Art Caplan reflects on a career in bioethics while leaving for NYU

    It wasn’t that long ago that the term “bioethics” wasn’t well known. But more than any other American scientist, Dr. Arthur Caplan has been credited for bringing this somewhat abstract intersection of philosophy and medicine into to the public discourse.

    After founding the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Bioethics, Caplan is now taking his expertise to New York University.

    Caplan’s office at 36th and Market streets looks eerily neat: no piles of folders in corners, only a few book in shelves that were once filled to capacity, no photos or awards. It’s all packed away. All this calmness is a stark contrast to the energetic and passionate Caplan. A whole universe of ideas and questions flows effortlessly out of his mouth.

    It’s this ability to bring clarity to controversial issues that has made him the voice of bioethics in the media.

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    “One of the things I’ve always felt about bioethics is that it should be an academic enterprise,” he said, “but it should also be a public dialogue. Most of the issues that bioethics addresses influence and touch peoples’ lives either when they vote, when they’re a patient, or when they’re trying to figure out why things cost so much in health care.

    “So I’ve long thought that you have to track the issues as they come up in the news, and then use them as opportunities, if you will, for public teaching, public conversation, using those events.”

    Through his lens, he looks at newspapers, television and radio in a totally different way from the rest of us. So what does he see that we don’t see?

    “When I see an issue discussed, it’s usually as a political question,” he said. “So somebody might say, ‘Should Arizona pass a law that requires women to have a certain informed consent speech before having an abortion?’ The media and the culture tends to treat these as political questions. I see them as ethical issues. But we don’t have forums in our society to go at these questions in a national or international way, but bioethics can do that. I’ve always seen bioethics as the key to that will open that particular values door and let discussions go.”

    So for Caplan, bioethics permeates discussions and decisions about food, education, corporate responsibility, patients’ rights, politics — and, surprisingly, sports. His next book explores how sports reveal our core beliefs.

    “If you are going to ask questions like, for example, ‘What’s virtue?’ the easiest place to get an answer is to see what we celebrate in our athletes,” Caplan said. “We get excited when they try hard, when they persevere. We like people who are truthful, honest, fair.”

    Sports are not the only place where he obeserves this tendency, he said, “but it’s a great place for everyone in society to comment on who their heroes or their villains are.”

    Caplan never shied from the national stage. His most controversial opinions came to light during the Terry Sciavo case in 2005. Sciavo was in a vegetative stage while her family opposed her husband’s decision to take her off a respirator. And who can forget Caplan’s $10,000 reward for someone who could prove presidential candidate Michele Bachmann’s claim that a vaccine can cause retardation?

    In a way, Caplan is a provocateur on a quest for civic discourse. He says dialogue on bioethics issues yields slow progress, but he’s amazed by how far things have come since he began medical school.

    “There were no protections for human subjects. Poor people or people in prisons or in orphanages were drafted into research,” he said. “We don’t do that anymore. Anybody could come in and discuss your case. We didn’t have well established views of privacy and confidentiality.”

    Discussions about controversial issues are usually heated, they bring out passionate opinions and noisy altercations. Humor, says Caplan, is the best antidote.

    “At the end of the day, it can remind people … they don’t have to pay any attention to what I say at all,” he said. “I don’t have any power. The authority I hold — that I might have — comes from making a good argument. People may listen, but it’s the argument that’s going to win the day.”

    Art Caplan begins as the director of the new division of medical ethics at New York University on July 1.

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