Bioethics come to the forefront

The Bioethics Society at Yale hosted Friday's bioethics symposium.
The Bioethics Society at Yale hosted Friday's bioethics symposium. Photo by Emily Wanger.

While ethical issues surrounding medicine cannot be decided in an afternoon, Yale researchers tried to present the complexities of the issues to about 30 people in a symposium Friday.

Six experts debated and lectured about the ethics of medical practices at the first annual bioethics symposium, held in Linsley-Chittenden Hall and hosted by the Bioethics Society at Yale, a undergraduate and graduate student group that discusses ethics in the life sciences. The group organized the event in an effort to introduce Yale students to some of the bioethics issues confronting society, such as the prescription of life-ending drugs, said Alissa Wassung ’10, the co-director of the society.

“We’re looking to broaden undergraduate knowledge about these hot-button political issues,” Wassung said. “Bioethics is considered a topic of the moment, but it’s very easy to oversimplify the issues.”

Lecturer David Smith — the director of the Yale Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, which coordinates bioethical research at Yale — presented the case for laws permitting doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs. Although he said he does not necessarily believe such laws should exist, people have the right to control their own lives, Smith said.

“Why would we take this right away from them when it comes to the end of their lives?” Smith said.

Thomas Duffy, a professor at the Yale School of Medicine, took the opposite standpoint. Duffy cited the qualms doctors might have faced with ending a patient’s life and said older doctors in particular have been trained to seek solutions to reverse patients’ problems, regardless of whether the patients wish to continue treatment.

School of Medicine professor Douglas Bruce DIV ’03 lectured on the importance of ethics in medical training. He said medical school curricula are incomplete without requiring students to learn philosophy. His own need for spiritual and ethical guidance, Bruce said, was one reason behind his unorthodox decision to attend Yale Divinity School after receiving his medical school degree from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School.

A second panel focused on children born through preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), a medical procedure that allows parents to screen embryos for their genes before they are implanted into their mother’s womb.

Dov Fox LAW ’10, who is currently teaching a residential college seminar on bioethics and the law, discussed the psychological effects PGD can have on people with disabilities.

“Choosing not to have a baby with a disability sends a very offensive message to people with disabilities,” Fox said. “It says, ‘I, as a disabled person, ought not to have been created.’ ”

Professor Stephen Latham, the deputy director of the Yale Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, added that he thinks using PGD to screen disabilities in embryos could undermine society’s compassion for the disabled.

Four students in attendance had different opinions on how informed Yalies are about biomedical issues. Lara Fourman ’13 said while it is always possible to learn more about bioethics, she thinks most Yale undergraduates already have a solid understanding of such issues.

“Topics like euthanasia, physician assisted suicide, and abortion are up there with issues like the death penalty,” Fourman said.

But David Carel ’13 and Wassung said that while students know about bioethics, they are not always exposed to the complexities that arise in more in-depth discussions.

“Each discipline has its own position on the topics, but it’s rare to combine the varied perspectives,” Wassung said. “We in the Bioethics Society would like to broaden undergraduate knowledge and make students realize that these issues are less simple than they may appear.”

The Bioethics Society at Yale will host Divinity School lecturer Brian Sorrells on Feb. 2.


  • Coey

    It’s sad the School of Nursing does not have a presence on such panels.

    Plenty of undergraduates, including those at Yale, pursue graduate degrees in nursing …

  • The Rev. Kathryn Greene-McCreight, PhD (Yale, ’94)

    Why were there no Ethicists present at the first panel? This was not a seminar in BioEthics. It was simply Bio.

  • Beth Whitehouse

    For anyone interested in exploring the ethics of PGD further, my book, “The Match: ‘Savior Siblings’ and One Family’s Battle to Heal Their Daughter,” comes out on April 1 from Beacon Press in Boston. It tells the story of a Long Island family who selected an embryo to be a bone marrow match for their sick daughter, had the baby, gave her the transplant and cured her. Several chapters of the book explain the science of embryo testing/PGD in detail, and several other chapters explore all the ethical issues surrounding selection of embryos for certain traits. Anyone who wishes to contact me can do so at; I am also a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter at Newsday, where I’ve worked for 17 years.

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