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Asking all the right questions

In 25 years, the Center for Bioethics faculty has grown from three core members to 11 faculty and 14 affiliate faculty across the University today. (Photo: Courtesy of the Center for Bioethics)

At 25, the Center for Bioethics confronts the issues that shape modern medicine

Never doubt that a small group of committed students can make a far-reaching and lasting impact. Indeed, it was a small group of students that provided the initial spark for the University’s Center for Bioethics, which this year celebrates its 25th anniversary.

Today the center is widely regarded as one of the few “top-tier” bioethics programs, says Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., who was its first director, from 1987 to 1994, and now heads the bioethics program at the University of Pennsylvania.

But it all began in the early 1980s with a group called the Student Committee on Biomedical Ethics, which organized an annual lecture series on ethical issues in health care.

Those lectures generated intense interest among medical students, recalls Timothy Culbert, M.D. (Medical School Class of 1986), who chaired the student committee in 1984-85.

At the time, medical students were increasingly aware of the complex ethical challenges they would soon face as practitioners.

“We felt we were going into medicine without enough training on all of these issues,” says Culbert, who is now medical director of integrative medicine at Children’s-Minneapolis. “We wanted to talk about these issues out in the open.”

Those early lecture series also caught the attention of faculty, recalls Paul Quie, M.D., an emeritus professor who was then head of pediatric infectious diseases at the Medical School.

Soon, both faculty and students were engaged in efforts to establish a bioethics center at the University, and with help from the Northwest Area Foundation, the center was born.

The initial push from students was the key, says Quie, who was appointed the center’s first interim director in 1985. “It was definitely the product of student passion and enthusiasm.”

Growing the center

As medical issues have evolved, so have the range and scope of the Center for Bioethics' work.

Soon, the focus turned to recruiting a permanent director who could put the program on firm footing. That person was Caplan, who was then associate director of the Hastings Center in Garrison, New York.

Caplan’s arrival, “put bioethics on the map in Minnesota,” says longtime faculty member Dianne Bartels, R.N., Ph.D., who became the center’s interim director in 1986.

Under Caplan’s leadership, the center hosted a number of important conferences on subjects ranging from reproductive technologies and health-care access to genetic counseling, end-of-life care, fetal tissue transplantation, and the use of data from Nazi medical experiments.

“We took on issues that were controversial,” Caplan says. “And we had a lot of influence in those areas.”

Realizing the vision

Following Caplan’s departure, Jeffrey Kahn, Ph.D., M.P.H., was recruited to take over as director in 1996. Under Kahn, the center has grown into a leading bioethics program nationally with a robust record of education, scholarship, and public engagement.

Today, the center is highly regarded for its strong, interdisciplinary faculty—considered among the best in the country.

From just three core members in the mid-1980s, the faculty has grown to 11, and they represent a diversity of expertise: medicine, philosophy, law, public health, nursing, and religious studies. The core faculty is augmented by 14 affiliate members from across the University as well as the Mayo College of Medicine.

“Colleagues from across the University and around the country and the world seek out our faculty for research collaborations, invited lectures, and even informal curbsides,” says Kahn. “In terms of both productivity and impact, our faculty members are regarded as leading scholars in the field, taking on issues that are both important and controversial.”

Over the last five years alone, the center’s Steve Miles, M.D., uncovered evidence of the complicity of health-care professionals in torture of Iraqi prisoners; Deb DeBruin, Ph.D., led analysis for the Minnesota Department of Health on how best to allocate scarce resources during a pandemic; John Song, M.D., M.P.H., worked with homeless populations as part of an NIH-funded project to help them engage in meaningful end-of-life decision-making; and Kahn chaired a project funded by the Mellon Foundation to create new ways for bioethics scholars to find research resources and collaborate on projects using social networking technologies.

The faculty is particularly proud of the center’s new graduate program. For nearly two decades, the center has offered a graduate minor in bioethics. Now it also offers a master’s degree.

“There is a growing need for top-notch educational programs in bioethics,” says DeBruin, the center’s associate director, who spearheaded the effort to establish the new master’s program. “Our M.A. program offers the opportunity to study at a premier bioethics center with an internationally recognized faculty.”

Additionally, the center regularly reaches out to its communities in a variety of ways, from public talks and regular media appearances by faculty members, to the center’s annual presence at the Minnesota State Fair—a faculty favorite.

Over its 25 years, the center has grown and evolved with the field, says Kahn. “The range, scope, and impact of our work have expanded to keep pace with the complexities of modern health care and biomedical science.”

The discussion of nearly every major bioethics issue in the last quarter-century bears the imprint of the Center for Bioethics—a true testament to the Medical School students and faculty who launched it nearly a generation ago.

By Amy Snow Landa

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