Tom L. Beauchamp, PhD

Tom L. Beauchamp, PhD

Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Georgetown University

Tom L. Beauchamp, PhD, is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Georgetown University and Senior Research Scholar Emeritus at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown. Professor Beauchamp’s areas of expertise include foundational approaches to bioethics, ethics of human subjects research, ethics of the use of animals, informed consent, and business ethics.

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On Day 1, Prof. Beauchamp spends significant time speaking about his family’s longtime presence in the South and growing up in a working class, predominantly White neighborhood in Dallas, Texas. Prof. Beauchamp names the Little Rock, Arkansas school segregation crisis as a turning point for his burgeoning commitment to civil rights issues, and ultimately bioethics. Prof. Beauchamp narrates his academic trajectory, starting with Southern Methodist University (SMU) where he participated in sit-ins to confront racial segregation and studied under influential philosophical theology professors. He then attended a graduate program in religious studies and philosophy at Yale University. He earned his philosophy doctorate at Johns Hopkins University and went on to a teaching career at Georgetown University. 

Prof. Beauchamp describes his recruitment to the newly-established Kennedy Institute of Ethics by physician-bioethicist André Hellegers. He explains that conversations around paternalism in medicine, genetics, informed consent, and abortion were at the heart of the Institute’s founding. He shares the similarities and differences between the Kennedy Institute and The Hastings Center, which formed within a few years of each other. Prof. Beauchamp recounts an invitation from philosopher Stephen Toulmin to write about justice for the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research (National Commission), and later being recruited to join the staff of the Commission. 

On Day 2 of the interview, Prof. Beauchamp describes his friendship with André Hellegers and their frequent lunches, which eventually resulted in Beauchamp’s appointment at the Kennedy Institute. He describes his job as “staff philosopher” to the National Commission and working on the Commission’s Belmont Report, which specified ethical principles for responsible conduction of research on human subjects. He speaks to the global reception of the Belmont Report. While working on the Belmont Report, Prof. Beauchamp worked on the Principles of Biomedical Ethics with co-author James Childress. Prof. Beauchamp describes how the two texts and writing processes informed each other. He talks about meeting Ruth Faden, his collaborator and wife, at Georgetown and spending four years co-writing a book about informed consent with her. 

Prof. Beauchamp speaks about the role of advocacy and activism within bioethics. He reflects on his private consulting work for Eli and Lilly Company, a pharmaceutical company, and the importance of industry having input from bioethics experts. He speaks to the expansion of bioethics by the late 70s, including voices from the public health domain. Prof. Beauchamp talks about his interest in, and his edited book about, animal ethics. Prof. Beauchamp describes his extensive writing on the philosopher David Hume and describes his current project: a biography about Ruth Faden. 

On Day 3, Prof. Beauchamp speaks more about his work on the Belmont Report and collaboration with James Childress. He describes how criticisms of Principles of Biomedical Ethics, including feedback from philosophers such as Dan Clouser and Bernard Gert, improved the theoretical scope of future editions. He reflects on converting to Judaism after marrying Ruth Faden. Prof. Beauchamp speaks about bioethics emerging nationally, noting the work done by Dan Clouser at Hershey and Ruth Macklin at Case Western Reserve University. He narrates his participation in early conversations about the founding of the American Society of Bioethics and Humanities and talks about the Haverford conference initiated by Sam Gorovitz in the mid-70s. 

This interview may be of interest to those wishing to learn more about: bioethics as it relates to philosophy and theology; the founding of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics and other bioethics origin stories from the early 1970s; Southern Methodist University (SMU), Yale University, and Johns Hopkins University; the South and political formation; business ethics; the history of the National Commission and the Belmont Report; the creation of the principle-based approach to biomedical ethics; informed consent; and the work and life of André Hellegers. 

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

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