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07/06/2017

In Memoriam: John A. Robertson

by David Magnus, Ph.D.

Sadly, the field of bioethics lost one of its best this week. John Robertson, a law professor at the University of Texas and a major figure in law and bioethics, passed away on July 5th. John was an important scholar whose work spanned major contributions to scholarship on end of life, organ transplantation, and genetics, but he is best known for his work on reproductive technology. John’s articulation and defense of the importance of procreative liberty, though both his articles and his important book, Children of Choice, stand as exemplars for scholarship within bioethics. I have used his work in my classes for over 20 years, because no one has better articulated the perspective he brought to bear on issues in reproductive technology.

In addition to his scholarly contributions, what I will miss most about John is that he was a tireless and enthusiastic mentor and advocate for younger scholars. Without his support, I doubt that my career would have turned out the way it has. If you are reading this blog, you are probably already aware of the success of the American Journal of Bioethics. The journal owes a great deal of that success (and perhaps its continued existence) to John. When the journal was first launched, most leaders in the field expressed a great deal of skepticism about the need or value of another journal. John not only supported us and encouraged us, he made a major contributions to ensure our success. As the Chair of the ethics committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, John was instrumental in promoting a position to accept the use of new technologies for sex selection (at least in the context of family balancing). This view garnered a great deal of attention from bioethicists and the media. And John agreed to publish his first major defense of this position as a Target Article in our very first issue. We made it freely available for years. This article was critical in establishing AJOB as a major journal. He offered us advice over the years and contributed many pieces to us (including his wonderful article on the $1,000 genome).

Personally, he was incredibly encouraging and supportive. He and I were “debate partners” for several years—we debated oversight and regulation of reproductive cloning and emerging stem cell science in the late 90s and early 2000s at different college campuses around the country. Though John was much more accomplished than I was, he never acted that way. He treated me as a respected peer, took my views seriously, and his generosity with advice and argument made me a better scholar. He supported me in my move to Stanford and was instrumental to setting up our P50 Center for Excellence in Ethical Issues in Genetics/Genomics Research. It is impossible for those of us who benefitted from his generosity to pay him back for all he has done for us.  But by modeling his behavior, we can hopefully pay it forward to other young scholars. This will be one of John’s many legacies. He will be sorely missed.

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