July 12, 2010

Course to focus on biomedical revolution, ethics

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Subtract your current age from 80, then multiply that number by 365 days. That’s a quickie approximate-days-left-to-live calculator, maybe an optimistic one, but still useful to make a point.

Douglas Anderson, professor of philosophy at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, uses the concept of days left to live, not to be morbid, but as one of the ways he makes personal the Biomedical Revolution and Ethics course he’ll teach this fall.

“Rather than hand the students a bunch of principles, I have them consider what they already believe and apply it,” he said.

Students in the class can expect to discuss a wide range of medical and bioresearch topics, from patient-doctor relations to genetic screening to extreme life-prolonging measures.

“Probably the major new topic in recent years is genetic studies,” Anderson said. “For example, it may be one thing if we can isolate a disease-causing gene and address the disease at that level. But if we are trying to create an 8-foot tall basketball player, is that different?”

Anderson said his format is to present an ethical issue for the students to consider. Students team up based on their answers to engage in reasonable discussion meant to stimulate considered thinking on difficult and emotional topics.

Anderson intersperses a history of medical ethics and philosophy with this personalized approach.

“Medical ethics is not a new phenomenon,” he said, noting that systematic discussion and consideration of the healing arts goes back at least as far as the Ancient Greeks. Students will learn about the professionalization of doctors in the 19th century and the male domination of healing that accompanied it, and they will learn about the struggle women had to reinsert themselves into the medical profession. They will learn about medical schools’ admittance policies and what that means for domestic doctors. They will learn about the sorts of things medical ethics boards face, such as priority in scarce medical resources or organ transplants.

Technology has ushered in some new medical issues, particularly pertaining to beginning and end-of-life care, Anderson said.

“Technology has advanced now so that we can keep alive a hydrocephalic baby for 14 or 15 years,” he said. “Technology is prolonging life on the other end as well -- and now we also let people have some say in what happens to them as they age. Assisted suicide, for example, is legal in two states. I ask the students to consider what they would do if they were faced with some of these issues in their own lives. Different belief systems have different answers to the same questions, but I’m asking them to consider -- and to be able to present -- their own reasons.”

Anderson said the course typically appeals to pre-law, pre-med and nursing students as well as those interested generally in philosophy. It may also be useful for those specializing in public administration.

“We do have philosophy majors on hospital ethics boards,” Anderson said, noting the practical applications of such a class. “You can’t draw a hard line between philosophy and anything, saying this is philosophy and that is not. Philosophy is about worldviews. Philosophy gives us an history and a method of thinking and in this case, of considering ethics.”

The Biomedical Revolution and Ethics course is PHIL 344.