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08/10/2018

Inside a High School Bioethics Club

I founded a bioethics club at my high school in the beginning of my sophomore year. From a very young age, I always considered it important to do the “right thing.” However, as I grew older and was confronted with more complex situations, I realized that the “right thing” is not always obvious. I found a practical application for my interest in ethics in my love of science, in particular, medicine and biology.

Prior to the first meeting of the bioethics club, I was scared that nobody would show up. I knew that my friends would come, but I wanted people to come out of a genuine interest in bioethics and participating in the discussion. When I ask my classmates why they joined the bioethics club, almost all of them say it was for the free bagels and donuts midway through the school day. However, regardless of the motivation for walking through the door, the important thing is that they ended up enjoying more than just the food. Between classes, homework, sports, and other extracurricular activities, any second of free time is precious to a high school student. Twenty-five students at my high school still gather every week to converse with each other about current issues in bioethics.

The discussion kicks off with a PowerPoint presentation that includes the bioethics question of the week, relevant information, different perspectives surrounding the issue, and links to articles and video clips containing further information. After obtaining a deeper understanding of what makes the issue an ethical dilemma, club members share their viewpoints in an open discussion. Every meeting ends by brainstorming hypothetical resolutions to the dilemma.

At first, I chose the most basic bioethics question I could think of: should alcoholics be allowed to receive liver transplants? Students did not hesitate to jump right in and share their thoughts. One of the most interesting arguments was that alcohol abuse is often caused by psychiatric disorders, such as clinical depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, so to deny liver transplants to alcoholics would be to discriminate against people with mental health disorders. But since there are more people in need of liver transplants than can be accommodated, some people argued that nonalcoholics should be given priority.

This past year, the question that sparked the most conversation was whether it is ethical to abstain from vaccination. Students had so much to say that the discussion spanned two club meetings. We concluded that schools, workplaces, and other institutions have the right to require people within them to be vaccinated, and we thought that it is not unforeseeable for standards of vaccination to be applied to communities and employees at public places such as parks and shopping centers.

Another interesting club meeting was spent analyzing the ethical considerations that arise in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a recent book and movie about the discovery and importance of HeLa cells, the first immortal cell line. The book details how the cells from the tumor of an African American woman who died of cervical cancer came to be of massive importance in the lab due to their rapid rate of division, keeping the cell population alive forever. The club analyzed the various ethical dilemmas in the book. For instance, Lacks never gave consent for the hospital to use her tumor cells for research. In addition, her family was not told how her cells were being used until 20 years after her death. Finally, her family did not receive compensation until after the book and movie were released, even though the HeLa cells were taken without permission and they proved to be the most valuable material available for medical research.

This past year, we invited speakers from various fields such as medicine, journalism, and biotechnology. For instance, we had a specialist in alternative medicine come to discuss the ethical issues in the practice of unproven homeopathic remedies.

Recently, I started writing articles for my high school newspaper about bioethical dilemmas relevant to the school community, such as the issue of students feeling obligated to come to school even when they have a contagious sickness and should stay at home. Some younger club members have also taken interest in contributing ethics articles to the newspaper, and it is enjoyable to collaborate with them. It has been very rewarding for me to see how some students have really found their passion in bioethics and will ask me to send out the topic in advance of the meetings so that they can show up prepared. I know that the club will be left in good hands once I graduate. I do not know of any other high school bioethics clubs, but people at other schools always seem interested when I describe the club to them, so maybe they will be inspired to start clubs of their own.

I have learned a lot about effective ways to lead a bioethics discussion through our club meetings in the past two years. It is important to take the time to thoroughly research the topic of discussion. As a leader, I want my group members to take stances on the issue at hand, and the best way to facilitate this is by providing facts for them to ground their claims in. As group members are discussing the issue, I urge them to be conscious of the counter-claims to their arguments. By challenging their beliefs and taking into account all perspectives on the issue, group members will ultimately come to more solid resolutions of their own. Finally, it important to remember that the club environment is an open discussion, not a debate. Rather than debating for the sake of the argument, we converse for the purpose of coming to possible resolutions to real life bioethics dilemmas. Finishing with realistic resolutions is very difficult, and we almost always end with some sort of compromise rather than definitively taking one side of the issue.

Sarah Colin is a rising senior at Rye Country Day School, in Rye, N.Y. She was an Emily Murray Student Scholar at The Hastings Center in August.

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