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High School Bioethics Project: Is Better Always Good?
What would you do if your friend took a drug to improve her odds of getting an A in a difficult class? What ethical dilemmas do parents face when using preimplantation genetic diagnosis to select for “favorable” characteristics in their children? These are just two of the controversial questions explored by students, teachers, and parents in a public bioethics symposium held on February 14 at the Kent Place School in New Jersey.

The symposium is the culmination of the first year of a pioneering new research program for high school students. The program was developed by The Hastings Center and the Ethics Institute at Kent Place School. For the past eight months, 12 students from Kent Place, an independent school, have worked with Hastings Center scholars to do in-depth research on ethical issues raised by the use of medicine to enhance human bodies and performance. Examples of their research topics include cognitive enhancement and sport doping, the prospects of creating “designer babies” through assisted reproduction technology, and efforts to extend the human lifespan. At the symposium, the students presented the results of their work and lead workshops on specific cases of medical enhancement.

“It’s easy for us to adopt black-and-white positions on difficult ethical questions,” says Josephine Johnston, a Hastings Center research scholar and co-leader of the project. “Watching the students grapple with difficult questions requiring nuanced responses is a moving experience.” Johnston led the project with Jacob Moses, the new media director at The Hastings Center; Karen Rezach, director of the Ethics Institute; and Kimberly Coelho, the Ethics Institute’s program coordinator.

 “In addition to all that they have learned about the complex and sometimes heated debates surrounding the use of medical technologies to enhance humans, the students now have a process for dissecting and investigating other similarly complex and difficult debates. Today’s symposium is evidence that they are now able to lead this kind of investigation in their own school community.”

More information can be found on the Bioethics Project website.  

“Today’s students need to be equipped to make decisions about their own lives – whether to take a genetic test, whether to use cognitive-enhancing drugs,” says Mildred Z. Solomon, president of The Hastings Center. “They will also need to participate in the many public policy debates that our society faces. Our collaboration with the Ethics Institute is an opportunity for us to engage directly with high school students to explore these kinds of issues together, face to face, scholar to scholar – and through today’s event, student to community.”