Illustrative image for Remembering James F Drane

Bioethics Forum Essay

Remembering James F. Drane

James F. Drane, a member of the founding generation of bioethicists, passed away on April 17 in Edinboro, Pennsylvania at the age of 93. He was a prolific writer, internationally recognized scholar, and trusted friend.

We both had the opportunity to meet Drane–or, as he was known to us, Jim–early in our careers in bioethics. One of us (JJF) first met him at a Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) conference in 1993 in Washington, D.C., where a common affection for Spain prompted an immediate friendship. Decades later, writing about the Christian ethicist James M. Gustafson’s role in the founding of bioethics, the two of us reached out to Drane to conduct an interview about his time studying with Gustafson at Yale in the late 1960s.

Though these encounters were nearly three decades apart, we were met with the same warmth and openness which characterized Jim’s friendships. At the PAHO meeting when Jim learned of Fins’s Sephardic roots in pre-Inquisition Spain, Drane–the former priest–was tolerant, ecumenical, and curious about the history of the Fins family and its diaspora. Years later, when we asked about his relationship with Gustafson, Jim spoke warmly about close familial ties with his mentor’s family. Indeed, in response to our paper “Before the Birth of Bioethics: James M. Gustafson at Yale,” Erik Gustafson wrote to us, “Grandpa saw all his students as intellectual family, and Jim Drane in particular is still referred to as a member of the family today.”

Drane was born in 1930, the oldest of 10 children in Chester, Pa. After graduating from high school in 1947, he pursued training at Little Rock College and the Gregorian University in Rome. Soon afterward, in 1956, he was ordained into the Catholic priesthood, following which he served as a language and philosophy teacher at St. John’s Seminary in Little Rock, Arkansas. He then pursued further graduate study at Middlebury College and the Complutense University in Madrid where he received a master’s degree in Spanish and a doctor of philosophy in ethics.

It was upon his return home, while serving at a hospital, that Drane experienced the tension between theology and pastoral care. In an interview, Drane recounted counseling a young couple struggling with their marriage. They asked for birth control because they could not support more children. Invoking his recent seminary training, Drane responded that “the nature of the sex organs was procreation.”While the husband understood, his wife did not. Days later, Drane learned from a Catholic sister that the marriage had ended. Drane credits this with his “reflection and reconsideration of the church perspective of basing sexual morality” on procreation. When another couple’s marriage dissolved over contraception, Drane felt “shocked and hurt because of my own inadequacy, and I decided to take the thinking I had developed, to the newspapers.”

Taking his views public led to his expulsion from the priesthood and removal as a seminary instructor. He soon landed at Yale and was given refuge by Gustafson. Soon thereafter he accompanied Dan Callahan for part of his travels to research global abortion policies. Following his return, Callahan established The Hastings Center in 1969 with Willard Gaylin.

Jim was a globalist with a keen interest in the Spanish-speaking world. Drane’s collaboration with Spanish physician Pedro Laín Entralgo was instrumental to the publication of Becoming a Good Doctor: The Place of Virtue and Character in Medical Ethics, and his friendship with Diego Gracia and others, fostered Ibero-American conversation, enriching the field. In 1990, while on sabbatical, Drane served as the first bioethicist at PAHO and helped to establish a Regional Bioethics Program based in Santiago, Chile, which would foster the field’s development throughout the Americas, translating a predominantly North American bioethics into a Latin American context.

Despite his peripatetic life in Latin America and Spain, Drane’s longtime academic home was at Edinboro University (now PennWest University). There he would teach generations of students and become a beloved member of the community. The University would honor Jim with the establishment of  the James F. Drane Bioethics Institute and an annual lecture, the last of which one of us was honored to give in Edinboro just three days before his death.

His influence is felt beyond Western Pennsylvania in the world of clinical ethics, where his reflections on a sliding scale of competence is regarded as a classic formulation. His work in virtue ethics informs professional formation and his articulation of a liberal Catholic bioethics is a touchstone for progressives who remain faithful in the Church.

Beyond these biographical particulars lay Drane’s immeasurable impact on his colleagues, students, and friends. He fostered ecumenical thinking and practice beyond the classroom and the bedside. His doctorate dissertation, entitled “The Foundations of Tolerance,” served as a touchstone for his consistent dedication to inclusivity. It is for this receptivity to the other, and his warmth, that he will be long remembered.

Notes received from colleagues in Spain speak to his enduring impact and the depth of the loss. Diego Gracia, the father of Spanish bioethics wrote that “Jim was like a brother to me.” If Jim was like a brother to Diego, he was like an American uncle to the entire Spanish bioethics community, which has honored him with the annual James F. Drane Lecture at the Complutense University in Madrid.  Lydia Feito, a professor at the Complutense, wrote to one of us that we have been left “orphans” with the progressive loss of the founding generation.

Drane was one of the remaining founders of our field. As we move toward the sixth decade of bioethics it is important that we understand our origins and engage in historical scholarship. We must remember the mentorship of those who came before us and emulate their generosity as we train the next generation.

Joseph J. Fins, M.D., D. Hum. Litt. (hc), M.A.C.P., F.R.C.P., is the E. William Davis Jr. M.D. Professor of Medical Ethics, a professor of medicine and chief of the division of medical ethics at Weill Cornell Medical College; Solomon Center Distinguished Scholar in Medicine, Bioethics and the Law and a Visiting Professor of Law at Yale Law School; and a member of the adjunct faculty at the Rockefeller University. He is a Hastings Center fellow and chair-elect of the Center’s board of trustees.

Kaiulani S. Shulman, B.A., recently graduated from Yale College with distinction in religious studies. She is a research assistant in the Division of Medical Ethics at Weill Cornell Medical College.

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  1. I has been lucky to know Jim Drane, in 1991, and we became friends, as brothers, with many opportunities to meet, to share rich discussions, to talk about the birth of bioethics and the future of it. I appreciated a lot his intelligence, knowledge, faith, passion, goodness, sensibility. He visited me in Italy, in Rome and we spent time to visit places of his studies many years ago; and visit the Pontifical Academy for Life. He visited and gave lectures at the Fondazione Lanza in Padua. I spent beautiful times and fruitful work at Edinboro University in Drane Bioethics Institute.
    I have a lot of memories of our friendship and cooperation in the field of bioethics, with a great gratitude for his help to me and many, his contribution in bioethics and clinical ethics, his hospitality. Thanks Jim, rest in peace in our Lord Jesus, who have served in all your life, sometimes with troubled and suffering.

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