The Student Bioethics Forum

A collaborative dialogue at Princeton University

Recent Events

Bioethics Conference 2011

On Saturday, November 12th, the Forum hosted its annual Princeton Bioethics Conference, in which a select group of undergraduate students from Princeton and other top universities across the US such as Johns Hopkins, Duke, UVA and Yale were invited to campus to present their papers on a variety of cutting-edge Bioethical issues. The Forum teamed up with the Princeton Journal of Bioethics to release a special Conference edition of the journal in which a hand-picked selection of Undergraduate papers were published.

Princeton President and molecular biologist Shirley Tilghman kicked off the day of varied presentations with a provoking keynote address entitled "Irrational Exuberance: Over-Promising In Science." The phrase "Irrational Exuberance," originally coined by Fed chairman Alan Greenspan to describe the economic Dot Com bubble of the 1990s, in Tilghman’s speech referred to the way in which scientists at the forefront of important research often promise an unwitting public far too much based upon little evidence. This over-promising, she pointed out, can easily lead to compromises in safety and proper protocol, as well as falsely high expectations, that have ethical implications for all scientists. Professor Tilghman recounted her own personal experiences as a young scientist during the initial development of Recombinant DNA techniques in order to demonstrate the conservative but appropriate way that this once controversial technique was gradually integrated into the scientific and public communities. She contrasted this with the current issue of stem cell research and the poor way in which the scientific community has thus far handled a vitally important field of research with a lot of potential for both harm and good. The talk warmed up the audience’s minds and provided an essential political and social context for the specific bioethical topics later presented by students.

Presenters’ topics varied greatly, and the day involved a lot of great discussion within the audience of issues such as abortion, the debate over legalized euthanasia, the ethics of health insurance, and eugenics. Presentation titles included: "Neuroethical Considerations of Nootropics," "Toward a More Open Future For All: Making a Case for Positive Eugenics," "The Hard Case: Enrolling Dementia Patients in High-Risk, No-Benefit Research" and "Comfort in the Face of Death: A Comparative Analysis of Aid-in-Dying Policies in the United States, the Netherlands, and Switzerland"

The Forum would like to thank once again all of the presenters for their dedication and contributions to the Conference, as well as Shirley Tilghman for her fascinating address.

Art Caplan Dinner Discussion Write-Up

The Forum was incredibly pleased to invite renowned Bioethicist Arthur Caplan to campus on the 17th of October for a dinner discussion with 20 students on the topic of allocating kidneys for transplantation. Caplan explained the inherent problems associated with a shortage of kidneys available for transplant due to their inability to be stored for any period of time, unlike bone marrow or skin. Cutting-edge stem cell technology aims towards growing entirely new organs and eventually reduce or eliminate the need for donors, but that breakthrough is a long way off. And as the various organ donation policies across the world have shown, it is very difficult to increase the number of kidney donors in any substantial fashion. Thus, Caplan invited us to think about the specific issue of how to allocate the limited number organs we have. Should organs be distributed first to those who are sickest or closest to death, to those who have been waiting on the donor list for the longest, or to the youngest on the list in the hopes of maximizing the number of life years added per kidney?

Rationing Health Care with Peter Singer

Peter Singer

In an exciting start to the 2011-12 Academic Year, on September 20th the Student Bioethics Forum was proud to present Peter Singer, Princeton's Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics, to a packed auditorium of over 200 students and members of the Princeton community. During his talk - one of the Forum’s largest to date - Singer laid out the complexities and challenges of the health care reform debate in the US, focusing on the bioethical questions that underpin future policy implications. In these current days of increasing healthcare costs and shrinking government budgets, should health care in the US be rationed? If so, upon what basis should these decisions be made, and who should make them? Addressing significant issues such as whether view healthcare can be viewed as a commodity, and the price we can put on human life, Singer delved deeply into how the US might reform its policy. Singer discussed one method of rationing applied by the UK's National Health system, the use of Quality Adjusted Life Years, and probed the audience to grapple with the concept whether life can have a monetary price and sharing his own view that in a life-or-death situation, the life of a teenager might be worth more than the life of an 80 year old.

For more information on Peter Singer's perspective on this debate on rationing healthcare, read his article on the topic published in the New York Times.

Bioethics Conference

The first annual Bioethics Conference, co-sponsored by the Student Bioethics Forum and FUSION, drew attendees from a variety of schools in the Eastern United States. At the day-long conference, students presented papers that they had written on an array of bioethical subjects, including abortion, stem cell research, euthanasia, and more. Each student presentation was followed by a question-and-answer session, which allowed the entire conference to engage with each presentation and sparked vigorous debate. In addition to the student presentations, the conference also featured remarks by three prominent Princeton professors who have made significant contributions to the field of bioethics: Professor Adel Mahmoud, Charles Gross, and Elizabeth Harman. The conference was a phenomenal success, one that the Forum hopes to replicate in future years.

Dinner with Dr. Robert George and Dr. Cornel West

Dinner with Dr. Harold Shapiro

Dinner with President Shirley Tilghman

In a private dinner with 20 members of the Student Bioethics Forum, Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman discussed her views on a number of bioethical issues. Her background as a molecular biology prior to becoming President of Princeton gave her a unique and valuable perspective on these issues. She argued that, despite ethical concerns, biological engineering ought to proceed without excessive interference from government-imposed restrictions, trusting the scientific community to regulate itself. Students enjoyed this rare opportunity to interact with the University's president one-on-one over a topic of shared interest.

Dinner with Dr. Harold Shapiro

Dinner with Dr. Harold Shapiro

The Student Bioethics Forum kicked off the 2011 year with an exciting dinner discussion on "The Politics of Bioethics" with Professor Harold Shapiro. Shapiro is a professor of economics and public policy and served as the chair of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission under President Clinton. He was able to provide a rich history of the national commissions preceding the National Bioethics Advisory Commission as well as personal insight into the day-to-day activities of serving on the Commission, hearing testimony from scientists, religious leaders, policymakers, and ethicists on the issues that arose during his service, which include the cloning of Dolly the sheep, and the key reports released by the NBAC during his term. He also provided the 25 Forum members in attendance with a basic understanding of the controversial nature of federal funding for the sciences as well as the ethical decisions that are made in determing this funding.

For more information on Professor Shapiro, please visit his website at: http:/ /www.princeton.edu/~hts/. For more on the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, the current analogue to the National Bioethics Advisory Commission, please visit: http://www.bioethics.gov/.

Scott Carney

On March 30th, the Student Bioethics Forum was pleased to welcome journalist and anthropologist Scott Carney to campus, all the way from Long Beach, California. Carney presented a lecture titled "Red Markets: Investigating the Global Trade in Human Bodies and Body Parts," based on his upcoming book, The Red Market: On the Trail of the World's Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers slated for release May 30th, 2011.

His work is based on his own experience traveling through South Asia and documenting the ways in which bones, kidneys, blood, ova, and children are acquired and sold. In particular, his lecture highlighted the ways in which the altruistic foundation of the US transfer of blood and organs, which requires donation rather than sale of human tissue, combined with standards of medical privacy, which obscure the supply chain, often exploits and endangers the least well off. In his words: "Anonymity means that organ buyers can purchase human flesh without worrying about where it came from... The structure of donations neatly takes care of any ethical objections by masking the supply behind a curtain of ethics. The one-two punch of anonymity and donation means that profit taking middlemen control the entire supply chain and buying an organ is as easy as writing a check."

Carney went on to discuss a number of circumstances that his investigations uncovered: a blood farm of 17 people locked in a brick shed in Gorakhpur; a village of tsunami survivors in Chennai where at least 80 women had sold their kidneys to support their families; grave-robbing to export skeletons from Kolkata; and a child kidnapped from his parents in Chennai and adopted by an unsuspecting American family. All of his anecdotes present a complex mix of ethical, economic, and policy questions that the Forum hopes to expand upon in the future.

For more information on Scott Carney, check out his website at: www.scottcarney.com.

The Forum greatly appreciates the co-sponsors of this event: the Healthcare Club, the University Center for Human Values, the USG, and the Anthropology Department.