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Student interest in bioethics leads to national conference at BU

Topics include cloning and AIDS epidemic

Jensine Andresen Photo by Vernon Doucette

This story was published in the BU Bridge on March 22, 2005.

Bioethics has always been kin to controversy, but because of such recent scientific advances as cloning, in the near future we’re bound to hear much more heated debate on moral issues in medical treatment and research — especially on Friday and Saturday, March 22 and 23, when BU will host the fifth annual National Undergraduate Bioethics Conference.

Sponsored by the Bioethics Society of Boston University, the conference will address a variety of topics, including cloning, stem cell research, and xenotransplantation (transplanting animal cells, tissue, and organs into humans). President Jon Westling will open the conference on March 22 at 9 a.m. in the GSU’s Metcalf Hall, followed by the keynote presentation by Edward Berger, a spokesman for Abiomed, the Danvers, Mass., company that made the first completely implantable artificial heart. The first recipient of the AbioCor heart died last November after almost five months with the grapefruit-sized device in his chest. The second patient, a 70-year-old, has lived with the AbioCor heart for six months.

“After the presentations, we will have breakout sessions,” says Jayme Dowdall (CAS’02), president of BU’s Bioethics Society. “We expect some spirited discussions.” Also speaking on the first day of the conference are Carol Barash, founder of Genetics, Ethics, and Policy Consulting; Alfred Cioffi, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center; Julia L. Greenstein, CEO and president of Immerge Bio Therapeutics, Inc., a company that recently announced its success in genetically modifying pigs using a cloning technique; and Harvard Medical School Professor Ann Kiessling, who created a nonprofit infertility treatment program.

Day two of the conference will focus on health and human rights in Africa in response to the continent’s AIDS epidemic. Speakers will include SPH Health Law Professor Michael Grodin, founder of Global Lawyers and Physicians, the keynote speaker, and STH Professor Jensine Andresen, who has written extensively on bioethics, particularly about social justice and humanitarian concerns surrounding the AIDS crisis in Africa and the plight of “AIDS orphans” there.

Africa has over 70 percent of the global population of people living with HIV/AIDS. Grodin, who directs the Law, Medicine, and Ethics Program at SPH, will speak about the crisis from a human rights perspective. “There is an inextricable link between health and human rights,” says Grodin. “The health of a population is primarily determined by socioeconomic status. We have to make sure that people have adequate access to the right information, including reproduction, birth control, and family planning.”

The African countries most affected by HIV/AIDS are South Africa and Zambia, where a 15-year-old has a 50-50 chance of HIV infection during his lifetime. For a teenage girl, her immediate risk of infection is five times that of her male peers. Prostitution is a major impediment in controlling the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in these countries. “We’re never going to stop the AIDS epidemic unless we deal with the empowerment of women — women having the right to say no, and having the right to demand condom use,” says Grodin.

Also speaking on March 23 are John Arras, professor of biomedical ethics at the University of Virginia; Adrienne Asch, the Henry R. Luce Professor of Biology, Ethics, and the Politics of Human Reproduction at Wellesley College; Stephen Seda, president of Ark Foundation Africa; Martin Teitel, president of the Council for Responsible Genetics; and Susannah Sirkin, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights.

Dowdall first learned about the National Undergraduate Bioethics Conference during her freshman year, when her advisor, CAS Chemistry Professor Scott Mohr, told her about the event at Princeton University. “I came away from that conference with many questions, and I think many of us are still struggling to develop our personal viewpoints on these issues,” she says. “There seemed to be a growing student interest in bioethics at BU, so we formed the Bioethics Society.”

The annual national conference has since been held at the University of Virginia, the University of Notre Dame, and Emory University.