Make a selection below to read past and current messages from the desk of the director.

    Roberto Dell'Oro
    Director, Bioethics Institute

    September 2019 Issue

    Greetings, and welcome to a new academic year: we have new faces at the Institute, coupled with renewed energy and enthusiasm for the many things we are starting together.

    We welcome, first, a new and wonderful cohort of eight students. With their diverse background and experience, they bring to the program new questions, and the opportunity for engagement that always comes with a mindful disposition. I am sure, students from our second-year cohort will be more than willing to make the new students comfortable, and to introduce them to the many details that make up the life at the Institute.

    This fall, I am teaching, once more, Foundations of Philosophical Ethics, a class I enjoy very much because of its important foundational character. Let me express my gratitude also to the other faculty who are teaching this fall, i.e., Prof. Thomas Cunningham and Prof. Jennifer Gumer, who are taking up Introduction to Bioethics and Law and Bioethics, respectively. Prof. Brown, who is full time at the Institute, and, now, the Director of our Undergraduate Minor Program in Bioethics, is reserving his intelligence and energy to undergraduate students, and will, thus, come back to graduate teaching in the spring.

    A particular word of welcome to our O’Malley Visiting Scholar, Prof. Mary-Jo Iozzio, a well-known theologian of national and international repute, who comes to us, this semester, from Boston College. She is currently teaching an elective class in Bioethics and Disability, and will dedicate her presence at the Institute to present on the topic in various venues. Her lecture, Radical Bioethics: Disability, Difference, and Desiderata, is announced on this edition of the Newsletter, and will address the topic from the wider perspectives of philosophical and theological anthropology. What does it mean to be open to the reality of disability? Is such openness a kind of generosity tagged along with notions of selfhood that remain irreducibly atomistic (philosopher Charles Taylor speaks of the “buffered self” in this context)? Or is it the actualization of a more general openness to difference, to diversity? If the latter, then, such an attitude is much more than an articulation of good will. It calls into question our understanding of what does it mean to be a human being, for to be truly human always entails going beyond individualistic notions of self-interest and autonomy. To be human is to be hospitable to intermediation with all forms of otherness. To be human is always to-be-in-relation.

    Let me finish this message with the recognition that our Program Administrator, Gigi, is now also “Dr.” McMillan. With pride and gratitude, I want to recognize her important work at the Institute and in the field of bioethics at large. A word of gratitude also for our graduate assistants, Kara Crew, Shanice McLeish, and David Urtecho. A special word of thanks to Kara for carrying out a very interesting project, supported by a summer grant, on “bioethics and mental health.” It is a touching and inspiring piece, which I recommend everyone to visit on our Bioethics Hub.

    To everyone, I wish a very good beginning of the semester, and a new academic year.

    Roberto Dell'Oro
    Director, Bioethics Institute

    October 2018 Issue

    Greetings to all our readers, as we steadily move into the middle of the fall semester, here at the Bioethics Institute. All our courses are in full swing, and our new cohort of students is adapting very well to the requirements of both their classes, Introduction to Bioethics (BIOE 6000), and Foundations of Philosophical Ethics (BIOE 6700). Second year students are currently tackling Law and Bioethics (BIOE 6200) and Justice in Health Care (BIOE 6500). Gigi McMillan is, now, our full time Program Administrator, while continuing her doctoral studies in bioethics at Loyola Chicago, and supervising the work of our graduate assistants, Jared Howes, Cara Crew, and Mia Loucks. 

    Together with our classes, students, and staff, it gives me great pleasure to introduce, once more, our faculty for the semester. In addition to Dr. Nick Brown, who is teaching an elective on Justice and Health Care, we are especially excited to have Dr. Cunningham for Introduction to Bioethics and Dr. Gumer for Law and Bioethics. You find their bios on this webpage under our Faculty link. I will only add the following: both Dr. Gumer and Dr. Cunningham bring to the Institute a wealth of expertise, and a deep commitment to the field of bioethics, each in their respective discipline. It might be good to briefly comment on the importance of such plurality of perspectives, which is central to the academic articulation of bioethics, and, ultimately, grounds the vision for our bioethics graduate program.   

    The canonical definition of bioethics as a field of study, now almost fifty years old, is provided by Warren Reich in his Encyclopedia of Bioethics (2nd ed.). It is a well-known definition: “Bioethics is a composite term derived from the Greek word bios (life) and ethike (ethics). It can be defined as the systematic study of the moral dimensions – including moral vision, decisions, conduct, and policies – of the life sciences and health care, employing a variety of ethical methodologies in an interdisciplinary setting.”  Central to this definition are two notions, concerning, respectively, the content and method of bioethics. The former points to the scientific and technological advances in the life sciences and health care, with the host of new ethical problems they have triggered. When it comes to content, bioethics covers a broad, and, perhaps, rather indeterminate spectrum of issues. Thus, one can easily see the fallacy of reducing bioethics to “clinical bioethics,” which concerns the ethics of bedside decision making.  Together with clinical questions, bioethics deals with the ethics of scientific research in various areas, from biology to genetics, to the application of nanotechnologies, not to mention questions triggered by our renewed environmental sensibility. Lately, even the notion of global bioethics has found its place into the language game of bioethics. (For reflections on the topic of global bioethics, see upcoming posts in our Hub.) 

    As the definition suggests, bioethical questions must be entertained “with a variety of ethical methodologies.” This means that it is important to make room for all disciplines that are potentially impacted by them. Moreover, it is essential for the field of bioethics to become especially hospitable to systematic reflections of method and theory, such as the ones provided by philosophy and theology. In this perspective, bioethics represents a test case, perhaps one of the most powerful and impressive in the academic development of the last fifty years, of dialogue among disciplines. The method of bioethics will subsequently depend from the definition of its content. I am inclined to think that, when it comes to the particular understanding of bioethics, one has to make a choice between two rather different paths: one leads toward an increasing professionalization; the other remains more faithful to the scholarly character of bioethics as public discourse.  

    It is widely recognized by leading scholars that the concern for a professionalization of the bioethical field and for its practical impact, both in the clinic and the public arenas, has led to a reduction in the understanding of bioethics as a scholarly dialogue among integral disciplines. For sure bioethics is expected to have a powerful impact in the practical arena. What is questionable, however, is the reduction of bioethical discourse to a reflection that is essentially parasitical to the demands of praxis, whether in the clinical or public policy realm. The issue here is certainly complex and deserves a more careful analysis. Suffice it to say that one of the consequences of the reduction in question is to turn bioethics into a set of skills for a bioethics expert, whose depth of knowledge is now measured, rather pragmatically, by his/her ability to function in the practical realm. I believe such understanding of bioethics is not faithful to the original intentions and to the ultimate goals of the field as a public space of scholarly discourse, where philosophers, theologians, legal scholars, clinicians, and scientists try to talk to one another, making sense of their different languages, and working together in an interdisciplinary fashion. At the Institute, we stand by an understanding of bioethics that sees it as an intellectual field of inquiry, indeed one of the most exciting for all disciplines involved, where the ultimate questions emerge in all their challenging ambiguity. 

    Does this entail an in-principle undermining of the clinical focus? Not at all, which is why we are blessed to expand our faculty with affiliates who are working in the clinical context. In addition to Dr. Cunningham, Dr. Theresa Drought and Dr. Joseph Raho are clinical bioethicists at local medical institutions, and provide our students with an understanding of bioethical problems that has been tested by the demands of praxis.  We are also working on a proposal for a clinical ethics workshop in spring 2019.  But on this, more to come in the months ahead.

    I will conclude this fall edition of “From the Director’s Desk,” with a brief retrospective look at the work of our O’Malley Chair in spring 2018. We were fortunate to have a leading expert in cognitive psychology and neuroethics, Dr. Jim Giordano, from Georgetown University. Like his predecessor in 2017, during his time at LMU, Dr. Giordano shared in the life of the Institute, meeting regularly with interested faculty and students. In addition to teaching a graduate class, titled “Neuroethics: Issues at the Intersection of Brain Science and Society,” Dr.  Giordano offered a host of activities, which was quite extraordinary for both quality and quantity: class visits, luncheon talks, public lectures, and a number of publications produced with the acknowledgment of the O’Malley Chair. We are most grateful for Dr. Giordano’s extraordinary presence, and admired his energetic enthusiasm, which lasted even beyond the time frame of his presence. It benefitted, in particular, one of our graduate students, Dan Ta, who was invited by Dr. Giordano to do focused research on neuro-technology. The experience, which included time spent at Georgetown University, and participation to a neuro-tech conference in New York, has produced, as a result, a paper on the ethics of so called “transcranial direct brain stimulation.”

    We can only hope for a similarly productive visit by the O’Malley scholar in fall 2019.   




    Some Thoughts about the Concerns of My Work
    Roberto Dell'Oro
    Director, Bioethics Institute 

    March 2017 Issue


    I beg for the forgiveness of my audience, if I speak about myself, in this edition of the newsletters.  I feel that it might be time both for students’ in our Program, and the visitors of our Institute’s web page, to know more about the deeper philosophical commitments of the author of these notes, thus providing some articulate content to the entries faithfully recorded in a professional resume. I do so in complete humility, mindful of the fact that, if virtue reminds one of the dangers of unmerited self-inflation, it also asks to refrain from the false modesty of anonymous reflection. And so is how my story goes. I consider myself an ethicist at home in the field of bioethics, yet critical of the state of current discussions, mainly focused -- especially in the Anglo-American setting -- on questions of harms, benefit, patient autonomy, and the equality of health care distribution. Although my scholarship has been devoted to specific areas of bioethics, such as neonatology, genetics, or the ethics of the physician-patient relationship, I stand at the edge, so to speak, exercising a function of mediation between different disciplines, languages, and various intellectual sensibilities, with a deep concern for larger questions of method and theory.

    I argue in favor of a bioethical model defined by a disposition to listen to rich anthropological dimensions, whether theological or philosophical, which inform our understanding of right and wrong, good or bad. Brilliant ethical theories might come too late, when our humanity has already lost its soul. A deeper analysis of our human condition is needed. This holds especially for the current theoretical debate in mainstream bioethics which, in my judgment, conflates ethical foundations and “common morality.” Struggling to find a specific methodology for the dialogue across different disciplines, bioethics tends to reduce the contribution of ethics to the reconstruction of the conditions for moral consensus in society at large. In so doing, it replaces questions of moral meaning with questions of procedure and, secondly, reduces the task of ethics to a logical analysis of moral argumentation. This is too “thin” a ground for bioethics, especially because what is at stake in the field are not just issues of public consensus, but deeper questions of meaning, concerning the place of science and technology in a democratic society, the dignity of the human person, and the well being of our ecosystem.

    In the case of genetic engineering, for an example, one wonders whether the “common morality” framework, emphasizing issues of safety of procedure and the avoidance of risks for future generations, can provide a ground for ethical reflection at all. Are not deeper questions at stake in the struggle to improve our human condition as a whole, overcoming diseases, devising new therapies, and searching for powerful remedies in the pursuit of ultimate happiness? What if such questions were “beyond good and evil”? What if, more than a field of application, they were to define a space of mindfulness, an “ultimate reservation of the spirit,” to use the beautiful expression of Theodor Adorno, in which we ask, over and over again, what does it really mean to be human? Following Nietzsche, we might say that the basic ethical imperative is to “remain faithful to the earth.” And yet, what if even this cry to be most profoundly human had become, on account of our technological power, an empty wish?

    I search for a “richer bioethics,” seeking to strike a balance between the extremes of a univocal foundationalism, on the one hand, and an equivocal relativism, on the other. The former is the attempt to reduce the practical, and therefore dynamic, quality of the ethos to an abstract notion of the good, grounded in an essentialist understanding of human nature. I am thinking here of a certain Catholic tradition of natural law, as well as of various versions of ethical essentialism, whether phenomenological or analytical. The other extreme is offered by a social constructionism that relativizes the historicity of the ethos, thus de-constructing any anthropological constancy that might provide a basis for ethical judgment. Is it possible to find a different “middle” in the grounding of moral norms? How can such an ethical “middle” be retrieved? Following the lead of German theologian Klaus Demmer, I see moral norms as the result of a kind of “probing” of experience, in which standards of practicability and consequences of action converge into the definition of what is morally right. Far from being understood as fixed determinations, moral norms will be seen, to echo the language of Heidegger, as “signposts” in the historical between.

    This framework is eminently “hermeneutical” because it is mindful of the interpretive nature of ethical thinking, poised between anthropological presuppositions and concrete moral norms. I see the function of hermeneutics as pertaining to the articulation of the historical conditions for both the understanding and the concrete “practicability” of normative systems. Hermeneutics maintains the ethical tradition alive: it safeguards reached standards of knowledge and freedom whose erosion would bring about the danger of individual and societal self-destruction. At the same time, as feminist theorists remind us, hermeneutics possesses an emancipatory and progressive function, insofar as it pushes the tradition forward toward the articulation of new paradigms for action.

    This is not without importance for theology. One of my concerns for theological ethics is the need to articulate, in a way that is philosophically credible, the public relevance of moral insights grounded in the Christian revelation. Theologians either bracket their anthropological presuppositions, so as to enter the community of moral discourse from a position of neutrality, “a view from nowhere,” as Thomas Nagel would term it, or resign to any possibility of dialogue by claiming for themselves a particularity that is impervious to public criteria of epistemic control and moral interpretation. There must be a third way.

    A contribution to the universality of moral experience presupposes faith’s ability to publicly mediate its vision of the good. It is a vision grounded in the experience of transcendence and the epiphany of an absolute good in the midst of history. For the Christian, the good is given as an offer of love which opens up a dedication to the other, a service for the good of being willed in-itself as intrinsically valuable, not as a disposable object for-self. 
    One can see that the background assumptions of Christian theology are metaphysically and epistemologically relevant to the public articulation of moral discourse. They elicit in the believer a specific horizon of meaning, a system of anthropological coordinates from which s/he sees her/himself and the world.

    This cannot be the whole story for ethics, of course, and more must be said. Consider the belief in the goodness of all creation informing the Christian attitude towards life. Historically, it has translated, since the dawn of the Christian tradition, into a new attitude of respect for the poor, the sick, the children; more specifically, in the recognition of their personal status. This anthropological presupposition, however, needs to be further unpacked in its specific ethical meaning. Thus, it is the function of practical reasoning and moral experience to interpret and articulate the ethical implications of this background assumption. General moral principles later developed by the Christian tradition represent plausible inferences of such process. One can see that the norm prohibiting the “direct killing of the innocent” stands, for sure, in the effective history of the anthropological a priori mentioned above; it represents, nevertheless, the result of a formal process of argumentation not immediately deducible from that a priori. Such a norm will emerge from the intermediation of background assumptions and the various moral goods involved, i.e., from the process of moral reasoning itself.

    Still, the system of anthropological coordinates stands at the edge of bioethics, mediating between theological affirmations and moral norms; also, it stands as a positive contribution to public discourse, on the presupposition that the public realm is not just the neutral space to be conquered or won over, and that the participants in the community of discourse of an “open society” are not to be faced as enemies but as partners. To acknowledge such an a priori of communication of both epistemic and moral relevance has nothing to do with relativism: in fact, dialogue between moral agents, whether “strangers” or “friends,” to use the distinction in vogue, can only function on the presumption that any claim to meaning and truth be, at the same time, an attestation of freedom and respect for the other.

    The public realm, as we know all too well, is not an ideal community of discourse, as in the Kantian kingdom of ends, but one that is historically determined and, thus, can become subjected to mechanisms of reduction and alienation. In a situation where technology and the market forces have so great a role in molding and transforming our intuitions, feelings and visions of the good for human beings, even reasons and arguments can become merely technical, reflecting strategies for the achievement of goals whose value is measured by an instrumental rather than a specifically moral criterion.

    I see the contribution of bioethics like a thorn in the flesh of public moral convictions, the source of an unrelenting hermeneutic of suspicion inspired by prophetic courage, more than indulgence in post-Cartesian doubt. In the end, theology calls public discussion on moral questions to the suspension of preconceived judgments and dogmatisms of any kind, opening our eyes to a deeper vision of what is good for us as humans.

    Roberto Dell'Oro
    Director, Bioethics Institute

    January 2017 Issue

    ‌It is only the beginning of January, and of a new year, but, already, we are “in the midst of things.”  So much is going on, and our Institute has been overtaken with the energy of new beginnings.  Here are some of the most important things happening.

    1.  O’Malley Visiting Chair for Spring 2017

    We are very fortunate to have Prof. William Desmond as the O’Malley Visiting Chair, this semester.  He will be at the Institute from January 15 to March 1st, and is scheduled to engage in a variety of public events.  Let me say a few things about Prof. Desmond, and the importance of his presence at our university.  

    William Desmond, a native of Ireland, is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium), and the Cook Visiting Chair in Philosophy at Villanova University.  His work is truly breathtaking, spanning several fields, including metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, philosophy of religion, and political theory.  The author of over 20 books and countless scholarly articles, he is, as Paul Weiss put it, “the leading philosopher of his generation.”  

    Let me expand on such judgment by mentioning at least three reasons for regarding Desmond’s work as extraordinary.  First, there is the broad spectrum of philosophical concerns I already mentioned.  Second, there is a willingness on his part to address philosophical issues in their ultimate significance and existential importance.  The practice of philosophy is, in a sense, before, or perhaps beyond, theory. It begins in the between, feeding on the wonder for the givenness of being, and on the systematic articulation of the perplexities raised by such presence: Why is there being and not nothing? What does it mean to be?  What is to be good?  What of being religious, and how does mindfulness of reality alert the thinker to the signs of the divine at the heart of things?  Third, the work of Desmond is characterized by an incessant dialogue with the great figures of the history of philosophy, Plato, Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche in particular.  The dialogue is a carried out as a respectful attempt to gauge the answers of those who, coming before us, have already entertained the depth of the perplexities we also face; yet it is a conversation that aims at retrieving the heart of the philosophical matter, rather than getting lost in an endless conflict of interpretations about authors and ideas.  All his books reveal a freshness of thinking, and a moving, in fact poetic, originality of language.  

    The height of Desmond’s presence at the Institute will be the O’Malley Chair lecture, on February 15th.  The title of the lecture is “Chattel of the gods: Assisted Suicide and the Politics of Patience.” We have envisioned his presence, however, as one that extends beyond the confines of the Bioethics Institute.  Events are scheduled for several departments and academic units, including Philosophy, Theological Studies, and Irish Studies. (For a schedule of events, please, consult the Bioethics Institute webpage by clicking here). 

    William Desmond will have an office at the Bioethics Institute, and share in the life of the Institute for the time of his stay.  

    2.  Spring Semester Classes

    Three classes are scheduled for this semester.  Prof. Nick Brown, Visiting Professor at the Institute, will teach an elective course on Justice and Health Care.   The theme in question is, of course, of the highest importance for the field of bioethics.  Prof. Brown explains: “To whom? By whom? And according to what? These questions have long been integral to a broader examination of justice and their salience is especially apt when applied to a discussion of health care. The purpose of this course is to engage in an extended reflection on that discussion by first probing and critically assessing essential philosophical, theological and ethical traditions of justice and then to explore how they have shaped public discourse and policy on access to and the distribution of health care resources” (quoted from the course syllabus).

    I am sure our students will benefit from the wealth of resources and the careful scholarship that nourishes Prof. Brown’s teaching on the topic.  

    For the class on Bioethics at the End of Life, we are fortunate to have, once more, Prof. Joe Raho, who is a Clinical Ethicist at UCLA.  His class begins with a series of questions: “What does it mean to die—in an ICU? What constitutes a “good death”—for the patient, her family, her physicians, the institution, and society-at-large? What does it mean to suffer in the knowledge that you will soon die? What is the nature of embodiment with a diseased or dying body (e.g., one that houses a failing transplanted organ or ventricular assist device)? What is the physician’s role in the face of death? How ought we to think about treatment goals for an incapable patient with progressive neurologic disease? How can family members help decide for those who are no longer able to choose for themselves? What responsibility do we have—if any—to the dying? Can medicine as a profession remain ethically neutral in the face of death—and should it? At the end of life, can medicine still heal? Is it merely permissible for physicians to refuse to provide certain medical procedures or is it morally obligatory? What should physicians do with “helpless” cases, when a patient is “overmastered” by disease?” (from the course syllabus).

    Prof. Raho has a proven record of excellence in teaching this class. He brings to our students the depth of theoretical analysis and the richness of his clinical experience at UCLA.

    For my part, I am happy to teach Foundations of Philosophical Ethics, whose scope is to introduce students in bioethics to the theories and problems of moral philosophy, comprising both a historical and a systematic component.  In the class, we will study main versions of ethics, including natural law and virtue ethics, deontological and consequentialist theories.  Students will understand the function and importance of ethical frameworks for the articulation of bioethical problems. Although the course’s interest is ultimately on the bioethical implications of foundational approaches to ethics, the focus will be theoretical in scope.  Also, classical texts, from Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Hume, Kant, Mill, and others will be analyzed and opened up in their timeless meaning for our contemporary ethical concerns. 

    3.  Ongoing Discussion about the Professionalization of the Clinical Bioethicist

    In the December edition of this newsletter, I have raised the issue of the professionalization of the clinical bioethicist.  The concern was sparked by a conversation at the last SCCBC meeting, but, as it is well known, it reflects a wider debate at the national (and perhaps even at the international) level.  In a recent message, one of our students, Nita Millstein, commented on the issue thus: “I am very interested in the possibility of discussions about the many issues within the question raised at the meeting. I believe that many of my student colleagues feel as I do, that we have opinions, questions, and concerns about the topic that we'd like to share.”  Let us then continue the conversation. Here is what Gigi McMillan and I would like to propose.  

    For spring 2017, we will shift our Bioethics Coffee Hours from Wednesday to Monday night (6 to7 p.m.), and set up three dates for discussion, beginning with January 23rd and February 6th.  We will dedicate the first meeting of January 23rd to a brainstorming on the issue.  I think it is important to gather, as honestly as possible, our insights on the issue, together with our expectations and professional aspirations, all of them legitimate.  

    For our second meeting, on February 6th, I asked Gigi McMillan to make a small presentation on the conversation about clinical ethics accreditation at ASBH, and the implications such conversation might have for the discussion around the country.  As you probably know, Gigi is a member of ASBH Board, and has followed very closely the conversation on the issue at the highest levels of the professional society. Clearly, we need to think about the impact of all this on our Institute, its bioethics curriculum, and the larger professional future of ours students.  

    In a final meeting, possibly sometimes toward the end of the spring semester, I would like to invite a number of clinical bioethicists from the L.A. area (I am thinking of Joe Raho and James Hynds from UCLA, Theresa Draught from Kaiser, Stuart Finder and Virginia Bartlett from Cedar Sinai) and have their own professional take on the question. I hope this trajectory of meetings and the diverse conversation will bear fruits.   Please, let me know whether this is of your liking.

    To everyone, a Happy New Year, and best wishes for another semester!


    Roberto Dell'Oro
    Director, Bioethics Institute

    December 2016 Issue

    ‌It is with a sense of gratitude that we come to the end of 2016 fall semester.  I am especially grateful to Prof. Mary McDonough, J.D., Ph.D., for her class on Law and Bioethics, and to Prof. Nick Brown, Ph.D., for having led our students through the complex landscape of bioethical questions at the beginning of life in his Bioethics at the Beginning of Life.

    One of the highlights of the semester was the Bioethics Graduate Research Symposium, which took place on November 28th. The symposium was dedicated, this year, to a difficult topic, the ethics of medical research and experimentation.

    The symposium is only our second, but there are all the right signs suggesting this will become an annual tradition for the Institute. I would like to expand briefly, in this edition of From the Director’s Desk on this year’s edition, restating its meaning and scope.

    The main scope of the symposium is to offer an opportunity for our 2nd year Masters students to find a public avenue for discussion of their own ideas and work.  By “public” I mean one in which their scholarly product is made available not only for the internal evaluation of instructors -- as in the standard curricular rituals of in-class presentations, reflection essays, and research papers, but also to the external feedback of fellow students, whether graduate or undergraduate, and of interested people at large.  

    This “exoteric” exercise is meant to be a first step into the public world of bioethics scholarship, a prelude to the more robust and intellectually demanding exchange of ideas and perspectives traditionally taking place in professional societies, to which, we hope, our students will be steady participants.

    But quite independently of the future scholarly fortune of our students and their ideas, a graduate research symposium stands a reminder of what a university is supposed to be: a community of scholars engaged in intellectual discourse.  Ultimately, the scope of the symposium, without any pretense on the part of the Bioethics Institute, of course, is to energize the exchange of ideas and to foster friendship across graduate programs within the College, and even the University at large.   

    This year’s symposium focused entirely on one issue, i.e., the ethics of medical research.  Featured papers developed during the summer, as research work for a class on the very same topic. 

    As it is well known, the ethics of medical research represents one of the big themes in the field of bioethics.  Also, it constitutes an issue of enormous historical relevance in the development of the field of bioethics.  The reality of egregious ethical abuses in the field of medical research during the 20th century, from the experimentations carried out by Nazi doctors in concentration camps, to those initiated and supported with the approval of the American government at Tuskegee, to other abuses at private institutions – Willowbrook, the Jewish Chronic Hospital, Yale university with the obedience study, to name but a few -- all these cases are a reminder of the fact that the tension between scientific progress and the person’s inviolability, autonomy, and dignity remains central to our contemporary situation as well.  The symposium turned, very successfully I shall add, to a discussion of some of the facets of the difficult struggle mentioned above.

    While thanking our students for their presentations, and leaving their reflections to freely draw their own ethical conclusions on the issues they discussed, let me contribute with a quotation to which, I am sure, all the presenters, their own theoretical differences notwithstanding, would probably subscribe.  It is a quotation from a famous piece by Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas, titled “Philosophical Reflections on Human Experimentation.” Although published more than 40 years ago, it has lost none of its importance for the present:

    Let us not forget that progress is an optional goal, not an unconditional commitment, and that its tempo in particular, compulsive as it may become, has nothing sacred about it.  Let us also remember that a slower progress in the conquest of disease would not threaten society, grievous as it is to those who have to deplore that their particular disease be not yet conquered, but that society would indeed be threatened by the erosion of those moral values whose loss, possibly caused by too ruthless a pursuit of scientific progress, would make it most dazzling triumphs not worth having.      

    I would be remiss, if I failed to mention the incredible performance of Melis Alkin and Nita Millstein at the South California Committee Bioethics Consortium meeting of November 30th.  They presented on two very complex themes: “Working with Psychologists and the End of Life Option: Ethical Considerations” (Melis), and “Genomic testing: A Short-Changed Ethical Debate” (Nita).  It was a truly memorable evening, which made all of us proud.  Their presentations were superb, and triggered a very interesting conversation.  Melis and Nita both addressed questions with competence and poise, giving clear and convincing evidence to a preparation truly worthy of graduate students in bioethics.  To Melis and Nita our congratulations! 

    A very important conversation followed that evening at the Consortium, concerning the issue of health care consultants’ certification.  The issue is a difficult one: for years, an army of people have carried out consultations under the label of “ethics,” but without much clarity as to their background, the level of their competence, and ultimately the meaning and scope of their exercise. 

    What is an “ethics consultant”?  What does she do?  Whom does she serve? Moreover, is an ethics consultation in health care institutions supposed to provide an intervention for the solution of a particular quandary, one for which a professional with a specific expertise takes moral and legal responsibility?  Or is it more like a “reflective” exercise, meant to highlight the ethical dimensions of a difficult situation, perhaps stalled by lack of communication, unwillingness to decide, or even failure to assume responsibilities? 

    In the latter case, the decision makers involved, i.e., doctors and patients/families, would not relinquish their moral agency to a third party, now partaking of the process under the label of “expert;” rather, they would maintain such agency, hopefully enhanced by the conceptual clarifications and value analyses of someone who functions essentially like a facilitator or mediator of conflicts.  If the latter, is an ethics expert only a shadow figure, a helpful counselor accessible to everyone, yet responsible for no decision in particular?

    I think the discussion needs to continue.  At stake is not only the job of the ethicist, but, perhaps more importantly, the epistemological status of clinical bioethics as a discipline, its methodology, and the nature of ethical reflection as “practical.” There are also obvious implications at stake for the nature of our Bioethics Program and its current focus.

    I suggest we open up a conversation at the Institute on the topic.  There will be more to come in the months ahead.    


    Roberto Dell'Oro
    Director, Bioethics Institute

    November 2016 Issue

    ‌I am writing in the middle of what, I am sure, is a busy semester for everyone.  Our beloved Dr. Elizabeth Quiros is en route to St. Louis.  We wished her well at a lovely party in her honor, on October 25th, during a special “Grand” Coffee Hour at the Institute.  I thanked her on everyone’s behalf for the incredible work and dedication over the past three years. 

    Already Gigi McMillan and Helena Olivieri, both recent graduates of our program, have taken over Elizabeth’s responsibilities, and function as part-time Program Coordinators.  I am very excited about Gigi and Helena coming on board, and, I am sure, you all will experience very quickly their dedication, expertise, and love for bioethics.

    I have a few things to submit to your attention. 

    1. The first is an update on the line-up of courses for the spring semester.  Three courses are scheduled at the Institute, two core courses and one elective.  BIOE 6700, Foundations of Philosophical Ethics, will be taught by me on Tuesday night (7:15-9:45); BIOE 6500, Justice and Healthcare, is an elective class, and it will be taught by Dr. Nick Brown on Monday night; finally, BIOE 6300, Bioethics at the End of Life, is scheduled for Wednesday night.  I asked Dr. Joe Raho, a Professor in the Center for Health Care Ethics at UCLA, to teach the class, and he has made himself available for Wednesday night. 

      Let me add a few additional words about the elective and the class of Dr. Raho.  Given the current number of students in our program, we are still unable to offer a variety of elective courses without losing the minimum student quorum required for running classes in the College. Thus, elective courses are de facto, “selected” for you, depending on the professor’s choice of topic.  Furthermore, they are restricted to courses offered at the Institute, rather than in other departments.  For an example, for the upcoming semester, we had to cancel previously cross-listed offerings in Women Studies, Biology, and Sociology.

      I want to recommend Dr. Brown’s class for several reasons.  Dr. Brown is, on account of his own scholarship, a specialist in the area of “Justice and Healthcare.”  I know he will offer a very interesting and engaging class.  I also believe the topic in question is central to a bioethics curriculum at the Masters level.  As Dr. Brown puts it, in his course description, “… the purpose of the course is to engage in an extended reflection on the discussion about justice and health care by first probing and critically assessing essential philosophical, theological and ethical traditions of justice and then to explore how they have shaped public discourse and policy on access to and the distribution of health care resources. Accordingly we will spend the first part of the course familiarizing ourselves with Utilitarian, Communitarian, Liberal, Liberationist, Natural Law and Feminist conceptions of justice to understand how the constellation of rights and duties they articulate instruct societal questions of who is eligible to receive health care, how much, and who/what is responsible for its provision. We will then use the second part of the course to explore the various policy mechanisms that are available to achieve a just health care system.”  I think this class resonates very strongly with the larger preoccupation of a bioethics that is civilly -- and, to a certain extent even politically, engaged in the most difficult questions of the day.  I want to thank Dr. Brown for the work and preparation that go into such a course offering.  

      Dr. Raho returns to us with a class he taught last year for the 1st cohort.  Students’ feedback about the class was enthusiastic, not only because of the theoretical knowledge and sophistication Dr. Raho brings to the class, but also because as a clinical bioethicist he is able to “saturate” conceptual perspectives on end of life with practical insights drawn from clinical experience.  An amazing feast indeed!

      You will find course descriptions for all spring courses on the bulletin board at the Institute, and, very soon, on our web page.


    2. On October 27th, we had our Bioethics Fall Lecture, which was dedicated to the topic of University Ethics.  Prof. James Keenan, S.J., from Boston College, gave a wonderful presentation, followed by three panelists representing LMU staff, faculty, and students.   Many thanks for those who made the event a successful one.  The next Annual Bioethics Lecture is scheduled for the spring (February 8th), when a very famous philosopher, William Desmond, will present the O’Malley Chair in Bioethics lecture.  The topic is still to be defined.  I will have more to say in the weeks ahead about Prof. William Desmond, who will be with us on the O’Malley Visiting Chair from January 15th to March 1st.  
    3. We are currently finalizing plans for the Bioethics Graduate Student Symposium, scheduled for Monday, November 28th, 6-8:30 p.m.  A flyer with the program’s details will be available soon.


    4. Finally, everyone is invited to the next meeting of the South California Bioethics Committee Consortium (SCBCC), on Wednesday night, November 30th.  Dr. Nick Brown has graciously agreed to cancel his class on that night, so as to let students participate to the meeting.   There is also a special reason for doing so, and that is that two of our students, Melis Alkin and Nita Milstein, will be making presentations, drawing on their research over the past year.   This will be a wonderful opportunity not only to showcase our students’ work, but also to be made more clearly aware of the ethical questions currently being discussed at the Consortium.  As you may already know, the SCBCC brings together, on a regular basis, chairs of ethics committees from the LA area, and other people involved in bioethics for discussion on the emerging issues of the day.


    This is all for now.  I wish all of you a good continuation of the semester.  I also want to thank Dr. Nick Brown and Dr. Mary McDonough for their work in the classes they are currently offering, Bioethics at the Beginning of Life, and Law and Bioethics.    

    Roberto Dell'Oro
    Director, Bioethics Institute

    August 2016 Issue

    The beginning of a new academic year always brings great enthusiasm and a sense of gratitude.  Enthusiasm for what is ahead of us; gratitude for the past accomplishments upon which the new stands. 

    As for the latter, I want to express my gratitude to the faculty who guided our students through the course work of the spring semester and the two summer sessions.  Dr. Tiffany Cvrkel (UCLA) and Dr. Joe Raho (UCLA Center for Health Care Ethics) taught, respectively, Foundations of Philosophical Ethics and Bioethics at the End of Life, both with great success.  LMU Psychology professor Dr. Sabine Huemer accompanied both graduate bioethics students and undergraduate psychology majors through difficult issues in her class on Ethics and the Brain

    A deep work of thank you also to Dr. Marie Josie Potvin (UCLA Center for Health Care Ethics), who led the summer class on Clinical Ethics, and to the instructors at the various clinical sites: Dr. Stuart Finder and Dr. Virginia Bartlett at Cedar Sinai; Dr. Alain Durocher at Kaiser Permanente Downey Medical Center; and Dr. Theresa Drought at Kaiser Permanente Woodland Hills.  As for me, I enjoyed teaching both Clinical Ethics and Ethics of Medical Research in the first summer session. Once more, I came to realize the incredible potential, dedication, and intellectual capacity of our students.

    I come to the new, then, and introduce our faculty for fall 2016.  Nicholas Brown, Ph.D., was hired as full time Visiting Assistant Professor in the Bioethics Institute, and will be teaching Bioethics at the Beginning of Life, together with undergraduate courses in ethics.  Mary McDonough, J.D., Ph.D., will teach Law and Bioethics

    A few words about both: Dr. Brown received a B.A. in Political Science from Northwestern College (IA) and a joint M.A. in International Peace Conflict Resolution and Theological Studies from American University and Wesley Theological Seminary respectively. In 2015 he received his doctorate in Christian Ethics from the Center of Advanced Theological Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. He has also taught as both a full-time visiting and a part-time faculty in LMU’s Theological Studies department for the past six years. His work and research in bioethics focuses on how philosophical and theological conceptions of justice inform political discourse on public health and the distribution of health care resources and the ethical implications of biometric technology.

    Dr. McDonough comes to the Bioethics Institute from Boston, where she was a 2015-2016 Fellow at Harvard Medical School’s Center for Bioethics focusing on the ethical implication of genetics and genomics. A former legal services attorney and state legislator, she has a law degree, a MA in theology, and a PhD in ethics and social theory with a specialization in bioethics. She has taught ethics, been a Visiting Scholar at The Hastings Center, and is the author of Can a Healthcare Market Be Moral? A Catholic Vision (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press,2007). Currently, she is a writer for The Hastings Center and resides in Los Angeles.

    We welcome both and wish them great success in their teaching!