Let’s get biotechnical

Students, trustees and university officials packed the Storer Auditorium on Monday night to hear Arthur Caplan, a renowned author and news network guest, speak about the field of bioethics.

Caplan discussed the ethical concerns surrounding the rapidly growing field of medical treatments designed not simply to extend life, but to enhance it.

He did not shy away from controversy in his lecture, defending a range of medical practices from plastic surgery to hypothetical gene therapies that might one day defy the aging process, calling those who object to such treatments the “New Puritans.”

Active both in the academic world of bioethics and the political battleground of the mainstream media, Caplan has published 25 books and hundreds of scholarly articles. He is currently the director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

“In terms of contributions and in terms of raising the profile of applied ethics, there are few people as distinguished as Arthur Caplan,” said Kenneth Goodman, co-director of UM’s Ethics Programs.

Caplan also frequently squares off with his predominantly right-wing critics during television appearances on CNN, “60 Minutes” and MSNBC.

“TV is an important driver of American culture,” he said in an interview with The Miami Hurricane. “I know that, so I am willing to play the game.”

In his lecture, Caplan drew upon both his backgrounds in both academia and mass media. He spoke about the ethics of improving life using biotechnology, but began by skewering several conservative legislators, quoting their stances on impotency treatments such as Viagra and Cialis. His talk soon turned to a more academic analysis of the arguments against medical treatments that might one day be able to dramatically increase the human lifespan or enhance human life.

A combination of scholarship and popular appeal has long been part of Caplan’s approach to bioethics.

“I have always believed.that you should engage the public,” because bioethical policy decisions “are not for experts; they are for the public in a democracy to decide,” he said.

University of Miami President Donna E. Shalala said that Caplan “challenges us to use our common sense to think about the thorniest ethical issues of our time” in her introductory remarks.

Monday’s talk was the first lecture in the Arsht Distinguished Speaker Series, one of several programs funded by a recent $1 million gift to the Ethics Programs at UM by Adrienne Arsht.

Goodman hopes to use the momentum from high-profile guests like Caplan to continue integrating ethics into all aspects of UM’s academic community.

“Being able to have a distinguished speaker series is a beautiful to enhance role of ethics on campus,” he said. The two also plan to expand ethics research at UM and collaborate with ethics programs nationwide in the coming year.

Organizers and supporters of ethics at UM said they were thrilled with the large turnout on Monday.

“To see this oversold hall is the most satisfying thing,” said Arsht, commenting on the students who lined the walls and sat on the floor to hear Caplan.

James Remeika may be contacted at j.remeika@umiami.edu.