Dilemmas in Bio-Medical Ethics: Playing God or Doing Good?

Course Info

Course Number/Code: 21A.216J (Spring 2005)
Course Title: Dilemmas in Bio-Medical Ethics: Playing God or Doing Good?
Course Level: Undergraduate
Offered By: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
Department: Anthropology
Course Instructor(s): Prof. Erica James
Course Introduction:

"CI-H subjects provide a foundation in general expository writing and speaking. These subjects require at least 20 pages of writing divided among three to five assignments. Of these written assignments, at least one is revised and resubmitted. CI-H subjects also offer students substantial opportunity for oral expression through presentations, student-led discussion, or class participation. In order to guarantee both sufficient attention to student writing and substantial opportunity for oral expression, the maximum number of students per section in a CI-H subject is 18, except when a subject is taught without sections (where the faculty member in charge is the only instructor). In this case, enrollment can rise to 25 if a writing fellow is attached to the subject."

Course Description

Bio-medical researchers, physicians and other health practitioners across the globe are constantly faced with the ethical challenges that new medical technologies provide to promote the health of individuals and to protect and extend life. These technologies force us to reconsider our notions of relatedness and the "naturalness" of the body as many of these techniques raise questions about notions of life, personhood and embodiment; sexuality, morality and ethics; race and ethnicity; kinship and gender; and the cross-cultural variability of these conceptions in the post-modern era. Yet these technologies are received, interpreted and incorporated into existing sets of historical, political and economic relations of power between nations, institutions, families, and individuals. At the same time, limited resources, worldwide disparities in access to care, and other moral constraints force researchers, doctors and patients to make choices about the care that is sought and provided. This course will explore the way in which culture, religion, politics, and economics are among some of the factors at the heart of highly contested questions of abortion, contraception, organ transplantation, cloning, the availability of pharmaceuticals, end of life care, and others that reveal the day-to-day ethical dilemmas in medical research and healing practices.

Course Structure and Requirements

The course will be run primarily as a seminar, with approximately 20 minutes of lecture to introduce each new section followed by presentations and discussion of the subject or ethnographic context under review. Students must come to class prepared, as discussion will often take the form of a formal debate of the issues read for that class session. Generally readings will be limited to 100 pages per week, depending on whether the readings are theoretical or are case-based. In the readings section, readings marked with an * are required for that day. Other readings are highly recommended, but not required.

Reflection papers

Over the course of the semester students will submit five 2-page (double-spaced) reflection papers on the required reading that will be due at the start of class. A prompting question will be provided ahead of time to guide the student through that week's readings and to help structure the reflection paper. These five reflection papers will be graded and are considered a component of the writing requirement. Coupled with class attendance and participation they will contribute 40% of the final grade. Through these reflection papers and the responses to them, students will build and refine their arguments for the two longer papers required in the course.


Students will be required to write two 6 to 7-page papers that build upon the themes discussed in section and in the reflection papers. Papers will be returned no more than one week after submission. The first paper will be revised in light of the comments received upon them. Rewriting the second paper is optional. The final draft of each paper is the version that will be graded and is due one week after the papers have been returned with comments. A crucial aspect to how these papers will be evaluated is the articulation of a strong thesis statement that is supported by a cogent argument. Arguments cannot be solely polemical, but must derive from a clear, well-supported evaluation of the texts, lecture materials, videos or films. These two papers are weighted equally and will contribute 50% of the grade.


Through the course of the semester each student will make at least one presentation of the main arguments contained within one of that week's readings in order to guide class discussion (in the case of books, the chapters will be divided among more than one student). The presentations can be based on the reflection paper and is intended to give the class questions to be debated in the discussion period and should last no longer than ten minutes. The presentations are evaluated and will contribute 10% of the final grade. There is no final exam.