Summer 2008: Of Note

Paul Root Wolpe

life of the mind: Paul Root Wolpe, former professor in the Departments of Psychiatry, Medical Ethics, and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and senior fellow at Penn’s Center for Bioethics, becomes director of Emory’s Center for Ethics in August.

Courtesy Paul Root Wolpe

Ethics in Action

New center director Paul Root Wolpe takes on society’s most challenging questions—from Mars missions to memory drugs

The Center for Ethics

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By Mary J. Loftus

Bioethicist Paul Root Wolpe is the first chief of bioethics for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). He was the first national bioethics adviser for the Planned Parenthood Federation. He sits on the national boards of organizations such as the Society of Bioethics and Humanities and the Infertility Association’s Embryo Donation Advisory Board. You might imagine he’s been asked to weigh in on some difficult topics. You’d be right.

Wolpe, who comes to Emory in August from the University of Pennsylvania to head the Center for Ethics, is a pioneer in the field of neuroethics. He has given his professional opinion on questions such as: Should lie detectors be used for public safety? What should happen to the body if an astronaut dies on Mars? Is it spying to look inside someone’s brain at how they make decisions?

He has written about sexuality and gender in society, brain implants and computer interfaces, stem cell therapy, genetics and eugenics, and how to face the end of life. He likes nothing better than to ponder such questions. But, says Wolpe, ethics is about more than mere speculation.

“We live in a world where we have far more choice about our behaviors than our forebears did, where information is on overload, where cultures live side by side on a much more closely knit planet, and where technology presents us with new challenges,” he says. “Making the right decisions for ourselves and our descendants now requires an eye toward the downstream consequences of our actions and remaining humble in the midst of unprecedented technological power. Ethics has become an important part of how policymakers, scientists, manufacturers, clinicians, and others consider the decisions they have to make.

“As Spiderman so pithily put it, ‘with great power comes great responsibility.’ ”

Once the province of philosophy departments, ethics is now taught in almost every field—medicine, business, law, engineering, nursing, journalism, and public health, to name just a few.

“I want the Center for Ethics to be part of the conversation about how to live a moral and ethical life across the board,” he says. “We are planning a program at the center in the coming year about the degree to which universities should be ethically active or engage in advocacy, about them taking a stand.”

Wolpe, formerly a professor in the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Psychiatry and a senior fellow at one of the top bioethics centers in the country, says he was attracted by Emory’s energy and vision.

“The commitment that Emory is showing to the center right now—financially and ideologically—is unparalleled in the U.S.,” he says. “It’s a good, small regional center ready to become a world-class center.”

Wolpe plans to involve undergraduates more broadly with the center and to reach out to the Atlanta community. “The big struggle for us is going to be where to go first,” he says. “Which partnership, which exciting area of research, which initiative.”

As the recipient of several teaching awards and an “Outstanding Professor at Penn,” Wolpe says he looks forward to teaching at Emory as well, after the center is settled into the new Candler School of Theology building and going strong. The University will offer a master’s degree in bioethics next year, he says, and he will teach in that program.

Provost Earl Lewis says he is “thrilled to have lured a scholar and administrator of Paul Root Wolpe’s caliber to lead the next phase in the history of the Center for Ethics at Emory.” Wolpe succeeds former director James Fowler, Candler Professor of Theology and Human Development, who retired from the center in 2005. Associate director Kathy Kinlaw will continue to direct the center’s work in health sciences and ethics.

Wolpe will continue to work for NASA as the main bioethics adviser for the chief health and medical officer, who has the responsibility of overseeing the health and welfare of all people and animals at NASA, including the astronauts, staff, and research animals.

“This presents a very interesting set of questions about space-based health care—questions that are new, challenging and, in a sense, pure,” he says. “Given the limited resources of time, space, and weight, how do we make health care decisions in space? If we’re going to Mars on a three-year mission, astronauts will have to be able to provide sophisticated care in space. This leads to decisions about how to train the crew and equip the craft—with a surgical theater? An X-ray or ultrasound? What about psychiatric problems, dental, optical, and urological or gynecology needs?”

At this point on the Mars mission, Wolpe says, they are only asking questions. But he doesn’t deal only in abstracts—someday he will be called upon to provide thoughtful answers that will have a tangible impact. “My answers are not policy, they are advice,” he says. “Sometimes, though, they are translated into policy.”

As a regular columnist on biotechnology for the Philadelphia Inquirer and a frequent guest on shows including MSNBC, CBS and ABC Evening News, Dateline, and The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, Wolpe is a spirited conversationalist who can transcend academic jargon: Indeed, he once famously said, “Whoever comes out with the first memory pill is going to put the makers of Viagra to shame.”

Wolpe is asked to speak around the world about neuropsychiatry and neuropharmaceuticals, such as those that can enhance attention. “An inevitable part of this advancement in biotechnology is that we are going to concentrate on improving the functions we care about,” he says. “We’re not a hunter or agrarian society—we’re an intellectual, information society. We have strong values toward work and accomplishment, and we are all overscheduled, so the ability to enhance our functioning is very attractive. But this comes with significant ethical questions.”

And that, to an ethicist, sounds a lot like job security.

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Summer 2008

Of Note