Bioethics Society cultivates student interests

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No caption. Photo by Traci Tillman.

When Alissa Wassung ’10 ventured into her first bioethics class in 2008, she had no idea that reading “Dying Well” — Ira Byock’s book on end-of-life care — would lead her to work in a Connecticut hospice, perform HIV/AIDS outreach in South Africa and revive Yale’s Bioethics Society for undergraduates in 2008 with Blair Benham-Pyle ’10.

In the past year, the Bioethics Society has made great strides to increase awareness of bioethics issues such as euthanasia and to provide a forum for undergraduates to cultivate their interest in the field, the group’s officers said. In addition to hosting its first annual bioethics symposium this year, the Bioethics Society now also has weekly meetings, and members are writing articles for journal submissions, they added.

“The Bioethics Society exposes interested undergraduates to well thought out, articulated arguments about [bioethics] issues and encourages them to take part in the intellectual life that campus departments are always organizing for faculty,” said faculty advisor Stephen Latham, the deputy director of Yale’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics.

Since membership surged to 100 students in the fall of 2009, the Bioethics Society has hosted weekly mealtime meetings on topics ranging from environmental ethics to euthanasia in the Davenport seminar room, Wassung said. Before the revival of the undergraduate Bioethics Society, opportunities to speak with medical, legal and ethics scholars about bioethics were reserved for graduate students, Wassung said.

So about a decade ago, Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics Associate Director Carol Pollard worked with students to create a bioethics organization, Latham said. But the group was defunct by the time Wassung and Benham-Pyle joined with Latham to create the current Bioethics Society in 2008, Wassung said.

The original organization was not as active as the current society, Latham said. He attributed the current group’s success largely to the growing interest in bioethics across campus; the size of his bioethics lecture, he said, has doubled in the past year to about 140 students.

Much of this interest is also tied to the interdisciplinary nature of bioethics, which combines medicine, law and philosophy, Wassung said.

The fact that 30 to 40 students and faculty members attended the Bioethics Society’s first symposium in January demonstrated the burgeoning interest in bioethics on campus, Wassung said. She said professors told her to not have expected more than 10 people to show up at the symposium.

Members of the society have also written articles set to appear in the Yale Journal of Medicine and Law’s spring term issue covering topics ranging from doctor-patient relationships to prohibiting gay men from donating blood, Wassung said.

Gabriella Biondo ’12, the group’s vice president of organization, said the society eventually hopes to host the National Undergraduate Bioethics Conference, an annual event affiliated with the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities. The conference seeks to gather students and prominent bioethics professionals from across the country to discuss and debate current issues within the field.

Wassung said conference hosts are chosen according to a university’s ability to provide event venues, adequate funding and faculty members willing to lecture and judge debates. Yale “might have a shot” at hosting the national conference in the next three or four years, Biondo said. But because of currently limited funds — the Undergraduate Organizations Funding Committee provides most of the group’s funding — the Bioethics Society hopes to coordinate with the Yale Debate Association to participate in a debate called the Bioethics Bowl, Wassung said.

Yale School of Medicine faculty member Gregory Larkin will speak about the ethics of emergency physicians during today’s Bioethics Society meeting in Davenport Seminar Room.

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