Alexander Capron, LLB

Alexander Capron, LLB

Scott H. Bice Chair Emeritus in Healthcare Law, Policy and Ethics
USC Gould School of Law 

Alexander Capron, LLB, is Professor Emeritus of Law and Medicine at University of Southern California (USC); Scott H. Bice Chair Emeritus in Healthcare, Law, Policy & Ethics; and Founding Co-Director of Pacific Center for Health Policy and Ethics at USC. Professor Capron’s areas of expertise include psychoanalysis, bioethics and the law, public health law, brain death, and definitions of death. 

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On Day 1, Prof. Capron speaks of his early life in California and describes his parents as early influences. Prof. Capron describes studying abroad in Germany as a high school senior in 1961, where he found parallels between his German peers’ reticence to discuss World War II in school and the lack of concern for racial segregation among his fellow high school students in his hometown of Palo Alto, CA. He describes his involvement in the civil rights movement while enrolled at Swarthmore College, and, later, at Yale Law School. Prof. Capron identifies fairness, justice, choice, and respect as throughlines that would connect his early interests in civil rights to his later work in psychoanalysis, law, and bioethics. He describes his time as a judicial clerk in 1969-70 for Chief Judge David Bazelon of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. 

 Prof. Capron discusses Jay Katz’s work and philosophy on experimentation on human beings, which emphasizes a systemic rather than individualized approach. Prof. Capron describes consent as a shared process, and bioethics as a necessarily interdisciplinary field where collaboration occurs to address real life problems. 

On Day 2, Prof. Capron traces his path to The Hastings Center as a founding Fellow in 1970. He contextualizes The Hastings Center’s orientation towards patient autonomy and anti-paternalism during its early years, noting the publication of the first article about the United States Public Health Service Syphilis Study (informally referred to as the Tuskegee experiments) in 1972, and the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research (known as the National Commission), formed in 1973. Prof. Capron talks about an influential 1972 article he published with Leon Kass that proposed a definition of the standards for determination of human death, that ultimately was incorporated into the 1981 model state statute known as the Uniform Death Determination Act. This brought public attention to the practical work coming out of The Hastings Center. Prof. Capron offers an expanded description and discussion of the criteria for so-called “brain death.” He tells a story about a research participant named “Mrs. Kim” from a USC’s Pacific Center for Health Policy and Ethics study about the sociological considerations of advance directives. Prof. Capron emphasizes the importance of a universal legal definition of death by telling the story of Jahi McMath, a child who was declared dead by neurological criteria in California in 2013 but who was transferred to New Jersey at her family’s wishes where she continued to receive care under that State’s different policy regarding the definition of death (circulatory-respiratory death). 

Prof. Capron discusses teaching at University of Pennsylvania Law School (Penn Law), University of Southern California Law School, and Georgetown University Law. He highlights one course he taught at Penn Law in the 1970s which brought an interdisciplinary group of students together to apply their respective disciplinary perspectives to bioethics issues. 

Prof. Capron recounts his role as Executive Director of the first presidential commission on bioethics, the President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and in Biomedical and Behavioral Research, from 1980-1983. He talks about the commission’s strategic approach, assembling its members, and the difference between recommendations and reports. He discusses his international bioethics work at the World Health Organization in Geneva in the early 2000s, when he focused on organ transplantation and research ethics. He discusses some of the concerns associated with gene therapy; his role as President of the World Congress of Bioethics in 1996 in San Francisco; and finally, how he plans to spend his recent retirement. 

This interview may be of interest to those wishing to learn more about the field of bioethics; early history of bioethics in the US; presidential bioethics commissions; international bioethics; student civil rights activism; bioethics, law, and psychology; the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC) and gene therapy; definitions of death; brain death; organ transplantation. 

You can find full audio, transcript, and other materials in the Moral Histories Archive 

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