Yeshiva professor details bioethical implications of disasters


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Photo by Daphne Alva |

Ruth Macklin, a Yeshiva University professor, presents “Ethical Challenges in Confronting Disasters: Some Lessons Learned” yesterday at the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research. 


Most people view the infamous nuclear disasters of Chernobyl in Ukraine and Bhopal in India, Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and the recent earthquakes in China and Haiti as catastrophic. Ruth Macklin, however, has found an ethical angle to these historic events.

Macklin, a Yeshiva University professor, discussed the bioethical repercussions of man-made and natural disasters yesterday afternoon at the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research in downtown New Brunswick. 

Macklin, a founder of the study of bioethics and professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva, took the train from New York City to downtown New Brunswick to give the latest installment of the Institute’s Brown Bag Seminar Series. 

In her lecture titled, “Ethical Challenges in Confronting Disasters: Some Lessons Learned,” Macklin presented extensive analyses of public health, clinical and research ethics and their application, or lack thereof, in both natural and man-made disasters.  

“Issues arise when there is a disaster, whether it is a disaster that is man-made, like a nuclear plant explosion or a gas leak, or something like a hurricane or an earthquake,” Macklin said. 

Additional issues include the ethical nature of conducting research during a disaster and whether public health agencies have special responsibilities during this time, she said.

By using a comparative analysis to present the disaster categories, Macklin’s lecture encompassed an ethical discussion of prioritization, particularly that of scarce resources such as hospital ventilators. Moreover, the professor talked about preparation and how critical knowing the degree of severity of a disaster far in advance is. 

“From the standpoint of preparedness, this is obviously a responsibility of government,” she said. “The responsibility, depending on what the nature of the disaster might be, is to have adequate preparation.”

Supplementing this assertion, Macklin added that the need to be prepared forces room to be made for imperative measures, which include having engineers design buildings that are less likely to collapse in earthquake-prone areas.  

This, in extension, allowed for proper preparation for future disasters, suggesting that the Tri-State area was better equipped for Hurricane Sandy following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. 

Along with other faculty members, distinguished Rutgers professor in the Department of History, Margaret Marsh, felt Macklin’s seminar is beneficial to the Institute. It presents new information that could be used as an interdisciplinary supplement to new projects. 

Currently, she is working on her third book with physician Wanda Ronner, and her future publication on reproductive technologies will be influenced by Macklin’s talk because her topic does have a significant bioethical component, Marsh said.

“One of the great things about coming to these seminars is that you get these people from different disciplines who talk about the way they approach a subject,” Marsh said. 

She added that though the seminar topic may not be related to your field of study, it is still beneficial to learn about different approaches and methods because you could use them within your own subject. 

Macklin said while she “wasn’t trying to convince anyone” in the conference room at the Institute, she was hoping this type of interdisciplinary communication would occur. Hailing from the non-integrated Einstein College of Medicine, she would often miss opportunities for cross-field research, Macklin said. 

The timing of Macklin’s visit to the Institute was convenient, as the process of integrating the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School with the rest of the University is occurring at this time. 

According to Allan Horwitz, interim director of the Institute, Macklin’s presentation on bioethics might help facilitate the assimilation of RWJMS. 

“Bioethics is one of the core subject matters that really unites the kinds of things that go on in the University and [RWJMS],” Horowitz said. 

He adds that Macklin’s participation would aid their efforts in developing a program in bioethics at Rutgers.

Horwitz also emphasized the tendency of most academics to use selective attention while examining their subject, as well as the need to give greater consideration to ethical practice in public policy. He alluded to Macklin’s analysis of Hurricane Sandy, and its relevance to the state of New Jersey. 

“We [academia] tend to simply focus on the particular science or facts of whatever topic we’re looking at and neglect the ethical dimensions of those situations,” Horwitz said. “Certainly, the topic of her talk has great promise, especially as anybody who has been down at the Jersey Shore recently can see.” 

While Macklin was entirely unaware of this integration process, she views it as beneficial not only for the Rutgers community, but for all academia.  

As one of the founders of the field of bioethics, Macklin is glad to be a part of this convergence and encouraged furthering the partnership among academics. 

“I think multidisciplinary work and integration is critically important,” Macklin said. “When you have a medical school that is isolated from the rest of the university, there is less of an opportunity to interact and develop collaborative research projects.”


Dan Corey

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