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Hastings Center News

John Robertson Remembered

The Hastings Center is saddened by the death of John Robertson, a Hastings Center Fellow, on July 5. Robertson, 74, was the Vinson & Elkins Chair at the University of Texas School of Law at Austin.

A pioneer in the study of medical ethics and law, Robertson received a lifetime achievement award from the American Society for Law, Medicine and Ethics in 2010.

A significant focus of his work was on ethical and legal questions raised by human reproductive technologies. He is the author of two leading books, The Rights of the Critically Ill and Children of Choice: Freedom and the New Reproductive Technologies. Beginning in the 1980s, Robertson published a series of influential writings on the concept of procreative liberty, which he described as both “the freedom to decide whether or not to reproduce and the freedom to reproduce when, with whom, and by what means one chooses.” He employed this concept in arguments against a range of limits on the use of reproductive technologies, such as actual and proposed laws and policies against gamete and embryo donation, surrogacy, and the use of reproductive technologies by single women, lesbians, and gay men.

“John Robertson’s concept of procreative liberty has had an enormous and enduring impact on scholarship, policy, and practice,” says Josephine Johnston, director of research at The Hastings Center. “He shaped the American approach to reproductive technologies, and I am sure his work will continue to guide the field for decades to come.”

Writing in the Hastings Center Report in 2009 about “octomom,” a woman whose doctor had transferred six embryos into her uterus, resulting in the birth of octuplets and generating a lot of public debate, Robertson argued against stricter regulation of reproductive medicine to prevent multiple births. “While India and China have had social policies against large families, we in the United States do not,” he wrote. “I suspect that the courts would look with deep constitutional suspicion on laws that limit the number of children one may have.”

Rebecca Dresser, a Hastings Center Fellow, worked with Robertson on a project and book concerning cancer and bioethics. “He contributed two vivid and powerful chapters to our book, Malignant: Medical Ethicists Confront Cancer,” she says. “John was a loving partner and caregiver as his wife Carlota coped with terminal cancer.  I can only hope that this experience helped him during his own illness.”