Ethics lecture examines moral boundaries of scientific research

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UCSC professor emerita of philosophy Ellen Suckiel
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Mary Rorty, clinical associate professor at the Stanford University Medical Center and faculty associate at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics

Designer babies, genetic perfectionism, the selling of human body parts--are these morally desirable outcomes of the latest developments in scientific research?

Advances in Biotechnology and Medicine: Stretching the Moral Boundaries is just the beginning of a new series of ethics lectures that will be presented by the UC Santa Cruz Humanities Division.

The series is made possible by the Peggy Downes Baskin Humanities Endowment for Interdisciplinary Ethics, a fund created in honor of her longtime interest in ethical issues across the academic spectrum.

“There are so many areas in which ethical problems arise--in journalism, politics, medicine--and the endowment emphasizes the need to address these issues in a cross-disciplinary context,” said Baskin.

For the inaugural lecture, UCSC professor emerita of philosophy Ellen Suckiel will discuss the potential moral difficulties brought by advances in genetics, particularly the paradox of “genetic perfectionism.”

She will be joined at the event by Mary Rorty, clinical associate professor at the Stanford University Medical Center and faculty associate at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics.

Suckiel noted that while current and upcoming practices in biotechnology and medicine have distinct benefits for human health and well-being, they may at the same time erode longstanding and valued concepts of respect for the person.

She said that Rorty will address the ways in which people--or their body parts--are sometimes considered as “property.”

“The question is: Is it appropriate to buy a body part?” Suckiel asks. “Are your organs yours to sell? You can go to China or India and buy a kidney, but in the United States, they don’t allow it.”

“Is your body part your property?” she adds. "In the U.S., it is not considered your property, although you are allowed to sell eggs and sperm. It’s also OK to give away a kidney; you can donate a kidney in the U.S.--but you can’t sell it.”

Newly retired in July, Suckiel has taught ethics at UC Santa Cruz since the early 1970s. As provost of the campus’s Stevenson College from 2004-2010, she introduced a number of ethics courses into the college curriculum.

“The more that we can study ethics in our society, the better we’ll be able to fight debasement and divisiveness in the world today,” Suckiel noted. 

“There isn’t sufficient reflection on ethical issues, and if there were, I think we’d find that people would be much more supportive of each other,” she added.

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“Advances in Biotechnology and Medicine: Stretching the Moral Boundaries”--the inaugural Peggy Downes Baskin Humanities Ethics Lecture--will take place on November 3, at 4 p.m. in the Stevenson College Fireside Lounge. Admission is free and the public is invited. For more information, call (831) 459-3108.