‘A Duty to Die?’ STS class ponders life-and-death bioethics

While walking to the Deece and even after sitting down for lunch, students coming out of the Bodies into Other Bodies course keep debating the topic of the day. One of our most recent conversations was about whether a patient has a “duty to die” when they grow old, sick or otherwise become a burden to their family. We generally agreed that culling was a harsh expectation, but we weren’t sure when the cost of prolonging a life would be too much for that person’s loved ones. As usual, we didn’t come to a consensus, and after the next class we’d moved on to another debate.

The course, STS 187, is newly available at the 100-level this semester, though it’s actually a reconfiguration of courses Adjunct Instructor in German Studies Eric Trump has taught in previous semesters. This one is different because it’s an introductory course comprised of mostly first-years, while previous versions have usually been 300-level seminars in the Science, Technology and Society (STS) program. According to the department website, “the curriculum in Vassar’s STS Program is designed to enable students to…understand the central role of science and technology in contemporary society.”

The program curriculum also examines the social causes and effects of scientific development and the ethical implications of new technologies. STS includes instructors from the Psychological Science, Sociology, Biology, Cognitive Science, Economics and Philosophy Departments. Professor Trump works primarily in the German Department, but has taught several classes in the STS program. When the STS program asked Professor Trump to teach a bioethics course, he welcomed the opportunity.

At the beginning of our conversation, I asked him how he came to teach the class, expecting him to discuss his time with STS. Instead, he began by telling me that he received a kidney transplant in 1998 and then spent two years without health insurance, during which he was reliant on anti-rejection drugs. “Medications are your umbilical cord,” Professor Trump said. Maintaining access to his lifeline was a formative experience that raised his awareness of the health care system’s flaws and piqued his interest in bioethics. He brims with passion for the field during class discussions and even during our interview. When students bring up tangentially related points during class, he’s always ready to recommend a book or philosopher with relevant ideas.

STS 187 serves as an introduction to bioethics, which he describes as the study of “questions that arise out of having a human body.” A large part of the syllabus focuses on organ transplantation, which has become Professor Trump’s main area of study. The course draws its title from a book he is currently writing, which will focus on the circumstances surrounding his transplant as well as a more general history of transplantation in literature and culture. Several of the texts on the syllabus, including “Frankenstein” and “Mend the Living,” will demonstrate to us what Professor Trump calls the “aesthetic representation of organ transplantation.” During this section of the course, we’ll focus on the way that transplants are characterized in literature as well as their treatment in the legal system, prompting questions about property rights and autonomy over donated organs.

Although most class discussions focus on medical and scientific advancements, the course usually doesn’t dive too deep into the biological details. Instead, we focus on the different ethical frameworks used to assess medical technologies like genetic screening of embryos and organ transplantation. Reading about the topics covered in class without trying to apply them to our own lives is impossible, which makes the debate more intense when we find ourselves disagreeing on hypothetical personal situations.

For instance, when we discussed whether the popular concept of brain death is accurate, we all considered whether we’d want to be kept on life support if we ended up in a coma. Some people said they’d never want to be dependent on machines to stay alive, while others said they’d want all possible measures to be taken to prolong their lives.

By the end of that conversation, we still hadn’t reached a consensus on what should be done. Professor Trump embraces this. More than any particular opinion or set of values, he hopes that if students take away anything from the course, it’s the mode of examining arguments carefully and recognizing their valid points.

I enrolled in STS 187 because my advisor recommended it and I was drawn by the course description. I didn’t have any prior knowledge of bioethics or the STS program. Now, it’s one of the highlights of my schedule. I come into each class full of questions and thoughts about the readings we’ve done, and often leave with more questions than answers.

Some portions of academia focus on the past or on removed scenarios that will never become relevant to us. But bioethics, Professor Trump says, is highly relevant to public and academic discourses. Issues in the field appear everywhere in the news, and conversely, the news cites academics from our syllabus when discussing bioethics. Whether you’re majoring in history or sociology or biochem, bioethics has a relationship to your field.

The thought processes we’ve learned in this course have altered my approach to all my classes. I’m learning to interrogate readings, question my own preconceptions and welcome ambivalence. For example, when my psychology textbook provided a cut-and-dry definition of brain death, I did not accept the term at face value, and noted down that brain death can’t be so easily defined.

Professor Trump hopes that the class will be offered again in future semesters. I do too, so that other people get the chance to reinvent their approach to ideas encountered in student life by contending with mortality.

One Comment

  1. Very interesting. How wonderful to be in a setting devoted to questioning, examining, considering and understanding the complexities of thses very relevant issues! I envy the students in STS 187!

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