It’s hard to find an organization on any college campus that is dedicated equally to discussing biology, medicine, cybernetics, politics, law, philosophy and theology on a weekly basis. But the Bioethics Society, an undergraduate club that also sponsors lectures and publishes a bi-annual journal, has been growing since its creation five years ago. Bioethics, originally started as a “cottage industry” during the technology boom of the 1990s, is quickly establishing itself both within academia and popular culture – and Cornell students have picked up on its appeal.
The Tuskegee study, a U.S. government-sponsored experiment on poor black men who were denied treatment for syphilis that took place between the 1930s and the 1970s, was the discussion topic of the club’s meeting on Monday. Advised by Father Robert Smith, a Cornell United Religious Work Catholic chaplain, the debate centered on whether it is right to use data from an experiment that was conducted in a “morally repugnant manner.”
Matt Wong ’06, president of the club, led the discussion. He asked the group to give their opinion on whether the data from the Tuskegee study, or a similar situation, could be used as research material for others or cited in support of other scientific findings.
“It would not be ethical research,” responded Gene Weinstein ’07, “but nothing is wrong with the data.”
“Are you saying if you can acquire the data, you should?” Smith asked. “The practice of science is human activity, and to say that human activity has no moral values – I find that hard to believe.”
Daniel Wossner ’08, repeatedly told the group that it was the means of the study that were immoral, not the actual data itself.
“The knowledge would be there, even if the study had not been conducted,” he said, referring to a discussion surrounding the application of research data gained by Nazi experiments on Holocaust victims.
“Science is the continual discovery of knowledge, and that knowledge could be gotten from a different study, an acceptable study, but that knowledge would still be there,” he added.
“I still don’t see how you can separate the means and ends of a study,” responded Wong. “It seems like the data from the study becomes tainted when it is conducted immorally.”
The club is planning on publishing a fall issue of their journal, Ivy Journal of Ethics, in November, which will include articles authored by students from other schools. For Wong, the most exciting topic in bioethics at the moment is genomics, or the general application of an organism’s genes.
“The field is exciting,” said Wong “and bioethics will follow along.”
The club meets every Monday at 4:45 in 119 Stimson Hall.
Archived article by Scott Rosenthal