McGill cure for medical ethics

June 23, 1995

In just eight years the McGill University centre for medicine, ethics and law has built a reputation as a leading national and international institution.

Director Margaret Somerville says the impetus for the centre, established in 1986, came from McGill's teaching hospitals, which were grappling increasingly with clinical ethical dilemmas and "were calling me all the time".

Dr Somerville, a lawyer and pharmacist, has taught both ethics and law at McGill. She says the centre was a response to both academia's need for collaborative research and training, and the community need for debate, information and policy formulation.

Other Canadian centres deal with different medical/legal/ethical issues. What makes McGill's different - it even promotes itself as a unique academic entity in this respect - is the continued involvement of its four founding faculties: medicine, law and religious studies, and the faculty of arts via the department of philosophy.

Medicine, ethics and law as a field of activity was probably precipitated by organ transplants, the first "non-natural event". Genetic manipulation has moved human beings even closer to a "machine-like" state.

Yet Dr Somerville, who says she "accidentally fell into being an academic", finds the rapidly expanding search for ethics extremely hopeful.

The challenge is seeing whether or not this can be done in a global context. The centre is a "mini mini chance to see if we can evolve a prototype that will operate theoretically and practically at a more universal level", she says.

Centre staff have collaborated with colleagues at the Danish Centre for Human Rights, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the World Federation of Haemophilia and the Centre for AIDS Studies, Milan, among others.

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