Throughout the last three months of work on my Chancellor’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship project, my understanding of bioethics as an interdisciplinary field has expanded remarkably. I began the semester planning to investigate the specific, controversial case of neonatal euthanasia as a microcosm of ethical debate about a right to life and a right to die in a clinical context. I intended to build outward from existing literature analyzing the Netherlands’ Groningen Protocol to examine a European-American philosophical divide and elucidate the modification of larger, ‘traditional’ bioethics questions–such as consent and autonomy–in this unique clinical context. However, I soon realized the opportunities for integration of multiple disciplinary perspectives. With an interest in legal philosophy’s approach to similar questions, I turned to the Supreme Court’s Fourteenth Amendment jurisprudence in Washington v. Glucksberg and Vacco v. Quill. This pair of cases, decided in 1997, offers a window into the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses, as applied to physician-assisted suicide. A more well-known series of Court rulings–Griswold, Roe, Casey, and Dobbs–may also offer insight into issues of euthanasia, and I hope to engage with these rulings in the coming months. Turning to historical perspectives, I examined natural rights discourse and found a wellspring of fascinating works to inform consideration of the modern clinical context. From Aquinas and Locke to Hobbes and Rousseau, this rich philosophical tradition is the lens through which I hope to pursue future stages of my research in the coming year.
In addition to incorporating interdisciplinary perspectives into my bioethics research, I have also found unexpected connections between this research and my academic coursework this semester. In my Honors Neurophysiology course, our weekly journal club sessions often focus on literature related to specific channelopathies or neuromuscular diseases. These discussions have catalyzed consideration of the bioethics of gene therapies and other interventions at the level of the very language of life. My Philosophy of Neuroscience course has discussed the discrepancy between public perception and expert perception of various clinical tests or imaging studies, such as functional MRI. These debates emphasize the importance of analyzing not only the bioethics of a specific clinical procedure but also the communicative physician-patient relationship, working toward a common understanding of a medical procedure. The role of the physician as an educator is a major point of interest for me. In my Honors Intellectual Foundations of Capitalism course, I have pursued research about the changing telos of education in the last four centuries and have extended my study of natural rights to understand their application in the tradition of economic philosophy. Through my Ukrainian language studies, I have applied my philosophical work to the current military conflict to examine the physician’s bioethical responsibilities in a time of armed conflict. Each of these classes has allowed me to hone my bioethics research lens through unanticipated applications and has given me the opportunity to contribute to academic discourse in other fields with my background in bioethics.
The next two steps for my research are applying for official B.Phil. candidacy and pursuing full-time thesis work through this summer’s Brackenridge Fellowship. I have waited until now to officially submit my application for B.Phil. candidacy because I expected that the Chancellor’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship would help me define the specific direction of my thesis. It certainly has, and now I am ready to propose the natural rights-focused scholarship I hope to pursue in my senior year. The next stage of my research will be supported by the Brackenridge Fellowship. I am incredibly excited to engage in further bioethics scholarship–which is interdisciplinary by nature–in this intentional interdisciplinary community. I will use the case study of neonatal euthanasia that I have developed in the past three months to investigate other ‘life and death’ clinical ethics fields, including non-neonatal pediatric euthanasia, adult euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, and palliative care. I will consider how the various levels of autonomy, consent, physician responsibility, and beneficence in each context inform the philosophical treatment of the clinical practice. By comparative analysis of these clinical contexts, juxtaposed both with the neonatal euthanasia case study and with each other, I hope to elucidate the overarching ethical posture toward ‘life and death’ interventions accepted by modern healthcare providers.