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  • The Hastings Center at Forty
  • Susan Gilbert, Staff Writer

The Hastings Center came into being the year that Woodstock took place and “Hair” debuted on Broadway. Like these iconic events, it was a child of the sixties. It began as a grass roots effort—cofounders Daniel Callahan and Willard Gaylin hatched the idea at a neighbor’s Christmas party in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, in 1968. At the time, Callahan, a philosopher, was working for the Population Council on ethical problems of population limitation and finishing a book on abortion. Gaylin, a psychiatrist, had published books and articles on social problems.

Their idea was revolutionary both because the Center would be the first organization of its kind and because it would be the product of a biological revolution. Developments such as organ transplantation and genetic testing were changing lives, reshaping society, and posing ethical dilemmas that cried out for thoughtful analysis.

When the Center was incorporated in March 1969 as the Institute of Society, Ethics and the Life Sciences, the first challenge was to stake out its foundational issues. “We looked for topics that seemed to have a lifespan,” recalled Callahan. Population control, behavior control, death and dying, and genetics fit that description. Each topic had its own working group. An essay about each—the work the Center did, how the topic has evolved, what questions remain—appears in this issue.

In the lead-off essay, Callahan traces the history of population control, noting that the earliest efforts were focused on the comparative moral legitimacy of education, persuasion, and coercion in lowering birthrates. Since then, concern in many countries has shifted from overpopulation to underpopulation and the disproportionate number of residents who are elderly and dependent. But the central issue remains: respect for procreative freedom and recognition of its profound social effects.

Gaylin recounts efforts to use surgery and medication to modify behavior, first in psychiatric patients and later, in the case of medications, in unruly schoolchildren. “These efforts captured the public imagination,” he writes, “but for all the wrong reasons.” More alarming than medical interventions in the brain, he concludes, are forms of “mind control”—efforts to change our understanding of what’s normal.

“The Evolution of Death and Dying Controversies” is written by the Center’s first employee, Robert M. Veatch. When the Center began work in this area in 1970, the first task was to untangle the definition of death from decisions to forgo life support. The definitional question looked to be the easier problem, but as Veatch notes, that controversy continues today while considerable headway has been made on questions about forgoing life support.

Thomas Murray, president of the Center, discusses the Center’s work on genetics, which was initially led by the late Marc Lappé, the second staff researcher. The work began when genetic counseling was in its infancy and genetic engineering was unheard of. But Murray finds the Center’s early work “remarkably prescient” in anticipating concerns over the privacy of genetic test results and the limitations of genetic information to tell us about ourselves and predict our future.

Both the field and the Center have grown over the years. Forty years ago there were no bioethics departments at universities and no ethics courses in medical schools; today, they are widespread. And the Center’s work now includes health reform and synthetic biology. In Callahan’s view, founding the field of bioethics is The Hastings Center’s greatest legacy. [End Page 2]

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Additional Information

ISSN
1552-146X
Print ISSN
0093-0334
Pages
p. 2
Launched on MUSE
2009-06-05
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived 2012
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