Director's Message

As it enters its fourth decade, the Center for Bioethics & Health Law is thriving with a lecture series in the medical humanities, ethics conferences each fall and spring term, and a growing number of collaborations and consultations with researchers across the University, including an initiative with Pitt Research to create a conversation on campus about the ethics and social implications of research conducted on campus.

Most recently, the Center has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by providing ethics and medical humanities resources about the pandemic, offering courses in the medical school, and providing continuing education in collaboration with the Mid-Atlantic Region Public Health Training Center. On our COVID-19 Narratives page is my own response to the pandemic.

Reflecting on the past three decades, it now seems obvious that the University of Pittsburgh with its world renowned academic medical center and top Departments of Philosophy and History & Philosophy of Science, would have launched one of the earliest and most prestigious centers for medical ethics.  But in the 1980s, contemporary bioethics was in its nascency. Hiring faculty to conduct bioethics research and develop educational programs in clinical ethics was visionary. Fortunately, it was part of the vision of Thomas Detre, who came from Yale to direct the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. He hired Alan Meisel to co-found, with Loren Roth, the Law & Psychiatry Program in 1974. Just over a decade later, Professor Meisel and Ken Schaffner, from the Department of History & Philosophy of Science, co-founded the Center for Medical Ethics, the forerunner of today’s Center. Robert Arnold, recently named Distinguished Service Professor, was the first faculty member hired, in 1988, specifically to conduct research in bioethics.

Research. Faculty from the Center and Law & Psychiatry pioneered interdisciplinary research—empirical and conceptual—on foundational bioethical concerns: informed consent, competence assessment, confidentiality, research ethics, and the right to die. Today, the “right to die,” initially the logical extension of a right to refuse medical intervention, has evolved toward consideration of assistance in dying. Our attention to ethical issues in research is today more focused on specific domains of research (genetics, neuroscience, community-based participatory research) and on questions demanding more nuanced analysis than either aspirational guidance documents or federal regulations can supply.

Moreover, while the later 20th century’s shift from medical paternalism to patient autonomy supports respect for all patients and their values, today we are acutely aware that patients differ not just in their values and preferences, but in their social identities, economic circumstances, and cultural backgrounds. We appreciate that these differences have ethical significance as patients interact with a healthcare system. Medicine and public health increasingly employ the biological and cultural diversity of populations to provide more effective healthcare to enhance patient and population health. But we also recognize the need to ensure that Big Data, learning healthcare systems, and precision medicine do not exacerbate health disparities.  Center faculty are currently consulting on data analytics governance with the Provost's office and on issues of consent, tissue sample management, and genomic sequencing for both Pitt and UPMC.

Bioethics—always at the intersection of the medical and social sciences, law, and the humanities—now draws increasingly on the methods and insights of gender studies, critical theory, behavioral economics and decision theory, and frameworks of social justice and human rights. Responding to some of these developments, the Center recently developed a partnership in bioethics with Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Ethics & Policy, as well as Pitt’s Institute for Precision Medicine.

Education. Our Center has always been at the forefront of innovation in bioethics education. In the 1980s, Dr. Arnold developed the School of Medicine’s Clinical Ethics Training Program and Fellowship Program in Medical Ethics. Center faculty initiated the Dietrich School’s Interdisciplinary Master of Arts Program in Bioethics, followed by joint programs with the Schools of Law and Medicine.  

Today, Center faculty participate in several training programs and provide bioethics education across multiple schools. Recognizing the need to develop tools to address intersecting sources of injustice within healthcare and biomedical research, we are proposing a graduate certificate program in bioethics in collaboration with the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program. Responding to the interests of Pitt undergraduates, Center faculty collaborated to propose an undergraduate certificate program in medical humanities.

Along with the field of bioethics, our Center has come of age. The range of issues and projects we undertake to address them continues to expand. Our commitment to excellence and collegial collaboration remain unchanged.

Lisa S. Parker, PhD
Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote Professor of Bioethics