into any work: your teaching work, into writing, into your research, to make a unique contribution. 

I am very lucky that I have had the chance to work as an in-house lawyer and as a solicitor in different countries, as a researcher, and later, policy maker, which gave me opportunities to be part of the codification processes of several national and international legal norms. These include the establishment of the first “informed consent” forms in Hungary, drafting a comprehensive health care Act and part of a small team that developed a conceptual framework for genetic data law, also in Hungary. I have worked at international organizations: I was the Head of the Bioethics Section within UNESCO, allowing me to contribute to the writing of the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights. 

Last but not least, I have been teaching international graduate students from all over the world, for many years. I have established a small research center in the field of bioethics and human rights, and I have been the director of this center since 2005.  I always think that academics should communicate with the public. They cannot be isolated from, and should even influence the public discourse. Therefore, I participate a lot in the media. I also write short articles on bioethics in different journals, and I also have a column in a Hungarian weekly called Magyar Narancs, titled Testbeszéd(Body Talk), and another about the ethics of science in an online daily, called Qubit


What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced and how have you tackled them?

Frankly, I was not prepared for the many challenges that I encountered during the different stages of my career. Therefore, it took me a long time to identify them and to find some kind of strategy for coping with them. For instance, I did not know that when women received compliments in a professional environment, it might mean something different than being appreciated for work done; that it might be related to appearance rather than academic or legal skills. Similarly, I did not know that hostility, or silencing knowledge or expression, could actually be a sign that you are successful and that generates jealousy sometimes. 

These harmful episodes are the result of the invisible glass ceiling and glass cliff, which practically all women experience during the successful periods of their career. And because of the hostility coming from some colleagues, women start doubting themselves and have mixed feelings about their achievements, instead of enjoying their success. In addition to that, if you are a woman from the East-Central part of Europe, you may well encounter patronizing comments and condescending behavior from Western colleagues who do not know much about other parts of the world. One of my female colleagues from the Middle East once said to me, “Judit, as you get higher, the headwind is getting stronger and stronger.” As a woman scholar from Central and Eastern Europe I also observed that I was not treated on par with my male academic colleagues at international conferences. A small, but telling sign is that while they received the title “Prof.” in front of their names, the organizers often forgot to add it to my name, or how much time is being allocated to speakers, even if, in reality, the official program indicates equal time slots for both men and women. And after I have managed to fight off all these challenges and prove my mettle, I found myself being targeted in the middle of political struggles for academic freedom at my institution, the Central European University. I was blacklisted in my home country in a government-allied journal, “Figyelő” because of my human rights work, research and teaching in 2018.

But there were also positive challenges that I faced and whichproduced inspiration that I embraced. For instance, I often chose to work in multi-lingual environments, such as international organizations, or at an international university. These environments and working in, and with, different languages teach us tolerance and creativity. There was a particular year when one of my works was published in nine different languages (of course, with the assistance of foreign colleagues).  

Some people react to these extreme and constant challenges by being tough, closed, and locked into their small academic fields, to avoid facing the dangerous world outside. I do not regret that I have had a different attitude. I believe that kindness, empathy, and solidarity should not be regarded as weaknesses. I think that hiding our vulnerability would misguide the future generations. Sometimes, we have to be brave enough to show them, and have to be sincere about how we struggle with difficulties in our professional lives. 

Several years ago, I started an initiative that women should write their discrimination record in their CVs too, in addition to listing their achievements, titles and publications; because with a shared history of discrimination, we could help the future generation of women leaders and scholars to prepare for challenges ahead. 


Do you have any advice for those, especially women, who are embarking on a career in international law?

Know yourself and be yourself. It sounds easy but actually it may sometimes be a lifelong project. And as we continue to change, we also have to re-learn to adapt to our new personal selves. People often communicate a stronger, merciless, competitive identity because that is the mainstream expectation. If you are not like that, then dare to be different, and find your own, special way. In these times of standardization, people often try to follow a pattern, copy others, but that does not lead to unique achievements that are relevant, important, and make a difference in our world. 

Professor Judit Sándor was profiled for ATLAS by Pin Lean Lau. Pin Lean is currently a Research & Teaching Fellow at Central European University and the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary. She received both her law degree and LLM in International Law from the University of London, and recently received her Doctorate in Juridical Science (summa cum laude) from the Central European University, Budapest. Pin Lean began her legal career as a barrister in a leading law firm in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and made the switch into academia after 9 years in private legal practice. Pin Lean’s current research portfolio encompasses the distinct theme of biomedical laws and emerging technologies, merging international law, constitutional law, human rights, and ethics and philosophy, with legal/regulatory frameworks and other alternative and adaptive governance mechanisms for emerging biomedical technologies. Her work is firmly committed to transforming ideas about governing science, medicine and health in our increasingly digitized and transformative societies. It intends to provoke timely discussions in the field of genome editing and artificial intelligence, within the larger scheme of reproductive health. In her spare time, she enjoys reading classical, contemporary, and feminist literature; plays the ukulele and keyboards; and writes indie-pop and electronic psy-trance music.

Sareta Ashraph