February 29, 2024

Al Jonsen, bioethics pioneer, dies

Advised Ted and Bobby Kennedy about abortion

A pioneer in the novel field of bioethics, Al Jonsen, died on October 21, at the age of 89. According to one reviewer, he was the first person to be titled “professor of bioethics”.

From 1969 to 1972, Jonsen was president of the University of San Francisco. From 1974 to 1978 he served as a member of the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. He co-authored the Belmont Report, published in 1979, which articulated ethical principles of beneficence, justice, and respect to govern human-subjects research. In 1980, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine.

He also taught at the University of Washington, School of Medicine, from 1987 to 1999. After retiring he co-founded the Program in Medicine and Human Values at Sutter Health's California Pacific Medical Center in 2003.

Jonsen co-authored a classic text, “Clinical Ethics: A Practical Approach to Ethical Decisions in Clinical Medicine,” published in 1982. Its toolkit included the “four-box method” to help clinicians make difficult ethical decisions.  

Like a surprising number of pioneer bioethicists, Jonsen’s career began in theology. He was ordained as a Jesuit Catholic priest in 1962. He left the priesthood in 1976 to marry.

However, he supported legalised abortion and helped the Kennedys reach an accommodation of their Catholic faith with growing public support for abortion. According to his book The Birth of Bioethics, he attended a meeting of notable Catholic dissident theologians in Hyannisport with Robert and Ted Kennedy in 1964: “The Kennedys hoped to formulate a political stance on abortion that would be compatible both with Catholic teaching and the political climate of the country.” Their advice after two days of palaver, he recalled later, threaded abortion through the eye of the Catholic needle:

“Catholic politicians in a democratic polity might advocate legal restriction on abortion, but in so doing might tolerate legislation that would permit abortion under certain circumstances, if political efforts to repress this moral error led to greater perils to social peace and order

This wise counsel probably helped to frame culture war debates for the next half century.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge

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