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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University April 9, 2007 | Vol. 36 No. 29
Exploring the Scope of Bioethics

Events on three campuses mark institute's first decade

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Bioethics is for everyone. To prove it, the Berman Institute of Bioethics will host a weeklong (and then some) event designed to showcase the growing importance of bioethics to everyday life, clinical practice, research, public health and public policy.

Bioethics Week, which kicks off on April 16 and ends April 26, will include more than 20 special lectures, conferences, meetings and performances aimed at both the general public and the Johns Hopkins community. The events, which will take place on three Hopkins campuses (Homewood, East Baltimore and Bayview), will also serve to commemorate the first decade of scholarship from the Berman Institute.

"We wanted to mark this significant anniversary and celebrate it," said Ruth Faden, executive director of the Berman Institute and the Philip Franklin Wagley Professor of Biomedical Ethics. "We also wanted to celebrate the universitywide orientation of the Berman Institute. The field of bioethics has really taken root here at Johns Hopkins and flourished. Today, we have one of the best programs of its kind in the world."

The week's featured events include a talk by best-selling author Michael Crichton; a performance of The Power of Wit, which is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Wit; and an address by U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin.

Crichton, the author of such books as Jurassic Park and Timeline and the creator of NBC's long-running show ER, will come to the Homewood campus to discuss his new novel, Next, which deals with issues of genetics and public policy. Before becoming a household name, Crichton graduated summa cum laude from Harvard College and received his medical degree from Harvard Medical School. His talk will take place on Tuesday, April 24, in Shriver Hall.

"Mr. Crichton will talk about the morally challenging questions that advances in genetics pose," Faden said. "He will consider whether these advances are taking us closer to what used to be purely the stuff of science fiction, like the half human-half ape character in his recent book, and also whether the potential benefits of some of these scientific advances are being curtailed by current policies on patenting in biology."

The Power of Wit, which stars actress Megan Cole in the lead role of Vivian Bearing, will be held on Thursday, April 19, at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Bearing is a tough-as-nails English professor with end-stage cancer who pleads for an emotional response from her doctors. The powerful drama includes a post-performance discussion with Johns Hopkins experts. The play is sponsored by the institute's Robert H. Levi Leadership Program.

And on Friday, April 20, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin will give a major address during Medicine Grand Rounds titled "Meeting the Moral Challenges to Health Care in the 21st Century." It is open to all interested faculty and staff.

Other events include a discussion on genetic testing of embryos and film screenings and discussions of the movies Gattaca, a sci-fi drama set in a time where society analyzes DNA to predetermine a person's destiny (Monday, April 16), and The Constant Gardener, a story about corporate corruption (Tuesday, April 17).

On Thursday, April 26, the Berman Institute's Genetics and Public Policy Center and the Atlas Theater in Washington, D.C., will co-host a performance there of Ferocious Beauty: Genome, performed by the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange. The ballet is inspired by the rapidly expanding promise and threat of the new biological age.

Faden said that her goal was to offer something for everyone.

"The field of bioethics has an impact on everybody, one way or the other," Faden said. "All of us at some point in our lives will become ill or have someone we love become ill. We will all face morally challenging decisions, some bigger than others. With Bioethics Week, we are really trying to respond to as many different ethical issues as possible."

Established a decade ago, the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics seeks to prepare the nation's next generation of leaders in bioethics and to promote research at the intersection of ethics, clinical practice, biomedical science and public health. It also provides policy advice on bioethical issues to the government and the private sector.

Specifically, the institute deals with such issues as embryonic stem cell research, assisted suicide, access to health care, research involving human subjects and organ donation, among others.

The institute,  together with Georgetown University, is home to the prestigious Green-wall Fellowship Program in Bioethics and Public Policy. In the Bloomberg School of Public Health, it sponsors doctoral and certificate programs in bioethics and health policy. In the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, it sponsors an undergraduate major in bioethics. And institute faculty in the schools of Medicine and Nursing are actively engaged in teaching young clinicians how to address the ethical challenges of clinical practice.

In terms of programs, the institute currently has ones involving stem cell policy and ethics, ethics and brain sciences, ethics in clinical practice and ethics in research.

The Berman Institute also biannually holds the Robert H. Levi Leadership Symposium, which provides national leaders with an opportunity to study and debate a pressing ethical issue in medicine and health policy.

The institute is named after Phoebe Rhea Berman, who believed there was no better place than Johns Hopkins to address the ethical dilemmas raised by advances in medical discovery.

Berman, who was one of Baltimore's most celebrated hostesses, grew up on a farm and very early developed what she called "a reverence for life." Many decades later, she and her husband — Edgar Berman, a pioneering surgeon, outspoken social critic and a best-selling author — went to French Equatorial Africa to work with Albert Schweitzer as extended volunteers. His work inspired  her and strengthened her commitment to the need for ethical considerations in medical and scientific decision making. To underscore her conviction, Berman established an endowment for the institute.

Bioethics Week is sponsored by the Kirk Family Foundation.

For a complete listing of events, with times, locations and registration information, go to


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