Yale Researcher Visits Rivers Bioethics Program

“Whose ethics matters?”

The question posed by the woman on a Zoom in a Revers classroom this week wasn’t simply rhetorical. The students—all participants in the Special Program in Bioethics—had been grappling with that and similar issues all year, and the virtual visitor, Lori Bruce of the Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics at Yale, was one of several guest speakers who have addressed the group as they try to find clarity around the complicated issues facing bioethicists.

Clarity—but not too much clarity. One of things Bruce said she loves about bioethics is that “everything is always wrong. It’s messy and complicated and it’s all about compromise and working with others.” That very complexity, she said, is part of what keeps her engaged in the work. 

The bioethics program at Rivers occupies an unusual niche, somewhere between a club and a class. The group of juniors meets once a week throughout the school year—less frequently than a typical class—and students receive half of one academic credit, which counts toward fulfilling their interdisciplinary studies (IDS) requirement. But participants pursue the program on top of their regular course load, simply because they have a particular interest in the subject matter. 

Make no mistake: It’s demanding. IDS Department Chair Julian Willard P'24, who leads the program, notes that, on top of the weekly commitment and extensive reading requirements, each student must produce an independent research project that delves deeply into the topic of their choice, viewed through the lens of bioethics. But many students are eager to add this intriguing study to their already-full plates.

A goal of the program, says Willard, is to get students out of the “school bubble.” 

“It’s about making a difference and engaging people beyond our community in questions that really matter,” says Willard. Toward that end, two times throughout the year the students attend meetings of the Community Ethics Committee, an arm of Harvard Medical School’s Center for Bioethics. The CEC is a group comprising members of the greater Boston community who meet regularly to provide public input on ethical aspects of health care; their reports have frequently resulted in policy changes at Harvard-affiliated hospitals. At the spring meeting, in April, the students will present their projects to the committee. 

In this week’s meeting with Bruce, students shared their project topics: the bioethical implications of using CRISPR technology to address sickle-cell disease; preventive care in homeless patients; xenotransplantation, or the transplantation from one species to another. 

“All hot topics,” said Bruce approvingly, adding that much of her work in the Yale program involves helping students figure out what ideas truly captivate them. “There are so many ways to be impactful” in bioethics, she said. “So I tell students that if you’re not truly engaged in what you’re pursuing, throw it away.” A more exciting topic, she said, will surely present itself. When one of the Rivers students admitted that she wasn’t yet clear about her future career plans, Bruce told her, “That’s the perfect answer. The best thing is to be honest about what compels you.”

Bioethics, said Bruce, is a lens that can be turned on any number of disciplines and fields. While medical ethics has been around “forever,” bioethics only began to hold sway in the 1960s, in response to the Civil Rights movement, feminism, and other cultural forces. Circling back to her initial question, Bruce said that that was when the issue of “Whose ethics matters?” bubbled to the surface, as people began to question the hegemony of the medical establishment, especially in setting ethical policy. 

As a person whose work instigates change at the legislative and policy level, said Bruce, she is mindful that such change inevitably “allows some things and disallows others.” Rarely do the changes satisfy all parties—leading her back to the topic of the messiness and complexity inherent in the field. 

In response to a student question about how those working on bioethical questions find consensus or common ground, Bruce said, “It’s easy to reach consensus—if all the people at the table look like you.” She continued, “Consensus can actually be the worst outcome,” because it can indicate a lack of diversity in viewpoints and experience.

Bruce concluded her visit by inviting the students to come down to New Haven for a few days to sit in on the Summer Institute in Bioethics she runs at Yale. Given Willard’s stated goal for the program, it would be a fitting conclusion. By year’s end, says Willard, he hopes that “we’ve burst the school bubble a little. I believe they understand the bubble around high school is much more permeable than they had realized. Their discussions and their voices have a direct impact on the Boston-area community. My hope and belief is that they are not the same at the end of the year. They know they are part not just of the Rivers community, but also of Massachusetts and the US and the world community, where their voices matter.”
333 Winter Street Weston, MA 02493
P: 781.235.9300 F: 781.239.3614