Bioethicist's business booms with high-tech world

Tuesday, September 11, 2001

PHILADELPHIA -- Early in his career, public debate over the moral dilemmas posed by scientific advances was so sparse that bioethicist Arthur L. Caplan went for years without a call from a reporter.

Now, as director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, Caplan does back-to-back telephone and TV interviews on the ethical tangles arising from this brave new world of genome mapping, cloning and stem-cell research.

Caplan -- one of the world's foremost bioethicists, and one of the most widely quoted ones -- was so busy one recent afternoon he couldn't get a break to discuss the booming field until most of the center emptied out for the day.

As he finished a telephone interview with "Good Morning America" on physicians diagnosing or treating patients over the Internet, a "Prime Time Live" crew was packing its gear after taping a segment on human experimentation. Before that, the Nickelodeon children's network had set up cameras in the office for an interview on stem cells.

"Bioethics probably has topped the chart of its visibility when the president makes his first speech on bioethics and appoints his bioethics adviser," Caplan said. "I guess that's bigger than I would have guessed we would get."

Began with 1976 case

Widespread public discussion of the ethics of science was largely unheard of a quarter-century ago, until the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in the nation's first major right-to-die case in 1976 that Karen Ann Quinlan's parents had the right to remove her from life support.

"That issue brought bioethics into the American consciousness," Caplan said.

Until then, the moral implications of such decisions had mainly been debated in think tanks, said Caplan.

After the Quinlan case, public interest was again piqued when Louise Joy Brown, the world's first test-tube baby, was born in 1978 in England. That was when Caplan, then an instructor at the Columbia University medical school, received his first bioethics-related call from a reporter.

"I said, 'Is it safe? Is it natural? Who's liable if something goes wrong? Did the parents understand, did they have informed consent?"' he recalled.

From drizzle to rain

From there, interest "grew from a little drizzle to a rain," he said.

Bioethicists are now confronting such issues as surrogate parenting, physician-assisted suicide and genetic engineering.

"That map over there is going to generate more stuff," he said, pointing to a chart on his office wall of the newly cracked human genetic code. "Are we going to test people's genes in the workplace? Are we going to engineer people to be stronger, faster, better?"

Caplan, 51, holds a Ph.D. in philosophy, not a medical degree. Before coming to Penn, he was, among other things, director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Minnesota.

In interviews, instead of pronouncing things good or bad, "I'm interested in warning, or getting people to think," he said.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: