Bioethics Blogs

Bioethicists learn from history

Now that I’ve had my rant about the Belmont Report’s year of publication, I can turn to the more substantive arguments of Barron Lerner and Arthur Caplan’s recent essay, “Judging the Past: How History Should Inform Bioethics.” These scholars wisely argue against simplistic condemnations of past behavior, yet they also reject the other extreme of attributing all past misbehavior to the age rather than the individual. By understanding what choices were open to actors in the past, we can better assess the morality of their actions and the choices that we ourselves face.

[Barron H. Lerner and Arthur L. Caplan, “Judging the Past: How History Should Inform Bioethics,” Annals of Internal Medicine 164, no. 8 (April 19, 2016): 553–57, doi:10.7326/M15–2642.

Lerner (who holds a PhD in history as well as an MD) and Caplan recite several of the usual human subjects horror stories: Nazis, Tuskegee, Willowbrook, Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital. (Sanjay Srivastava will be glad to know that poor Stanley Milgram gets a pass this time.)

They offer a twist, however, in insisting that not all the perpetrators of these misdeeds were “monsters from an alien past.” Rather, they draw on recent scholarship, including works by such eminent historians as Allan Brandt and Susan Reverby, to demand that we understand the context in which people acted immorally, including the crucial question of who supported or challenged the decisions now judged unethical.

They note, for instance, that “many students of bioethics may be surprised to learn that even though the Macon County [Alabama] Medical Society was predominantly African American by the late 1960s, it continued to approve the Tuskegee study.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.