July 02, 2014
Cynthia McKenna

Center for Health Care Ethics Leads 'End-of-Life' Symposium

Smolarz Auditorium
The Smolarz Auditorium at Tel Aviv University where the symposium took place. Submitted photo

The Albert Gnaegi Center for Health Care Ethics cosponsored a symposium with the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Tel Aviv University, Isreal. "The Ends of Life: Deepening Reflection on the Ethical Issues at the Beginning and End of Life," was held June 8-10 at Tel Aviv University. The symposium was developed and organized by George Khushf, Ph.D., from the University of South Carolina; Shai Lavi, Ph.D., from Tel Aviv University; and Jeffrey Bishop, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center for Health Care Ethics, out of a desire to enrich the bioethics dialog.

The conference grew out of a conversation between Bishop, Khushf and Lavi.

"We were talking about our dissatisfaction with the thin, procedural accounts that we typically see in bioethics," said Bishop, author of The Anticipatory Corpse: Medicine, Power, and the Care of the Dying, University of Notre Dame Press. "In the early years of bioethics, people took seriously metaphysical and ontological commitments that informed ethical reflection. Yet over the years, bioethics has become increasingly focused on policy, legal principles and thin ethical principles, leaving aside the hard questions about the relationships between biological notions of life and our social and moral reflection."

Laurie Zoloth, Ph.D., from Northwestern University and who was one of the invited presenters, contended that American bioethics is both challenged and strengthened through its interdisciplinary nature.

"Because bioethics is often a site where practitioners from various fields come together for discourse, the level of debate can, too often, be reductive," she said. "Thus, while maintaining the power of a diverse discussion, it is imperative that foundational and fundamental research is supported in the field. The seminar was an outstanding example of how such research can be done."

Attendees included philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, physicians, legal theorists, and religious studies scholars. All were invited to write and present academic papers that enriched research on international bioethics core issues: the origins of life, the nature of death and the practice of end-of-life care. Topics presented included issues such as brain dead pregnancy, ontology, neonatal ICU life, brain death, neuroscience and the brain, and differing understandings of potentiality.

"I was impressed by the way scholars from a variety of disciplines ... succeeded in overcoming disciplinary boundaries and held a vibrant discussion on a variety of topics at the beginning and end of life," said Lavi, author of The Modern Art of Dying: A History of Euthanasia in the United States, Princeton University Press, 2009. "Participants challenged the attempt to answer these hard question... in mere biological terms and offered alternative conceptions highlighting both the significance of ontological reflection for the study of ethics and the ethical dimension of ontological positions."

Zoloth presented a new paper that first "questioned the premise of clinical care in the neonatal intensive care unit, and suggested that the enterprise ... was a phase one clinical trial in end of life care and should be constructed as such. Second, using the textual resources of classic Talmudic literature of the Rabbinic period in Jewish thought, I suggested a new inquiry into the ontology of the act of end of life care in the neonatal period." Zoloth noted that her paper was "entirely stimulated by the seminar."

Zoloth praised the planning and technical aspects of the conference, which allowed considerable time for reflection, research, and quality scholarship.

"The [meeting was able to create] both a model for deepening the research conversation in bioethics and for creating enduring methods of transmission of the research across generations of scholars," she said. "It was a privilege to be included in what may be the most interesting and substantial discussion in contemporary bioethics."

"The fast-paced world of medicine and medical science often seeks quick policy answers to questions," Bishop added. "That makes sense on many levels. Thus, creating spaces for considered and careful reflection is very difficult. Fortunately, the Safra and Gnaegi Centers were able to partner to create the right kind of environment for us to probe the fundamental moral questions facing contemporary medical technology."

The success of the conference has fueled planning for a second symposium to be held at the SLU Madrid campus during summer 2015. Additionally, the team is researching possible grant funding for larger research projects.

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