In 1971, the Kennedy Institute of Ethics was established at Georgetown with the generous support of Rose Fitzgerald and Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr.

A founding gift from the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation endowed two faculty chairs and gave critical seed money to help establish the Bioethics Research Library, which has grown to become the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of scholarly resources in bioethics.



Established in 1946 by Joseph and Rose Kennedy to honor the untimely death of their son, the Foundation is dedicated to protecting, promoting, and upholding the rights of the intellectually-disabled worldwide. In addition to establishing research centers like the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, the Foundation works in areas ranging from public policy to employment promotion to special education to public awareness and education.

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Meeting a need for thoughtful, interdisciplinary, action-oriented reflection on the most urgent moral issues of the day.

The early 1970s were a peak of concern for human rights in medicine and research in the US and around the world, especially the rights of patients to be fully informed and included in decision-making about their care and the rights of research subjects to meaningfully consent to all aspects of the trials in which they are enrolled.

It was also a time of waking up to the critical needs of other groups social justice had left behind. One of those groups the intellectually disabled, whose right to be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve as fellow humans was too often overlooked or under assault. The Kennedy family’s commitment to protecting and promoting the rights of the intellectually-disabled worldwide is enshrined at the Institute in the two named chairs their founding gift created, ensuring that critical scholarly attention is paid to real-world ethical issues in this area for generations to come.


“Human life is too precious and the decisions regarding it too important to leave to any one group of specialists—doctors, lawyers, scientists, political leaders, or theologians. That is why this new Institute is bringing together men and women skilled in every discipline concerning human development—to begin to look at the issues more broadly and humanely…”


A family’s commitment to human rights meets a university’s commitment to ethics engaged in the real world.

In the founding of the Institute, the Kennedy family’s commitment to the rights of those whose voices are too-easily silenced, especially those of the intellectually disabled, united with Georgetown University’s core Jesuit commitment to ethical reflection engaged with the real world.

A team of scholars from disciplines ranging from philosophy and theology to medicine and demography came together at Georgetown to help found the very field of bioethics: the study of the ethics of health, the environment, and emerging technologies.

The birth of an institute led to the birth of a field.

As the field of bioethics grew in the decades to come, so did the Institute’s focus, broadening to include issues in environmental ethics, genetic technology, and big data. The Kennedy Institute of Ethics helped set the mold for what an engaged ethics institute can do and be for the greater good, inspiring the creation of multiple programs across the globe whose interdisciplinary structure, models of policy engagement, and even educational offerings were modeled on the original at Georgetown.

Today, carrying on in the Kennedy family’s founding vision of a world made more ethical through careful reflection and theory-driven action, the Institute continues to pioneer in the exploration and development of new fields.

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Father Robert Henle, SJ

“Throughout scientific history fields of study have changed their perspective when the original discipline was inadequate to the effective pursuit of truth. Chemistry developed a subspecialty of biochemistry, physics, biophysics. I am quite certain that bioethics will assume the same importance to mankind as these other fields.”