- The Hastings Center and the Early Years of Bioethics
The Hastings Center was founded in 1969 to study ethical problems in medicine and biology. The Center arose from a confluence of three social currents: the increased public scrutiny of medicine and its practices, the concern about the moral problems being generated by technological developments, and the desire of one of its founders (Callahan) to make use of his philosophical training in a more applied way. The early years of the Center were devoted to raising money, developing an early agenda of issues, and identifying a cadre of people around the country interested in the issues. Various stresses and strains in the Center and the field are identified, and some final reflections are offered on the nature and value of the contributions made by bioethics as an academic field.
True beginnings are hard to discern. They are often little noticed at the time and in retrospect can sometimes be identified only in a more or less arbitrary way. So it is with the beginning of my own career in bioethics and the founding of the Hastings Center, both of which happened more or less simultaneously. Did they begin with my long childhood days in hospitals in the 1930s, the victim of a series of tenacious infections? Those were the pre-antibiotic days and the cures were far more painful than the infections. I was time and again carried kicking and screaming to the hospital. That sort of thing leaves a scar on one’s psyche that is not readily erased, not to mention a life-long interest in medicine. Or did they begin with my interest in religion as an adolescent and in philosophy as a college student? Or was it when I became disillusioned with academic analytic philosophy as a graduate student and needed some other outlet for my intellectual thirsts? Or was it much later, when I began to see that bioethics was an emergent subject matter, suitable for a research center? I can’t really answer those questions, and [End Page 53] perhaps the proper metaphor is that of the origin of the Hudson River, not too far north of the Hastings Center: a cluster of small streams coming together until finally they make a river, leaving room for argument about just where exactly that happens.
What matters, though, is that there was a beginning and that now, 30 years later, my life in bioethics and the life of the Hastings Center go on. I find it most convenient to take up the story in the 1960s, when three streams converged to set the stage for bioethics in general and my entrance into it in particular. One of those streams was what we now think of as “the 60s,” a time marked by assorted political and cultural upheavals and marked, in the case of medicine, by a sharp public and professional scrutiny of its institutions and practices. Medicine was opened for public inspection, not wholly of course but enough to be noticed. Another stream was marked by both a fear of and a fascination with the great technological changes medicine was creating. Those changes portended not simply new possibilities for health, such as raising the standards of what counts as good health; but also new ways of living a life, such as family planning and an extended and healthy old age. The third stream was a revolt in some branches of the humanities against the social isolation of the academy and a desire to let certain fields, especially philosophy, have some social bite, some “relevance” as the operative term of that era put it.
I will begin my story with the philosophy stream. I went to Yale as an undergraduate, mainly because I was a swimmer and that was the place to go in the 1940s and 1950s. But I was over the hill (or under the water) as a swimmer by my junior year and had to find something else to amuse me. That turned out to be an experimental interdisciplinary program, just right for someone who at that time had no specific career goals in mind but was drawn to the humanities...