Tuesday, March 21, 2006

21st Annual Clarke Family Medical Ethics Conference

During a quiet spring break week, the time-honored favorite of physicians and scholars, the 21st Annual Philip and Doris Clarke Family Medical Ethics Conference, was held March 17th through 20th at Notre Dame. Philosophers, theologians and legal scholars mixed with Notre Dame students, alumni physicians and health-care workers to explore a variety of issues ranging from the familiar case of Terri Schiavo to recent scandals in medical research and ripped-from-the-headline stories of the challenges facing medical care in emergency and disaster conditions.

The conference, as always, primarily consisted of several small-group discussions of case studies provided by members of the conference audience and reflecting current issues in medical practice. To start off the weekend, on Friday afternoon, Center director David Solomon chaired a session entitled, “Doctor’s Duties in Disasters,” which featured the failures in medical care observed during Hurricane Katrina and the challenges posed by a possible avian flu pandemic. The results of the small-group discussions were then highlighted in a plenary discussion with a panel consisting of Dr. Mark Siegler, professor at the University of Chicago and Director of the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics, Gilbert Meilaender, the Phyllis & Richard Duesenberg Professor of Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University, Alyssa Brauweiler, and Christina Holmstrom, both Notre Dame undergraduate students. During the plenary discussion, participants noted the importance of hope and resourcefulness and the necessity of heroism in disaster cases. Differences in worldviews and in concepts of virtue, limited financial resources, and even the finitude of human life were all highlighted as challenges to ethical care-giving in disaster situations.

The conference continued on late Friday afternoon with the annual J. Philip Clarke Family Lecture on Medical Ethics, delivered by John Robinson, J.D., Ph.D., associate dean and associate professor of law at the Notre Dame Law School. Robinson’s lecture was entitled, “The Three Deaths of Terri Schiavo: Cultural, Medical and Legal.” In his lecture, Professor Robinson first recounted the facts and legal history of the Terri Schiavo case. He then brought this background into focus by emphasizing the near-impossible task assigned to judges in end-of-life cases. Judges, he claimed, must mix the subjective preferences of the patient or the patient’s family with objective legal or statutory standards to determine the appropriate legal outcome in each particular case. He noted, however, that judges are particularly suited to this task and he expressed confidence in judges’ ability to do it well. As he stated, “all normative institutions [including the judiciary] need time to adjust to the radical novelty of contemporary end-of-life medical care.” The Clarke Lecture was followed by a reception and dinner in McKenna Hall.

After the day’s hard work, many attendees attended a beautiful mass in Alumni Chapel concelebrated by Rev. James Bresnahan and Rev. John Young, followed by dinner in the private dining rooms of the Morris Inn. The closing banquet contained a touching tribute to Judy Gibson and Kathleen Sullivan, who are no longer coordinating the conference for the Alumni Association. Judy and Kathy have organized this conference for many years and their presence, guidance and wisdom will be greatly missed. The conference concluded with a final session on Sunday morning, where the participants discussed a variety of topics in a roundtable format, with panelists Margaret Hogan, Tris Englehardt, John Robinson, Jorge Garcia, Kevin McDonnell and David Solomon. Other ethics consultants in attendance at the conference and not already mentioned were Corinna Delkeskamp-Hayes, Mark Jensen (the Center graduate assistant who selected and put together the packet of readings), and Center associate director Daniel McInerny.

As always, we are grateful to the Notre Dame Alumni Association, and in particular to our new partners, Mirella Riley, newly-appointed director of the Academic Division, and administrative assistant Janet Miller, for their tremendous help in coordinating this year’s conference.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

National Undergraduate Bioethics Conference (NUBEC)

The weekend of March 10-11 marked the beginning of spring break here at Notre Dame. But instead of heading for the beach, over 100 Notre Dame students and 150 students traveling from other schools gathered in McKenna Hall to discuss the future of bioethics at the 9th Annual National Undergraduate Bioethics Conference (NUBEC), hosted by a group of undergraduate students, the Notre Dame Forum on Biomedical Ethics (FBE), and led by the Center’s own undergraduate assistant and FBE president, Kate Wilson. For the last seven years, FBE has been actively involved in the national undergraduate conference, hosting it in 2001 and sending Notre Dame students with a demonstrated interest in ethics to the conference each year. In the last several years, however, Notre Dame students became disheartened by the secular emphasis in the field of the national conferences and felt that their opinions were dismissed, not on merit, but because being from Notre Dame carried a certain “moral tendency.” In April 2005, a group of Notre Dame students traveled to Philadelphia to successfully propose that Notre Dame once again host the annual conference with the goal of placing a decisive emphasis on the demand that bioethical decisions be oriented within a conception of the human person; a conception that is not adequately supplied by secular ethics.

The conference, entitled “Health Care in an Increasingly Health-Obsessed Culture,” attracted many prominent physicians and distinguished bioethicists from across the nation to discuss the increasing cultural and societal focus on medicine. Dr. Paul McHugh, the Henry Phipps Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, gave an electric keynote presentation on the disordered state of the field of professional bioethics and the hope for revival through the model represented by the President’s Council on Bioethics, of which he is a member. Eric Cohen, director of the Bioethics & American Democracy Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and editor of The New Atlantis, spoke about the “dilemma of old age,” end-of-life care, and the grave problems posed by the dissolution of the family. Deirdre McQuade, director of planning and information for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, illuminated the “ethical lenses” prevalent in media in discussions of pregnancy, abortion, and stem cell research.

Dr. Carl Elliott, professor at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Bioethics, gave an energetic presentation about the “invention and marketing” of illness. Dr.William Hurlbut of Stanford University, and member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, spoke movingly on the “transformation of medicine” and the way the central idea of healing has been displaced by increasingly perverse ideas of freedom. Carter Snead, associate professor at the Notre Dame Law School, capped off the weekend with his fast-paced discussion of the role of the law in bioethics, the deep connection between the legal and the moral, and the “10 rules of engagement” that are fundamental to reforming the field of bioethics. Finally, at the closing banquet, Dr. Paul Wright spoke to a captivated audience of his years working with Mother Teresa and her “prescription” for life.

The variety of topics and perspectives, and the number of prominent figures from bioethics fields, combined to make the 9th Annual National Conference one of the best in years. While attracting these prominent professionals, the conference maintained its decided emphasis on undergraduate participation, presentation, and involved learning. Not only did several undergraduates present their papers, but they also served on panel discussions and led discussion groups, which all testified to the quality and professionalism of undergraduate work in bioethics. This conference was instrumental to increasing student awareness of and involvement in issues of bioethics.

Through the generous support of the Strake Foundation, the Pfizer Foundation, Mr. Thomas Abood of Minneapolis, MN, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas and Dorothy Gray of Dumfries, VA, and the Fighting Irish football fans who purchased food from the FBE concession stand, the entire conference was available to the Notre Dame community at no cost. Through the continued support of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture, the undergraduates of the Forum on Biomedical Ethics have big dreams for their organization. FBE was originally established to create a campus-wide forum for student discussion of biomedical ethics and to foster education and awareness of the scientific, religious, cultural, legal and economic implications of current issues in biomedical ethics. Hosting the national conference was certainly a successful step in achieving these goals. Next they intend to launch a website to serve as the hub for all undergraduate medical organizations on campus. With the collaboration of alumni in the medical field and “The Pathos Project” (recently begun by Notre Dame graduates currently in medical school, Yuri Maricich, Keri Oxley, and Phil Slonkowski), the website will provide essential readings in ethics, an online forum with a different topic each month, and resources for internships and graduate programs in the field.