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The bigger questions in science

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2004 - Spring


For a whopping 360 students, bioethics course tackles problems at “the core of our existence.”

When Political Science 309b—“Leading Issues in Bioethics”—met for the first time a year ago, Arthur W. Galston, Ph.D., the Eaton Professor Emeritus of Botany and lecturer in political science, expected that the 125-seat Mason Laboratory would be the right size for the undergraduate course. But on Day One students were “hanging from the rafters,” said Galston. The class moved to the 250-seat auditorium in the Whitney Humanities Center, but even there, a hundred students were left standing in the aisles. The course had to move again, this time to the cavernous law school auditorium. Class size: 360 students, making Poli Sci 309b one of the largest courses offered at Yale College last spring.

Although Galston was surprised by the huge turnout, he’d known that there was “pent-up demand” for a course in bioethics, the study of the ethical consequences of advances in biology. For 12 years, he had turned away 60 students each time he’d offered a bioethics seminar that was limited to 18.

“These are human interest problems. They get to the very core of our existence,” said Galston, a member of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies. Galston assembled his course by calling in experts from every corner of campus—from the law school to the divinity school, from forestry to genetics—and including what he called “the superstars from the medical school.” They gave 26 lectures on topics ranging from the ethics of stem cell research, to the Judeo-Christian attitude toward nature, to why Jehovah’s Witnesses seek the right to deny blood transfusions to their children.

“You have some large questions,” said Galston. “Is it fair that Mickey Mantle got a liver when he ruined his liver through excessive alcohol? Does nature have intrinsic value? Does it matter if a species goes extinct?”

“The best thing about the course was all the different voices we heard,” said Robert Fisher, a divinity school student who has worked as a hospital chaplain. Among the voices were those of Kenneth K. Kidd, Ph.D., professor of genetics, who discussed ownership of the human genome sequence and whether, from a geneticist’s perspective, race exists; author Sherwin B. Nuland, M.D. ’55, HS ’61, clinical professor of surgery, talking about the end of life; and Marc I. Lorber, M.D., professor of transplant surgery, on the ethics of obtaining organs for transplantation. Other speakers discussed topics ranging from world population growth to the potential hazards of genetically modified foods.

Suzana Zorca, a Yale College senior last spring who is now attending medical school, said the course complemented her biotechnology course. “You can’t help but be in [biotech] class and think of the ethical controversies that must be raging around these issues.”

“The course attracted people of literally every conceivable major,” said Andrew J. Read, a biology major. (The course is cross-listed as Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology 130b.) Although Read said that in some courses discussion sections can be tedious, the give-and-take was lively in his bioethics section, led by genetics doctoral student Stacey Thompson. “People were very much awake, with the discussions becoming so heated that we almost didn’t want to leave when the buzzer signaled the end. … I found myself re-evaluating some of my own opinions on the subjects, with the realization that most ethical dilemmas have no clear-cut answers.”

Galston’s interest in bioethics dates to the mid-1960s, when a chemical he’d developed to improve soybean production was combined with another and used as a defoliant in the Vietnam War. Galston was alarmed: the defoliant, the infamous Agent Orange, could cause birth defects. He and some colleagues eventually managed to convince President Richard Nixon to suspend the use of Agent Orange. “This is what catapulted me into activism and started me into bioethics,” said Galston.

The course was offered again this spring, and this time Galston reserved a large auditorium.

Reading list: Poli Sci 309B/MCDB 130b

Students taking the course bought three textbooks: Ethical Issues in Modern Medicine, sixth edition, edited by Bonnie Steinbock, John D. Arras and Alex John London (McGraw-Hill); Environmental Ethics: Readings in Theory and Application, third edition, edited by Louis P. Pojman (Wadsworth); and The Human Embryonic Stem Cell Debate: Science, Ethics, and Public Policy, edited by Suzanne Holland, Karen Lebacqz and Laurie Zoloth (MIT Press). Students also read “The Oath of Hippocrates” and articles including “Dying Words” by Jerome E. Groopman (The New Yorker, Oct. 28, 2002); “Financial Compensation for Cadaver Organ Donation: Good Idea or Anathema,” by A.L. Caplan, C.T. Van Buren and N.L. Tilney (Transplantation Proceedings, Vol. 25, No. 4, 1993); and “Psst! Sell Your Kidney?” by Nicholas D. Kristof (The New York Times, Nov. 12, 2002).

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