Select your localized edition:

Close ×

More Ways to Connect

Discover one of our 28 local entrepreneurial communities »

Be the first to know as we launch in new countries and markets around the globe.

Interested in bringing MIT Technology Review to your local market?

MIT Technology ReviewMIT Technology Review - logo

 

Unsupported browser: Your browser does not meet modern web standards. See how it scores »

{ action.text }

Round and brash, with the gravelly voice of a street fighter, Arthur Caplan looks and sounds more like a boxer than an ethi­cal philosopher. The director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, Caplan has been enormously influential in a variety of debates in modern biomedicine, from the fate of Terri Schiavo to the market for organs for transplant. He has written or coauthored more than 400 peer-reviewed articles and several books on the ethics of new medical technologies.

TR: Why should we care about bioethicists? Are they really so influential?

Caplan: Bioethics is most influential at the bedside. But the influence of bioethicists on research and human experimentation is also strong. Finally, conservative bioethicists have a lot of influence in Washington these days.

TR: How much of this activity is just window dressing? Arguably, it allows interested parties to say, “Look, we’ve got bioethicists here! We must be taking care of the ethics!”

Caplan: Well, that happens, but it doesn’t mean bioethicists don’t make a difference. Bioethics has real influence on legislation and regulation.

TR: What debates have you most influenced?

Caplan: I was involved in the National Organ Transplant Act. I single-­handedly held up the movement toward creating markets in organs. In genetics, I was the first guy on embryonic-stem-cell research. I was able to undermine the administration’s argument that the president’s position [which allowed federal funding of stem-cell research with cell lines that were already established] was a compromise. Since then, I’ve worked with patients’ groups and scientists to find a moral framework for embryonic-stem-cell research.

TR: You have not mentioned the death of Terri Schiavo. But last year it seemed you talked of little else: you were ceaselessly quoted in the media.

Caplan: I was the most outspoken critic of government intervention, that’s true. And I felt bullied by the president and by some members of Congress. But although we were outnumbered and outspent, it’s fair to say that we won that fight. Most Americans don’t want government intervention in end-of-life cases.

TR: Why should anyone listen to bioethicists?

Caplan: Critics sometimes say, “Well, who elected you king?” I smile and say, “If you don’t like what I say, just ignore it.” Look, bioethicists became influential for a reason: they were able to bridge the gaps between politicians, the media, and the sciences. But they’re not a priesthood, and they don’t have any authority to dictate anything to anybody.

TR: Do bioethicists say no a lot?

Caplan: We jokingly say that anyone can be a bioethicist: just say no to everything.

0 comments about this story. Start the discussion »

Tagged: Biomedicine

Reprints and Permissions | Send feedback to the editor

From the Archives

Close

Introducing MIT Technology Review Insider.

Already a Magazine subscriber?

You're automatically an Insider. It's easy to activate or upgrade your account.

Activate Your Account

Become an Insider

It's the new way to subscribe. Get even more of the tech news, research, and discoveries you crave.

Sign Up

Learn More

Find out why MIT Technology Review Insider is for you and explore your options.

Show Me