Glenn McGee describes himself as Socrates with a beeper.
He credits Dolly the sheep — the first cloned mammal — with launching his career in 1996.
McGee, the director of the Alden March Bioethics Institute at Albany Medical College, is part of a rapidly growing field, one that barely existed 30 years ago: bioethics.
Next weekend, Union College in Schenectady will become the first undergraduate college to host the National Undergraduate Bioethics Conference, now in its 11th year. The conference, titled “The Human Use of Human Beings in Medicine and Science,” will be held Friday and Saturday. Past conference hosts include Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins University. Between 150 and 170 undergraduate bioethics students are expected to attend.
“Union has got one of the longest histories of teaching bioethics,” said Robert Baker, director of the Bioethics Program at Union College/Union Graduate College and Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.
McGee, who serves on the board of directors of the American Society for Bioethics & Humanities, which sponsors the conference, said he’s thrilled that Union will host the event. The Capital Region, he said, is one of the best areas in the country to study and practice bioethics, the ethics of biological science and medicine.
“We have become the epicenter for bioethics,” McGee said. The Alden March Bioethics Institute, founded in 2005, recently built an on-site television studio so its team of 36 bioethicists can give interviews without leaving the building. Staff perform ethics consults, where they discuss dicey medical issues such as separating conjoined twins or Do Not Resuscitate Orders with patients.
Union College/Union Graduate College began offering an online master’s degree in bioethics in 2001. Until 2006, the school offered the program in partnership with Albany Medical College and the Alden March Bioethics Institute; starting in 2007 Union’s medical school partner became Mount Sinai. Baker said the school created the program at the behest of local doctors and nurses, who said they needed more training in the subject.
“Every hospital’s got a few people who are really dealing with vexatious issues,” Baker said. “At a certain point, they get in over their head. They make mistakes about ethical issues. It’s not that they don’t want to do the right thing.” What they need, he said, is graduate-level training that will give them the resources needed to deal with these issues.
“We teach doctors to be good doctors,” Baker said.
“Doctors are thinking about bioethics more than they have in the past,” McGee said. “But the bottom line is it’s not enough. They need training. We need more people to teach doctors. Training doctors is important. . . . The bottom line about bioethics is that we don’t think we have the answers. The reason we exist is because nobody else is asking the questions.”
The accelerating pace of scientific and technological advances has spurred the growth of bioethics. With this technology comes new ethical questions; many of these questions will be explored at the conference, which features lectures with titles such as “Witches, Punks and Bioethicists” and “Case Studies on Inappropriate Use of Human Subjects for Medical Research in Asia.” One discussion will focus on the case of Ashley X, a severely retarded girl who underwent surgeries designed to prevent sexual development and growth to adult size. Her parents have said they believe the surgeries were in Ashley’s best interests, but they remain controversial.
“People sometimes treat people in inhumane ways in the name of science, in the name of medicine,” Baker said. His office is full of books that explore this theme. “Tuskegee Truths,” for instance, is about the infamous medical study in which poor African-American sharecroppers were denied treatment for syphilis.
“What’s a philosopher like me doing discussing this stuff?” said Baker, who began his career studying the history and philosophy of science. “Shouldn’t the doctors take care of it?” The problem, he said, is that “the doctors mess it up. . . . This is not a culture that’s particularly philosophical. But if you put philosophers and doctors and lawyers together in a room, you can come up with reasonable policy.”
McGee said bioethics has exploded in the past eight years.
“Eight years ago, high school teachers were scared to talk about anything in bioethics,” said McGee, who helped start the national bioethics conference. “Everything was a hot-button issue.” Today, “high school teachers can’t get enough of it,” he said. “In the old days, they were afraid parents would be mad. Now it’s how they get kids interested in science.” Now, students are graduating from high school with the goal of majoring in bioethics in college, he said. “Kids want to do this for their career,” he said. “It’s the fastest-growing academic field.”
Right now, there are three bioethics jobs for every applicant, McGee said.
Union College has been trying to promote the study of ethics in every college major.
In 2006, Union created its Rapaport Ethics Across the Curriculum Initiative, which is one of the conference sponsors. The program is named after Michael Rapaport, a businessman and Union alum, who, in the wake of corporate scandals such as Enron and WorldComm, worried that students were graduating from college without a sense of right and wrong. The goal of the program is to “desegregate” ethics and make it an everyday part of classroom discussion, Baker said. “We want to take ethics out of the philosophical ghetto,” he said. At least 50 Union classes will incorporate ethics by the end of the program’s first three years.
At first, some professors were uncomfortable with this new approach to teaching.
“This is not the way they were trained to teach,” said Anastasia Pease, the program director of Ethics Across the Curriculum. But professors have warmed to the program and students enjoy it. “It’s a much more complex education we’re giving them,” she said. “They start to think about issues that will arise in their labs, workplaces, homes.”