NHGRI logo

Drama sets the stage for exploring medical technology's ethical dilemmas

Tragedy Comedy masks with helices around Plays such as Frankenstein and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? provide important insights into the ethical, legal and social implications of emerging medical technologies, according to research by Karen H. Rothenberg, J.D., M.P.A. and Lynn W. Bush, Ph.D., M.S. Their article, Manipulating Fate: Medical Innovations, Ethical Implications, Theatrical Illuminations, will appear in an upcoming issue of the Houston Journal of Health Law & Policy.

"We've highlighted 46 plays - spanning three centuries - to enhance understanding of the ethical and social impact of medical technology on our world," Professor Rothenberg said. "Our goal is to facilitate interdisciplinary discussion of the promises and perils of scientific innovations. These include theatrical narratives that explore how emerging genomic technologies influence individuals, families and our society over time."

The article, part of a broader genomics and society project, is divided into six "Acts." Act II, "Mendel, Docs, & Rabbits", focuses on early 20th century American plays, some that were used to justify eugenic policies such as selective breeding practices to improve the genetic composition of humans. By Act V, "Genes, Dreams, & Screams," the authors travel from the 1953 discovery of DNA's double helix, to the development of the field of bioethics.

In the final Act, "Genomes & Unknowns," the plays spotlight how the new genomics revolution is intensifying our hopes and expectations for medical innovations, treatments and cures. They also focus on harnessing genomics and reproductive technologies to influence the fate of those with neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders. Theatrical characters featured throughout the article explore such thorny ethical dilemmas as:

  • Who should or can control the fate of future generations through the use of emerging prenatal technology?
  • Should there be limits on how cutting edge, genomic technologies are used to change the fate of others?
  • How should we decide who gets access to emerging medical technologies?

"Theatrical excerpts can give us both distance and insight into difficult social issues," Professor Rothenberg said. "They allow us the space to reflect on these complex questions."

Professor Rothenberg is a senior advisor on genomics and society to the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, and a visiting scholar at the National Institutes of Health Department of Bioethics on leave from the University of Maryland School of Law. Dr. Bush is a faculty associate at the Center for Bioethics at Columbia University and an adjunct associate research scientist at Columbia University Medical Center's Department of Pediatrics, Division of Clinical Genetics. Their broader project includes original plays, research articles and an upcoming book for health professionals, The Drama of DNA: Narrative Genomics to be published by Oxford University Press.

Citation: 13 Houston Journal of Health Law & Policy, 1-77 (2012).

To read the new article, go to: Manipulationg Fate: Medical Innovations, Ethical Implications, Theatrical IlluminationsPDF file

To read more about how plays can illuminate ethical issues, see: Genes and Plays: Bringing Ethical Issues to Life

View a July 2014 interview with Karen Rothenberg: YouTube video The Drama of DNA: Narrative Genomics 
From the University of Maryland Carey School of Law

To view the PDF document(s) on this page, you will need Adobe Reader. Download Adobe Reader

Last updated: August 29, 2014