Ruth R. Faden, PhD, MPH

Ruth R. Faden, PhD, MPH

Philip Franklin Wagley Professor of Biomedical Ethics,
Johns Hopkins University

Ruth R. Faden, PhD, MPH, is the Philip Franklin Wagley Professor of Biomedical Ethics at Johns Hopkins University and was the founder of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, serving as its director from 1995 until 2016. Professor Faden’s areas of expertise include ethics and public health, social justice, reproductive rights, women’s health, the rights of pregnant people, and informed consent.

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On Day 1, Prof. Faden recounts growing up in an insular Jewish community in Northeast Philadelphia and hearing family stories about surviving the Holocaust. Prof. Faden tells the story of her family’s trip to Texas for corrective back surgery and the impact of seeing racial segregation there that she had not seen in Philadelphia. While Prof. Faden describes herself as a poor student in high school, she was the first in her family to graduate from high school (at the age of 16) and to pursue higher education. She describes transferring from Temple University to the University of Pennsylvania to complete her undergraduate education. She outlines her subsequent educational path: earning a master’s degree in the General Studies in Humanities program at the University of Chicago and a Master of Public Health and PhD in attitudes and behavior at the University of California, Berkeley.

Prof. Faden describes her consistent engagement with reproductive justice work and volunteering with law firms in the Bay Area around issues of forced sterilization for migrant women. She highlights her drive to understand consent as it relates to the law and to ethics. Prof. Faden speaks to the significance of The Hastings Center and the Kennedy Institute of Ethics. She reflects on her mentors––David Louisell at University of California Berkeley School of Law, Albert Jonsen at the University of California, San Francisco, Jay Katz at Yale Law School––and attributes their generosity to her involvement in the emerging field of bioethics. Prof. Faden describes her first teaching appointment in the School of Hygiene and Public Health (now Bloomberg School of Public Health) at Johns Hopkins and her introduction to André Hellegers at Georgetown University, who ultimately gave her the institutional support to do work on bioethics at Georgetown’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics.

On Day 2, Prof. Faden spends significant time describing her work on a book about informed consent with her collaborator and husband, Tom Beauchamp. She argues that rigorous consent practices are not sufficient if they don’t account for structural contexts, sharing as an example the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor Black woman whose cancerous cervical cells were used in scientific study for years without her or her family’s knowledge. Prof. Faden talks about her work on ethics and social justice within health, co-authoring two books with philosopher-lawyer Madison Powers and her commitment to making the world a little less unjust. Prof. Faden describes her early work related to pregnant women and HIV, exploring questions around policy-making within unjust background conditions.

Prof. Faden describes her recruitment to be chair of the White House Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments (ACHRE) in the Clinton Administration in 1994, noting a profound alignment of her parents’ history as Holocaust survivors and her professional life, as she led an effort to understand the history of radiation experiments performed on humans by the US government during the Cold War, and to make recommendations to ensure that the unethical research uncovered would never happen again. Prof. Faden speaks to the work and successes of ACHRE. After ACHRE, Prof. Faden was invited to found a bioethics program at Johns Hopkins, which ultimately became the Berman Institute of Bioethics. Prof. Faden describes the process of shaping the Institute around her core wishes for the Institute’s success and longevity. She tells the story of Phoebe Berman–a major donor, friend, and the Institute’s namesake–and speaks about other close relationships with board members and trustees.

This interview may be of interest to those seeking to learn more about: the field of bioethics and history of bioethics in the US, reproductive rights and gender justice, social justice and health, ethics and public health, informed consent, the Holocaust and experiences of survivors and children of survivors, national commissions and advisory committees, experiences of founding bioethics programs, and the Berman Institute of Bioethics.

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

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