Science Students Debate Ethical Issues

Posted: April 28, 2006

When professor of biological sciences Rachel Fink started teaching a seminar class on animal cloning in the late 1990s, she focused heavily on the biological aspects of cloning and stem cell research and spent only about 10 percent of the time on the ethical, sociological, and religious aspects of the issues involved. But when President Bush announced in 2001 the creation of a Council on Bioethics that would be charged with advising him on human cloning, stem cell research, and other biomedical topics, Fink saw an opportunity to bring the debate into both her upper level and introductory classes--without making the students discuss their own personal beliefs.

Each student in the cloning seminar is responsible for learning about a prominent figure in the debate over stem cell research and cloning, whether it be a council member, elected official, or any other expert engaged in the public debate, and thoroughly researching that person's viewpoints on the issues. The semester culminates in the students' taking on the persona of their expert in a mock debate presented to Fink's introductory biology class. And this year, for the first time, Fink took the students in the seminar to Washington, DC, to attend a meeting of the President's Council on Bioethics and to meet and see in action some of the very people they have been studying.

"When I read about the council, I knew it was something I had to use in my class," Fink said. "The students don't have to agree with the members, but this group has the ear of the President and a mandate to inform the public on these issues. Their meetings are published word for word and are a treasure trove for the students' research."

In the debate, upper-level students are able to present the intricacies of ethical questions without having to discuss their personal beliefs, and introductory students are able to engage in the debate without having to attack their classmates' beliefs. In addition, Fink found that the students were much more receptive to these ideas when they were presented by their peers.

"I try not to give an opinion but rather teach them how to form an opinion, show them what the positions are. The newspapers and TV often present a black-and-white portrayal of what are actually very gray areas. I hope the students graduate knowing it's not black and white. They learn a context in which to place their own ideas."

After several years' success with the class, Fink this year applied for and received grant money to take the nine students in her seminar to Washington, DC, to attend a meeting of the Council on Bioethics April 20-21. The students were able to meet many of the council members and had dinner with one of them. While in DC, the class also went to a conference by the Center for American Progress on bioethics and got a tour of the offices of Science magazine.

"It was so interesting to see how bioethical issues are actually discussed, especially between a group of people from varied professional backgrounds," said Kate Jackson, a senior biology major who has wanted to take the cloning class ever since witnessing the debate while taking Fink's introductory class. She chose to represent the views of Rebecca Dresser, a professor of law and ethics on the bioethics council. "The combination of learning both the science of cloning and stem cells and the larger social, legal, and ethical issues surrounding this science makes the class far more meaningful for a biology major than a philosophy-based ethics class," Jackson said. "I think we do ourselves a disservice by learning about scientific advances and knowledge without considering the broader influences of the science. I couldn't be happier with the way Rachel smoothly guides us between the science and ethics of cloning and stem cell research." Next year, Jackson will be working in the HIV clinic of Massachusetts General Hospital.

Some students, like senior Katie Kraschel, picked experts specifically because their opinions differed from their own. Kraschel chose to study Leon Kass, a conservative member of the council and the former chair. "I chose Kass because I knew his opinions were so different from mine," Kraschel said. "When we arrived in DC, I wanted him to be combative, argumentative, or to present his arguments without solid information to back them up. However, he was very well-spoken and brought up some legitimate points in a very thoughtful manner. While I still adamantly disagree with his opinions, I respect many of them, and the experience was a reminder that progress and growth come from critical discussion and disagreement."

On May 2, when the students present their debate, Kraschel will introduce herself as Dr. Kass when she speaks and, like the other students, will stay in character, responding to questions as she thinks Kass would, even though she may vehemently disagree with what she's saying.

"The piece I'm really happy about is that they're not just talking about this among themselves but presenting it to the Bio 200 class of more than 100 students," Fink said. "They're able to present powerful opinions that aren't necessarily their own, and the intro students love hearing about it from other students. I don't have to say a word. The students just run with it."

The students will present their debate on Tuesday, May 2, at 10 a.m. in Hooker Auditorium. Members of the Mount Holyoke community are welcome to attend.

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