Eminent Ethicist Onora O’Neill Puts Public and Global Health on the Bioethics Agenda

Dr. Onora O'Neill, professor of philosophy at Cambridge University, was the second Leonard and Tobee Kaplan Scholar-in-Residence

May 8, 2008 — Eminent political philosopher and ethicist Dr. Onora O’Neill shone a spotlight on the ethics of public and global health when she spoke as the second Leonard and Tobee Kaplan Scholar-in-Residence of the Center for Ethics at Yeshiva University April 30. Traditionally a neglected area within the field of bioethics, public and global health concerns have been overshadowed by an emphasis on medical ethics and the dilemmas arising in clinical settings.

O’Neill’s lecture, “Broadening Bioethics: Clinical Ethics, Public Health, and Global Health,” to a packed audience at the Yeshiva University Museum/Center for Jewish History was co-sponsored by the New York University Center for Bioethics.

The professor of philosophy at Cambridge University, who is also president of the British Academy, said the focus of bioethics on medical ethics and the treatment of individual patients excludes broader global health issues of great urgency.

“[Bioethics’] central focus has been on the relationships between patients and those who deliver health care, in particular physicians,” said O’Neill. “It has been preoccupied […] all too often with clinical ethics in rich societies. It has much less to say about […] the health problems of poorer societies, which suffer a high share of the global disease burden.”

Measures that bioethicists have traditionally advocated, such as the informed consent of patients or research subjects, are implemented on an individual rather than shared or public basis. O’Neill used her talk to explore the ethics of public health measures that do not require consent from each and every individual, for example setting safety standards for medicines and adding fluoride to water.

The subject was a new topic for O’Neill, who has written extensively on ethics and philosophy with particular interests in questions of international justice, the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, and bioethics.

Her books include Faces of Hunger: An Essay on Poverty, Development and Justice (1986), Constructions of Reason: Exploration of Kant’s Practical Philosophy (1989), Towards Justice and Virtue (1996), Bounds of Justice (2000), Autonomy and Trust in Bioethics (2002), A Question of Trust (the 2002 Reith Lectures), and Rethinking Informed Consent (co-authored with Neil Manson, 2007).

An academic of considerable standing in the UK, she is a baroness and a Life Peer in the British House of Lords where she has served on its Select Committees on Stem Cell Research and BBC Charter Review. O’Neill chairs the Nuffield Foundation and previously chaired the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and the Human Genetics Advisory Commission.

O’Neill also spoke about “Dissecting Informed Consent,” a lecture co-sponsored by the Center for Ethics and the Institute for Public Health Sciences, at Albert Einstein College of Medicine on May 1.

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