Vardit Ravitsky, right

Hastings Center News

Q & A with Vardit Ravitsky

Welcome to The Hastings Center! You join the Center from the University of Montreal, where you were a professor in the bioethics program in the School of Public Health. You’re also a senior lecturer on global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School. What do you want people to know about you that they can’t find out by reading your bio?

I’m thrilled to be here! Could not have hoped for a warmer welcome.

I’d like people to know how passionate I am about bioethics. I genuinely believe bioethics can improve people’s lives and make systems and policies more sensitive and just. Bioethics has developed expertise and some powerful platforms that can now be used to do greater things, at the collective and global levels. So, I feel the best of the field is yet to come. I guess what cannot be communicated through my bio is how unjaded I am, how authentically excited I am about the work ahead.

What drew you to The Hastings Center?

I have been following and admiring the work of the Center for decades. Many years ago, as a PhD student, I used to get the Hastings Center Report in the mail and eagerly tear the envelope to read it from cover to cover. I was in Israel at the time, far from the center of bioethics activity, and the Report was a way to connect with what was current in bioethics scholarship. I also read the books and reports that the Center published. These sources offered exceptional insights and informed every aspect of my work. To me, in addition to being the first independent bioethics research institute, The Hastings Center has been one of the most influential.

As someone who sees bioethical issues through a cultural and a global lens, I have been impressed by how the Center’s publications and other work have framed those issues. It has always been ahead of the curve. When most bioethics scholarship was focused on how biomedical developments impact individuals, the Center saw the collective contexts in which individuals are embedded. The focus on identifying underlying values, how they shape our thinking, and what happens when they conflict, really resonates with my own sensitivity to the importance of negotiating diverse views.

I dreamed of visiting the Center and meeting some of the scholars who have influenced my thinking. Now this dream has come true, and I get to work closely with this amazing team. I’m beyond honored.

What drew you to bioethics?

Growing up in an Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem, in a family of philosophers, I always intuitively looked for the values that inform how we approach dilemmas. I was drawn to the notion of identity. What makes us who we are? How do our upbringing and culture shape our worldview? What communal pressures operate on us, and in what ways do we push back as individuals? What strength do we gain from our sense of belonging? And, for me personally, how do I engage as a woman with a culture that I respect, but that sometimes does not give women an equal place?

My family often debated conceptual issues. References to Plato, Aristotle, Maimonides, or Spinoza were common at the Shabbat dinner table. I was naturally drawn to philosophy, but I chose to study in France because I wanted to be exposed to other cultural framings. During my undergraduate education, I realized that while I indeed see the world through the lens of philosophical analysis, I also want to work on issues that make a difference in people’s lives. Ethics and philosophy of science were my favorite areas, and I wondered how to combine all these interests and aspirations.

Then something happened in my personal life. As a young student, at a time that IVF was becoming established, a friend who was undergoing fertility treatment asked me if I would donate an egg. While I desperately wanted to help, I found myself coping with some heavy-duty conceptual and emotional issues. Would a resulting child be “mine”? And if so, in what way? What would be the impact on such a child? What is the meaning of genetic relatedness? Should it play a role in how we construct families? Should we resist cultural forces that tell us genetic relatedness is of paramount importance? To what extent are my feelings about this truly my own? How are they shaped by societal norms? And how are these norms shifting, now that reproductive technology is changing how we have children? Who can help me think through these issues? Where can I find guidance and clarity?

I started reading what I later realized was bioethics literature. And I was hooked. The issues at the intersection of science, biotechnology, values, culture, and identity seemed to be the most urgent and fascinating ones. While my scope of work has since broadened, decades later I’m still fascinated by the intersection of genetics and reproduction. I have written dozens of papers that would have helped the 20-year-old me make sense of her struggle, and I hope they have helped others. Bioethics is mind-blowing because it leaps into the messiest parts of human existence and tries to offer clarity. It is a brave and pertinent field. And I truly believe it makes many lives better.       

You’ve been prominent in the public square—writing, speaking, being interviewed by journalists, posting on social media. Communicating with the public has always been key to The Hastings Center. Why is this important to bioethics in general and The Hastings Center in particular?

Because bioethics is all about making a difference, it is always critical that we translate our scholarship to the world outside the proverbial ivory tower and that we have impact. Impact can mean many things, from informing the public to assisting in the development of policies. But I think that right now the public square is of paramount importance because in a sense it is collapsing.

First, the epidemic of misinformation is only getting worse, with powerful AI-based tools generating new threats on a larger scale. Consequently, the crisis of mistrust in science is deepening. The pandemic showed us that misinformation is not just a theoretical issue; it actually kills. The rejection of public health measures or vaccination recommendations, for example, costs lives. So, communicating effectively and engaging with the public is an urgent matter. It is not enough to communicate scientific facts when people reject the premises of the scientific method or cannot assess the sources of the information that is flooding their screens. Bioethics has a critical role to play now because we need to engage with the values and worldviews that motivate people’s behavior and choices.

Second, the public square has become so polarized that we are losing the capacity to listen to one another. Bioethics needs to be there because it knows how to invite people to respectfully engage with others. It can help rebuild trust by making values-based thinking clearer and more accessible.

The Hastings Center has done a tremendous job of public communication in the past and is well-positioned to face these challenges going forward. Being an independent, nonpartisan, trusted and respected organization that has done decades of influential work allows it to have a unique and effective voice in the public sphere. And it will continue to take on this responsibility and invest substantial resources in building this capacity.

Your public square is a global one. Can you say a bit about that and why a global view is so important?

I think bioethics must urgently pay more attention to global issues, especially global justice and the devastating role health disparities play. We have much work to do on global equity, solidarity, and what we owe one another as human beings. The pandemic showed us that viruses do not recognize national borders and that, as the mantra goes, “no one is safe until everyone is safe.” But when it came to vaccine distribution, for example, “vaccine nationalism” often won. Other challenges that are coming our way, such as those stemming from global warming or the integration of AI into every aspect of our lives, give additional meanings to the notion of an interconnected world. Bioethics has urgent work to do both in identifying the issues and in addressing them.

I have lived and worked in several countries. I was also recently the president of the International Association of Bioethics. These experiences taught me how deeply cultural factors shape the way we see bioethical issues. If we want bioethics to make the world, not just our backyard, a better place, we must understand what matters to people in different contexts. A global perspective means taking diversity seriously. I think we should promote bioethics exchanges across cultural, religious, and political frameworks that hold deeply diverse values and commitments. It is not an easy task, but we must explore ways to promote epistemic justice and be authentically inclusive.

What do you see as the most urgent bioethics-related issues today?

There is an urgent need to tackle challenges at the collective level. This means not just attending to public health ethics and pandemic-preparedness, but also expanding our view towards communitarian and global perspectives, and social determinants of health. And we must include the vision of One Health, which sees human health as closely connected to our shared environment. I think it is urgent to reconnect with the view enunciated by Van Rensselaer Potter some 50 years ago, who coined the term bioethics and saw it as exploring our place in the ecosystem and our responsibilities for each other, but also for the world we live in.

We should continue the decades-long important work at the individual level, at the bedside, in protecting research participants, and many other traditional bioethics issues. But many of the emerging issues we will be facing in the coming years and decades have to do with our environment: our physical environment, such as the climate crisis; our social environment, such as the increasing threats to democracy or the ethical challenges of international migration; and our digital environment, such as the impact of AI on health care. So, I think bioethics needs to continue to evolve beyond the protection of individuals within systems and pay much more attention to the systemic forces that shape our lives.

What are your first priorities as president of The Hastings Center?

The Center has been in wonderful hands and has done tremendous work. In recent years, the pandemic, as well as the reckoning with entrenched racism, raised enormous challenges for bioethics, that the Center engaged with effectively. Under the leadership of Millie Solomon and with an exceptional group of influential scholars and staff, the Center published timely scholarship and produced prominent public events. My first priority is to continue seamlessly this excellent work.

We also need to develop a strategic plan for the next five years to identify the themes we want to focus on and the tools we wish to develop. My plan is to use this opportunity to engage the bioethics community in a conversation about what we, as a field, see as our most urgent commitments to society. With the help of our supporters, Board, fellows, Advisory Council , bioethics program leaders, and influential professional bodies such as ASBH  and the International Association of Bioethics, I will make this consultation open, transparent, and inclusive. So, I plan to be in listening mode and learn from everyone.

Bioethics issues are inherently weighty—life and death, genetics, AI. What do you do for fun?

As a mom of four wonderful kids and one dog, my greatest joy is spending time with them, and with my Irish (Dublin born and raised) husband, who is, as they say there, “good craic.” I’m lucky to have a large extended family with whom I’m tremendously close, so spending time with them is a delight. I enjoy traveling, even when it is for work. And as a high-energy person I also really like kickboxing. My vice is eating chocolate late at night while reading my old cookbooks.

I also love being near and on water–whether I’m paddleboarding or watching the sunset, this cleanses the soul. From now on, I will have fun many evenings watching the sun set over the Hudson River from the back porch of The Hastings Center!

Photo: Vardit Ravitsky, above left