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The Kennedy Institute of Ethics at 40: History

Forty years ago, bioethics was only just beginning to shape up as a field: a 1971 Time magazine article brought the newly coined expression, ‘bioethics’, to the attention of popular audiences who were already beginning to wonder about how advances in medicine and technology would impact their lives — and potentially change what it means to be human. What sorts of moral reflection would be required in the face of life-extending technologies, environmental challenges, new reproductive technologies, and resource scarcity?

It is precisely at this moment — October 1971, in fact — when the Joseph and Rose Kennedy Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction and Bioethics (now, the Kennedy Institute of Ethics) was created. The Institute was founded as a product of collaboration between Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Sargent Shriver, AndrĂ© Hellegers (the founding director), Edward M. Kennedy (in his role as president of the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation), and Robert Henle (president of Georgetown University). Their goal was to create a think tank that was, in Henle’s words, “truly ecumenical and catholic” (i.e., “catholic” in the sense of “universal”).1 In 1973, the Institute expanded its operations to include a library dedicated to bioethics; today the Bioethics Research Library has grown to over 300,000 books, journal articles, and other archival materials, and it is a destination library with special collections of Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and Secular bioethics texts that draws scholars from around the world.

The subsequent years have seen the Institute shape critical conversations within bioethics and policy. The Institute has lived up to the aspirations of its founders, addressing the key issues of the day in an open and civil fashion, no matter how contentious the issue; using the products of that conversation to help forge public policy; and sharing their wisdom with students of many sorts from around the globe. The Institute’s scholars have earned lifetime achievement awards from the Hastings Center, American Society for Bioethics and Humanities, and Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research. They have served as members of the President’s Council of Bioethics, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Sciences, Privacy Working Group of the Clinton Health Care Task Force, Ethics Committee of the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), International Bioethics Committee and Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technolgy (COMEST) of UNESCO. They have taught two generations of leaders in bioethics, Georgetown undergraduates and graduate students, and practitioners from around the world.

For a fuller discussion of the founding of the Institute, see Reich, Warren Thomas. “Revisiting the Launching of the Kennedy Institute: Re-visioning the Origins of Bioethics.” Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, v6 n4 (1996), pp 323-27.