Arthur L. Caplan, PhD

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD

Drs. William and Virginia Connolly Mitty Professor of Bioethics, NYU Grossman School of Medicine 

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD, is currently the Drs. William F. and Virginia Connolly Mitty Professor and founding head of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University (NYU) Grossman School of Medicine in New York City. He was previously director of the bioethics programs at the University of Minnesota and the University of Pennsylvania. Professor Caplan’s areas of expertise include ethics of research, organ donation and transplant, reproductive technologies, genetics, health policy, and a wide range of other bioethics topics. 

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On Day 1 of the interview, Prof. Caplan spends time discussing growing up in a culturally Jewish household in Framingham, Massachusetts, his path to pre-med studies at Brandeis University, and his year at Columbia University Medical School before he pivoted to the doctorate program in philosophy at Columbia with a focus on sociobiology. Prof. Caplan discusses a significant childhood experience of partial paralysis from polio at age seven, painting this as his first personal interaction with the healthcare system and rehabilitation process. He provides an overview of landmark bioethics cases over time (Karen Ann Quinlan, Terri Schiavo, Jack Kevorkian, Baby Fae, and Baby M). Prof. Caplan tells the story of a patient (“Sal”) who underwent life saving surgery after a motorcycle accident in order to highlight the importance and challenges of considering quality of life when making life and death decisions in the clinical setting.

Prof. Caplan also explains how bioethics became both a term and a field in the mid-to-late 70s, his role in bringing bioethics to the public sphere, and the ways that the media has impacted bioethics, legislation, and public policy. He describes his culturally Jewish upbringing and how discussions about the Torah taught him that Judaism could accept argument and interpretation, qualities he has brought to his work in philosophy and bioethics. He tells the story of “required request” for organ donation in the 80s and his work with then US Congressman Al Gore on the crafting and eventual passage of the National Organ Transplant Act that established policies for organ donation and transplant, including creation of the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS). Prof. Caplan offers some history of The Hastings Center and reflects on issues of consent, including the difficulty of parents providing consent for their children. Caplan also shares his perspective on being at the University of Pennsylvania during the Jesse Gelsinger case and later involvement in the Gelsinger lawsuit. 

On Day 2, Prof. Caplan goes into greater depth about his childhood, relationship to his parents, and his hospitalization with polio. Prof. Caplan elaborates more on The Hastings Center’s history–its founders, key figures, and working group model–and how he segued into working there after completing his PhD. Prof. Caplan provides an overview of his areas of interest–including gene therapy, evolution, vaccines, philosophy of medicine, transplant, organ donation, reproductive technologies–and reflects on his role as a public figure in bioethics. He notes his ability to translate more scientific or philosophical language for broader audiences. 

Prof. Caplan reflects on bioethics’ future and his concern that bioethics will lose the philosophical and argumentative elements from its early days. Prof. Caplan reviews the progress he has witnessed in the bioethics field, naming improvements in patient care, human subjects research, and organ donation. With a forward-looking lens, he talks about how bioethics should begin to work more with the pharmaceutical industry–arguing that the pandemic has made that clear–and explore ethics related to climate change. 

This interview may be of interest to those wishing to learn more about: the formation of the field of bioethics; early history of The Hastings Center; genetics, gene therapy, biomedical technology, sociobiology, organ donation, and consent; bioethics and the media; personal medical experiences of bioethicists, specifically surviving polio; bioethics and the Covid-19 pandemic; cultural Jewish family life in Massachusetts in the 1950s and 1960s; and regional histories of bioethics (East Coast and Midwest). 

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

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