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American bioethics take center stage at University Lecture

George Annas shares his multi-disciplinary view Thursday at Tsai

George Annas. Photo by Vernon Doucette

In the minds of most Americans, some of the first issues associated with health law involve the practices of transplants and artificial life support, but the real basis of health law has much less to do with technology and much more to do with human rights, says School of Public Health Professor of Health Law George J. Annas, one of America’s most widely quoted bioethicists.

“The boundaries between bioethics, health law, and human rights are permeable, and border crossings, including crossings by blind practitioners, are common,” Annas says. “We can more effectively address the major health issues of our day if we harmonize all three disciplines.”

Modern bioethics was born, Annas argues, at the Nuremberg Doctors Trial of 1946 and 1947, “a health law trial that produced one of the first major human rights documents: The Nuremberg Code.” When he was chosen to deliver this year’s annual University Lecture, Annas decided to highlight the roots of American bioethics by talking about American Bioethics After Nuremberg: Pragmatism, Politics, and Human Rights. Free and open to the public, this year’s lecture is on Thursday, November 10, at 7:30 p.m. in the Tsai Performance Center.

The University Lecture was established in 1950 to honor members of the faculty engaged in outstanding research. It provides an opportunity for all members of the University community — as well as the general public — to meet a distinguished scholar discussing a topic of recognized excellence. Each spring, all members of the faculty are invited to make nominations for the subsequent year’s lecturer. The University Lecturers from the previous five years act as the nominating committee.

Annas has applied a multidisciplinary approach to health, medicine, and law throughout his career. He graduated from Harvard College in 1967 with a degree in economics and has since earned a J.D. and an M.P.H., established a global association of doctors and lawyers, helped found the School of Public Health, and published several books. Annas, the Edward R. Utley Professor of Health Law, Bioethics, and Human Rights, is chair of the SPH department of health law, bioethics, and human rights, a professor of sociomedical sciences at the School of Medicine, and a professor of law at the School of Law.

“That these disciplines have often viewed each other with suspicion or simple ignorance tells us only about the past. They are most constructively viewed as integral, symbiotic parts of an organic whole,” Annas says. “American bioethics can be reborn as a global force by accepting its roots in the Nuremberg Doctors Trial and actively engaging in a health and human rights agenda.”