Big Questions: Guest Speaker Addresses Ethics Class

Some days – maybe most days – the hardest question most of us face is choosing an outfit or deciding whether to eat that second cookie. The students in Julian Willard’s Exploring Ethics: Language, Literature, and the Brain, a senior interdisciplinary studies elective, are grappling with bigger issues: Organ transplants. Bias in artificial intelligence. Palliative care. Euthanasia.

“Ethics is about community,” Willard reminded the group of 14 students on a recent Wednesday morning. And, by way of introducing the day’s guest speaker, he added, “Ethics is not just about action but policies.”

Willard had arranged for a classroom visit from Carol Powers. A lawyer by training, Powers was instrumental in the creation of the Community Ethics Committee, an arm of Harvard Medical School’s Center for Bioethics. The CEC is a group of citizens who meet regularly to provide public input on ethical aspects of health care. Every one of the group’s reports, Powers was pleased to note, has resulted in policy changes at Harvard-affiliated hospitals. Powers visited the class to address the role of community input in creating ethical standards and policies, and to offer support and insight to students as they work on the course’s capstone project.

But she began by recounting the harrowing road that led her to help create the CEC. She and her husband had a baby born with severe medical issues. The students listened raptly as Powers described the roller coaster – emotional and ethical – that defined her days as she and her husband made literal life-or-death decisions for their child, who eventually succumbed to his health complications. “We had entered a part of life where you don’t have a safe place, where there are no good decisions,” Powers told the class. “We faced every ethical decision you can face: ‘What is life?’ ‘How do you make the decision to stop life support?’”

Out of that difficult time came her resolve to work in the field of bioethics. Every hospital, she said, has to have an ethics service, to address the types of concerns that invariably arise around medical treatment. “Whenever the word ‘should’ or ‘ought’ comes in, you’re in the realm of ethics,” she said.

After addressing the class, Powers met with the students one-on-one or in small groups to discuss their “Make a Difference” projects, a culminating creative project designed to take on a pressing bioethical topic and make a positive social impact. It was early days, and many of the students were in the process of refining their topics. Abby Deneen and Caroline Grady chatted with Powers about organ transplant and its moral repercussions. Emma Foley took up the subject of palliative care, an interest that grew out of her summer volunteer stint at Boston Medical Center. Powers encouraged the students to dig deeply into their topics and to take a multifaceted approach. She offered to follow up with students after class, to provide resources and support.

Willard circled the room meanwhile, helping students focus their ideas. His is a longstanding interest in ethics. Last year, he was a fellow in bioethics at Harvard Medical School’s Center for Bioethics, where he spent the year developing the concept of a bioethics club, since launched on campus, and creating a website  to support similar clubs at other schools. The club works with the CEC throughout the year to deepen and broaden students' interest in medicine, ethics, and community engagement, Willard explained. And just last weekend, he led a team of students to Tufts University, where Rivers participated for the first time in the New England Regional High School Ethics Bowl. “They had an intense and rewarding day of ethical reflection about such issues as liver allocation for transplantation and addressing implicit bias in AI and computer software,” said Willard.

Back in the classroom, while student Leslie Schwartz awaited her turn with Powers, she described one class topic she’d found particularly engaging: The ethics of relativism. “The things you accept as right, other cultures would consider wrong,” she said. “It’s been interesting to talk about right and wrong in different cultures.”

The students approached their sometimes thorny topics with aplomb, chatting easily with Powers about euthanasia, concussions, end-of-life decisions, and inflated drug prices. Those subjects aren’t easy to ponder at any age, never mind in high school. “They are big issues,” conceded Foley. “But I like thinking about the hard stuff.”