Matthew Kelly ’06, Marian Conaty ’06 and Francesco Forin ’06: Pulling the plug on biomedical ethics

The suspension of the undergraduate biomedical ethics program contributes to the decline of the New Curriculum

By , and
Tuesday, February 28, 2006

This spring, the University of Pennsylvania will celebrate the 10th anniversary of its prestigious Center for Bioethics. Penn followed in the footsteps of Brown, which in 1972 became the first university to organize an undergraduate program in biomedical ethics. Now, as society ponders an ever-growing list of bioethical dilemmas, Brown appears to have lost its courage and its wits.

By 2007, Brown will no longer offer an undergraduate program in bio-medical ethics. The administration claims that there is a need for a respite, to last several years, after which it will evaluate the future of the program. During this respite, students will be unable to declare a concentration in the field. Thus, as Penn celebrates a decade of active debate, Brown will mark its first year of silence. The university that once pioneered interdisciplinary study and was the first to embrace bioethics as an undergraduate field is losing its edge. We ought to be troubled by our current leadership’s failure to extend the project of the New Curriculum into the 21st century even as the principles of the New Curriculum become ever more crucial to meeting the challenge that face society.

As senior biomedical ethics concentrators, we cannot help but wonder what exactly the University needs to ponder. Does it question the legitimacy of the discipline in today’s society? Does it suppose the ethical questions posed by advances in medicine and science have all been answered?

These questions hardly seem to merit several years’ reflection. The landscape of national and international events reveals this century will no doubt be marked by a predominance of biomedical ethical issues . Other Ivies have embraced this inevitability by creating their own biomedical ethics programs. The Brown student body has also voiced its support for the program: each semester, biomedical ethics seminars are shopped by two to four times the amount of students for whom slots are allotted. Most students have to be turned away. Furthermore, concentrators and sympathizers are actively working to organize biomedical ethics discussions on campus, such as the Feb. 23 lecture by Sheldon Krimsky on university-industry collaborations. The student-run Bioethics Society is working feverishly to compensate for the uncharacteristic apathy of the administration.

The administration’s decision to discontinue the biomedical ethics program has been justified by claims that the University is unable to find a viable candidate to chair the program. To be blunt, this argument lacks merit. The field of biomedical ethics features vibrant scholars hailing from medical, philosophical and legal communities. To suggest that it is impossible to find a candidate worthy of Brown is a mockery of institutions such as Penn that have established successful programs. We also caution the administration against requiring that professorial candidates be internationally renowned. We are reminded that Brown’s former bioethics professor, Dan Brock, was not internationally renowned when he began teaching here. He became internationally renowned while teaching here.

Last year, Congressional representatives stayed their posts into the night to vote on the matter of Terry Schiavo. This year, the government of South Korea and the scientific community at large grapple with questions of scientific fraud. Today, the battle between intelligent design and evolution is fought in our classrooms. Tomorrow, Brown closes its eyes and ears to these problems, silencing the voices of its students.

Our point is simple: administrators have a duty to immediately organize a body of students and faculty members to orchestrate a search to find a professor to sustain our program. In the meantime, the University should sustain funding for visiting professorships so undergraduates can continue to benefit from outstanding seminars in biomedical ethics.

Pulling the plug is not the right answer. When it comes to the biomedical ethics program, Brown administrators cannot afford to take a break from thinking simply because thinking hurts.

Matthew Kelly ’06, Marian Conaty ’06 and Francesco Forin ’06 are bioethics concentrators and members of the Bioethics Society.