Friday, September 7, 2012

Bioethics certificate covers tough issues

Bill Kabasenche horizontalA lesbian couple wants a baby genetically related to both of them. They’re considering using sperm from one woman’s brother. He just turned 18. Should they ask him?

The situation involved the relative of a WSU student. The student asked Bill Kabasenche, WSU assistant professor of philosophy, for advice. He saw a “wild conglomeration” of issues:

  • Is the brother old enough to give informed consent?
  • Is he old enough to become a father?
  • What responsibilities would he have?
  • Why is it important to have genetically related kids?
  • If genetics are that important, then they’d equally important to the brother, which means he’d have significant responsibilities.
  • Is parenthood fundamentally a relationship of love or of biology?
  • Is the couple using the baby as an instrument to validate the relationship?
  • If people can design their babies, does that replace unconditional love with a sense of comparison shopping?

Kabasenche’s specialty is bioethics. He teaches several courses on the topic and is co-director of the ethics committee at Pullman Regional Hospital. He’s also the force behind WSU’s new online graduate certificate in bioethics.

“The first goal of the certificate is to create sensitivity to ethical questions,” he said. “The second is to give people tools that will help them articulate ethical issues, which is different than just saying, ‘This just doesn’t feel right.’ Being able to articulate it can put teeth behind people’s misgivings.”

The third goal, he said, is to teach students how to evaluate competing ethical concepts. “That gives people in the field more sophistication in their ability to think through these issues.”


Kabasenche used all three approaches in talking to the worried student. “She latched on to some of those things and said, ‘Yeah, actually that’s what’s been bothering me,’ ” he said. She left his office prepared to have a constructive talk with her family.

“I don’t know what they ultimately decided,” Kabasenche said. “The important thing is that they had the best possible ethical foundation for that decision.”

Since the certificate went fully online in spring 2012, prospective students across the country have been sending Kabasenche “inquisitive emails.” Some come from students in WSU’s Professional Science Masters program, but most are from people outside WSU, including workers at biotechnology labs and a doctor who teaches at a university.

“The certificate opens up new opportunities for people working in health care and biotech industries,” he said. “This is a way you can demonstrate on paper that you have training.”

Justin Caouette took Kabasenche’s on-campus courses to earn his WSU bioethics certificate in 2010. He’s now working on his Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Calgary.

“The program enhanced my background and skill set,” he said. “It opened doors to health-related employment in areas such as administration, public policy, teaching, research, hospital ethics committee and institutional review board service, and legal work.”

Caouette has been chosen to develop an online bioethics program for Bristol Community College in Fall River, Mass. “I've been told that the certificate in bioethics has set me apart from other well-educated applicants,” he said.

Kabasenche sees increased demand for that kind of education. Advances in neuroscience are raising a host of issues involving privacy, responsibility, and autonomy. Advances in genetics create questions about reproductive ethics—should you test embryos?—and psychoactive drugs bring discussions of identity: Who is the real you?

“There are definitely more questions than answers,” he said. “The progress comes in an increasingly clear understanding of what the problems are.”

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