LeRoy Walters, BD, MPhil, PhD

LeRoy Walters, BD, MPhil, PhD

Professor Emeritus of Philosophy,
Georgetown University

LeRoy Walters, BD, MPhil, PhD, is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Georgetown University and Senior Research Scholar Emeritus at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown. Professor Walters’ areas of expertise include the ethics of human genetics, including gene transfer research, human fetal and embryo research, and Holocaust studies.

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On Day 1, Prof. Walters describes his childhood in Pennsylvania, growing up in the Mennonite faith, and his first years as a student at Messiah College where he received a BA in 1962. He describes two years he spent in West Germany after college, during the Cold War and Vietnam War eras; one at the University of Heidelberg and one at the Free University of Berlin. He describes his transition to Yale University Graduate School, where he received his PhD in Religious Studies in 1971, and discusses his dissertation work on just war theory and the influence of James M. Gustafson.

Prof. Walters talks about his move to the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University in the early 1970s, where he began as a Senior Research Scholar in 1971. He narrates his early days there, during which he began to curate the Bibliography of Bioethics and Encyclopedia of Bioethics. He outlines the process of founding an information system for bioethics which would become the Bioethics Research Library, and mentions André Hellegers’ support in doing so. Prof. Walters discusses the interdisciplinary nature of bioethics with emphasis on theology’s role in the field. He narrates the origins of the Kennedy Institute’s long running intensive bioethics course for healthcare professionals.

Prof. Walters describes events of the day during the time of the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research (National Commission), a commission on which he served as a consultant on fetal research from 1974-75. He mentions the Roe v. Wade ruling, and discusses fetal research and the ethical dilemmas presented in a United States study that administered AZT (an early HIV therapy) to pregnant women in Thailand during the 1990s.

On Day 2, Prof. Walters defines bioethics, discusses benefits and limitations of the four principles of bioethics, and outlines “the matrix,” an ethics decision-making tool for thinking about the use of genetic technologies in humans. He charts his various roles over 39 years at the Kennedy Institute, including grant management, administrative work, and his time as Director of the Institute from 1996-2000. Prof. Walters talks about the death of his first wife, Jane M. Walters, in 1988, and the death of André Hellegers in 1979.

Prof. Walters discusses Charles “Charlie” McCarthy and McCarthy’s contributions to bioethics. He acknowledges the great influence of Hellegers’ role on the Kennedy Institute’s development of emerging new research and its eventual teaching institution. Prof. Walters talks about Tom Beauchamp’s arrival to the Kennedy Institute, which led to Prof. Walters’ and Beauchamp’s collaboration on their textbook Contemporary Issues in Bioethics.

Prof. Walters discusses fetal research, the National Commission, and in vitro fertilization (IVF). He speaks of his appointment to the NIH Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC) from 1976-1980, and the extensive research it required of him to serve alongside the committee members with advanced knowledge in science. He names some risks of gene editing and discusses his time on the RAC’s Human Gene Therapy Subcommittee. He recognizes the influence of terminology on the public’s perception of bioethical issues.

Prof. Walters concludes the interview by discussing cutting-edge genetic technologies such as CRISPR, the future of bioethics, and its interdisciplinary approach. He names his service on the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Bioethics Advisory Board as a great honor of his life, and offers his admiration for science and scientists, naming Eric Kandel in particular. He describes his daily life at the time of the interview in his retirement community.

This interview may be of interest to those who wish to learn more about: bioethics and the history of bioethics in the US; the founding and development of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics; the creation of encyclopedias, bibliographies, and information systems; fetal research; research and use of human genetic technologies; abortion; the National Commission; and the NIH Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee.

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

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