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Art Caplan

For the past two decades or so, Art Caplan has been the go-to person in all questions of bioethics: stem cell research, organ transplantation and trafficking, gene therapy, living wills... you name it. He's become known to many in TV and cable news programs for his straightforward approach to complicated issues. Caplan has authored and edited more than 29 books and heads the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics. But in this essay, Caplan traces his passion for science and inquiry, and his sense of compassion and justice, to a childhood misfortune.





This is why I believe what I believe.


It started in a hospital a while back.


The nurse had my bath ready to go. One of the treatments that I had gotten used to at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston was heat therapy. Hot baths, hot towels, hot massage - heat was the key weapon the doctors and nurses deployed against the polio virus that had left the muscles in my neck and legs paralyzed.


But, on this winter day in 1957 something was about to change. The nurse put me in the tub. She turned away. I jumped out and for a reason that only a 7 year old would real understand, took off out of the bathroom and ran down the hall. I might have run right out the door of the hospital, were it not for the fact that I was completely naked, dripping wet and it was snowing outside.


I remember very well when my parents first suspected I had polio. I was in their bedroom, probably on a Sunday morning, goofing around with them and my sister when my mother asked me if I could lift my legs any higher. I could not. A few days later, a spinal tap and a bunch of physical exams later I was in a room at the MGH on the polio ward where I would stay for six months until, for a reason no one understood, the polio was beaten back by my body’s immune system.


In the hospital there were plenty of injustices. I remember being angry that my parents could not stay over or even visit for very long. And I remember being puzzled why it was that the doctors would not tell us the truth about the kids who died. Every kid on the floor knew that the kids in the iron lungs were likely to die. But, that fact was never acknowledged even when someone died during the night. At the age of seven I was sure that this was not the right way to deal with seriously ill patients.


My experience with polio is one of the reasons I do medical ethics today. It is also the basis of two beliefs that I hold very dear.


One is respect for science. I believe that scientific progress is the key to a better life for Americans and every inhabitant of the Earth. Science ended the threat from the virus that had left me paralyzed as a kid and killed many other children.


This love of science may seem odd since I spend a lot of my time as a professor of medical ethics complaining, yelling, excoriating and otherwise bemoaning problems in medicine and science. But, there is no one more committed to the value of science than I am.


My other core belief is public service. I believe that the greatest good one can do and should do is to try and improve the lot of others. There are times when money, fame, indifference, or narrow mindedness divert science from its core mission—to gain knowledge to put in the service of mankind.


That is where ethics and science come together for me - trying to insure that scientific knowledge is used first and foremost to improve the human condition.


That is what I believe.