Fall 2009                                                                                            

Andrea Bonnicksen, Zulauf 401, 753-7059, albcorn@niu.edu

Office hours: T 1:00 – 1:50;  T 3:30 – 4:30; Th 3:30 – 4:30



Stem cell research, inheritable genetic alterations, synthetic biology, organ transplantation . . . these are only some of the areas of ongoing attention in life sciences research that have attracted public interest and attention for their societal, ethical, and policy implications. In this class we will aim to think critically about the impact of selected areas of biomedical research on contemporary society. We will pay particular attention to the ethical issues, political dynamics, and policy options associated with these areas of research. 



Green, Ronald M. Babies by Design: The Ethics of Genetic Choice. New Haven CT:

            Yale University Press, 2007.

Scott, Christopher Thomas. Stem Cell Now: From the Experiment That Shook the World

            to the New Politics of Life. New York: Pi Press, 2006.

Items posted on electronic reserve are also required reading, and they are indicated below as ER. They are available through the eReserves link on NIU Blackboard.



What are the ideological underpinnings of both those who embrace and those who are skeptical of new biotechnologies? The first two readings below illustrate positions on the wisdom of elective improvements in the human body through biotechnology. The third illustrates these conflicting values with reference to cognitive enhancing drugs.


Bailey, Ronald. Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech

            Revolution. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2005, pp. 15-23. ER

President’s Council on Bioethics. Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of

            Happiness. New York: ReganBooks, 2003, pp. 1-14. ER

Greely, Henry, and Sahakian, Barbara. “Towards Responsible Use of Cognitive-

            Enhancing Drugs by the Healthy.” Nature 456:702-05 (December 11, 2008). ER



Various frameworks and principles are used to analyze ethical issues in biomedicine. These readings cover the principles of autonomy, beneficence, and justice; they also cover utilitarian and deontological approaches to bioethics. These distinctions are useful in deciding the best course of action when differing options have merits.


Levine, Carol. “Medicine and Moral Arguments.” In Carol Levine, ed., Taking Sides:

            Clashing Views on Bioethical Issues. NY: McGraw Hill, 2008, pp. xvii-xxvii. ER

Veatch, Robert M. Case Studies in Biomedical Ethics. New York: Oxford University

            Press, 2010, pp. 23-32. ER


SEPTEMBER 1, 3, 8, 10      STEM CELL RESEARCH              

Stem cell research is arguably the most closely watched and debated research issue of  the past three decades. Christopher Thomas Scott’s book sets out a background from which to evaluate the implications of stem cell research. The author introduces the science of stem cell research, with particular attention to embryonic stem (ES) cell studies, and then follows with a discussion of ethical and political issues. We will add to this an update on the 2009 guidelines for ES cell research funding. A good place to browse for information about stem cell research is http://stemcells.nih.gov/index.asp.


Scott, Christopher Thomas. Stem Cell Now: From the Experiment That Shook the World

to the New Politics of Life. New York: Pi Press, 2006.

Chapter 1: Experiment that Shook the World

Chapter 2: The Cell

Chapter 3: How We Get to How We Are

Chapter 4: Brief History of Embryonic Stem Cells

Chapter 5: Hunting Adult Stem Cells (skim)

Chapter 6: Seven Questions (skim)

Chapter 7: Future of Medicine (skim)

Chapter 8: Great Moral Divide

Chapter 9: Consequences of Politics and Epilogue


Optional: “National Institutes of Health Guidelines on Human Stem Cell Research”




The still-hypothetical prospect of deliberately introducing inheritable genetic changes in humans has long provoked concern. Nevertheless, an increasing number of scholars and commentators regard inheritable genetic modifications as plausible and perhaps even desirable. In his book, Ronald Green challenges assumptions that inheritable genetic modifications will necessarily have negative consequences.


Green, Ronald M. Babies by Design: The Ethics of Genetic Choice. New Haven CT:

            Yale University Press, 2007.

The idea of genetic enhancement: pp. 1-32

Possible techniques: pp. 33-52

Drawing lines: pp. 53-80

Risks: pp. 81-106

Parents and procreation: pp.107-34

Genetics and power: pp. 135-70

Tampering with nature: pp. 171-96

Guidelines: pp. 197-230



Genetic information is increasingly used to diagnose and treat medical conditions, as in using tests to determine whether individuals have genes associated with a particular disease or disorder. While these discoveries hold great promise, they also pose risks if their reliability is oversold in the marketplace. In the articles below, the authors discuss issues associated with direct-to-consumer marketing of tests to detect the BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 genes associated with breast cancer.


Matloff, Ellen, and Arthur Caplan. “Direct to Confusion: Lessons Learned from

            Marketing BRCA Testing.” American Journal of Bioethics 8(6):5-8 (June 2008).


Wasson, Katherine. “Consumer Alert: Ethical Issues Raised By the Sale of Genetic Tests

Directly to Consumers.” American Journal of Bioethics 8(6):16-18 (June 2008). ER





If a premise in biomedical investigations is sound, research moves from exploratory studies using cellular, computer, and animal models to clinical studies involving human participants. After various unethical research studies were conducted in the U.S. in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, the U.S. government enacted detailed regulations to protect the rights and interests of participants. The authors below review the history of these regulations and present cases for discussion about ethics. www.clinicaltrials.gov will give an idea of the large number of publicly funded medical research trials ongoing in the U.S.


Veatch, Robert M. Case Studies in Biomedical Ethics. New York: Oxford University

            Press, 2010, pp. 340-65. ER

Murphy, Timothy. Case Studies in Biomedical Research Ethics, pp. 13-19, 21-22, 25, 67-

            68, 69-70. ER


OCTOBER 22, 27                 SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY

The emerging area of synthetic biology does more than adjust existing life forms; it aims to create new life forms that have not existed previously. Some commentators regard this as a variation of existing technologies; others regard it as qualitatively new. Either way, the ethical and policy implications of synthetic biology are of interest to those who follow new technologies.


Parens, Erik et al. “Ethical Issues in Synthetic Biology.” Woodrow Wilson International

            Center for Scholars, 2009. Available at




Despite efforts to reduce the number of animals used in research, new avenues of study have increased demands for research animals, such as the use of transgenic mice in research aimed at treating genetic diseases and conditions. What ethical issues are raised by animal research? Should additional protections be in place for research on primates? Below Rogers and Gisela examine criteria for distinguishing the moral status of different species. James Rachels considers some oddities of the Animal Welfare Act, which offers protection to guinea pigs and hamsters but not rats, mice, and birds.


Rogers, Lesley J., and Gisela Kaplan. “All Animals are Not Equal: The Interface between

            Scientific Knowledge and Legislation for Animal Rights.” In Cass R. Sunstein

            and Martha C. Nussbaum, eds. Animal Rights: Current Debates and New

            Directions. New York: Oxford, 2004, pp. 175-202. ER

Rachels, James. “Drawing Lines.” In Cass R. Sunstein  and Martha C. Nussbaum, eds.

            Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions. New York: Oxford, 2004,

            pp. 162-74. ER

“Genetically Engineered Animals.” One-page diagram. ER

“A Brief Guide to Model Organisms.” ER



The life sciences can be used in ways that harm rather than protect life. This section will review the use of biological organisms as potential or actual instruments of warfare. It will also point to instances in which biological agents have been used, ask how significant a risk bioweapons pose to international security, and pose questions about research ethics.


Guillemin, Jeanne. Biological Weapons. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004,

            pp. 1-20.  ER

Ryan, Jeffrey R., and Jan F. Glarum. Biosecurity and Bioterrorism. Amsterdam: Elsevier,

            2008, pp. 23-38, 299-314. ER



We will end the semester with a discussion of decisions to forgo life sustaining technologies. In these readings, David Eddy recounts his mother’s decision to control and circumstances of her death, and Timothy Quill describes a patient’s experience with physician assisted suicide. Physician-assisted suicide is often debated at the state level, with Oregon and Washington legalizing the practice.


Angell, Marcia. “The Supreme Court and Physician-Assisted Suicide—The Ultimate

            Right.” New England Journal of Medicine 336:50-53 (January 2, 1997). ER

Foley, Kathleen, “Competent Care for the Dying Instead of Physician-Assisted Suicide.”

            New England Journal of Medicine 336:54-58 (January 2, 1997). ER

Eddy, David M., “A Conversation with My Mother.” New England Journal of      Medicine 272(3):179-181. ER

Quill, Timothy E., “Death and Dignity: A Case of Individualized Decision Making.” New

            England Journal of Medicine 324(10):691-694 (March 7, 1991). ER


The class will be oriented around the readings, papers, two tests, and class discussion.  Whenever possible, video or other clips from the internet will be used to illustrate concepts; class members are also encouraged to bring materials found in their own searches to the attention of others in the class.  Writing will be an important part of the class, with three (3) short (2-3 page) papers and two exams. Topics will be provided for the papers. Study questions will be posted on Blackboard for each section; exams will be based on these questions.



Grades will be based on two exams worth 50 points each, 3 short papers worth 10 points each, and a participation/attendance score worth 20 points. The points and due dates are:


Paper 1                                    10 points                     September 17

Midterm exam                         50 points                     October 8 

Paper 2                                    10 points                     October 22

Paper 3                                    10 points                     November 19

Final exam                               50 points                     December 8

Attendance/participation        20 points


                                               150 points


135 - 150 = A; 120 – 134 = B; 105 - 119 = C; 90 – 104 = D; below l04 = F


Exams. -- The midterm exam is scheduled for October 8 and the final exam for December 8 at 2:00. Make-up exams will be given only for documented serious illness or a death in the family and only if you contact me AHEAD of the exam (753-7059 -- leave a message if necessary).


Papers. – These papers will allow you actively to think about questions posed in the readings and in class discussions. It will give practice in developing arguments, addressing counter-arguments, and clarifying your own positions on biomedical issues. One week ahead of the due date I will post on BlackBoard two paper topics, and you will select one to write on. You will then submit a typed paper of 2-3 double spaced typed (NOT double-double spaced) pages with normal one-inch margins. If there is a choice of questions to address, please let me know the topic at the top of the first page. Include relevant page number(s) from the readings in your paper where appropriate. You are welcome to customize your papers (e.g., use images) as long as you include at least 2 pages of text. If you use outside sources, give a full citation so I can look up the source if necessary. Some assignments will ask you to do your own web searching.


Each paper will be due in hard copy in class. If you cannot be in class that day, slide the paper under my door ahead of time in Zulauf 401. E-mailed entries will not be accepted. Late entries will not be accepted unless you have a serious and documented health problem and have contacted me ahead of time. Each paper will be graded on a 10 point scale. The following will count in assigning a paper grade: 

    • Thoughtful, serious, grounded, and critical papers
    • Link to readings and class discussions
    • Clear argumentation
    • Grammar and spelling, including complete sentences


SafeAssign. -- In addition to handing in a hard copy, you must post each paper on SafeAssign (available through BlackBoard).


Participation. – All class members are expected to read the material before it is covered in class and participate in discussions. To encourage careful reading and informed discussion, 20 points will be allocated as follows:

 18 – 20 points = regular, informed participation; 1 or 2 absences

 16 – 17 points = occasional and thoughtful participation; 3 or 4 absences

 14 – 15 points = occasional participation; 5 absences

 12 – 13 points = infrequent attendance (6 to 7 absences)

 10 – 11 points = rare attendance  (8 to 10 absences)

5            points = more than 10 absences

Attendance credit is given to those who remain the entire class session. Those who must leave a few minutes early should mention this to me before class begins. I appeal to the grace of individuals who are more talkative to raise their hands to be recognized before speaking so that all students may be given the opportunity to contribute. Occasionally students will be asked to break into groups to discuss an issue or give a presentation in class. Participation in these groups will count toward class participation.


Plagiarism. -- “The attempt of any student to present as his or her own work that which he or she has not produced is regarded by the faculty and administration as a serious offense. Students are considered to have cheated if they copy the work or another during an examination or turn in a paper or an assignment written, in whole or in part, by someone else. Students are guilty of plagiarism, intentional or not, if they copy material from books, magazine, or other sources or if they paraphrase ideas from such sources without acknowledging them. Students guilty of, or assisting others in, either cheating or plagiarism on an assignment, quiz, or examination may receive a grade of F for the course involved and may be suspended or dismissed from the university.” Northern Illinois University Undergraduate Catalog, Here are useful links: http://lrs.tvu.ac.uk/find/Plagiarism_tutorial/index.html



CAAR.-- NIU can make reasonable accommodations for students with documented disabilities. Students with disabilities for which they may need accommodations should contact the Center for Access-Ability Resources (CAAR) on the fourth floor of the Health Services Building during the first two weeks of the semester.