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Tribute to Robert M. Veatch

Professor emeritus at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics and the philosophy department at Georgetown University LeRoy Walters remembers Dr. Robert M. Veatch in a tribute essay.

LeRoy Walters

December 2020

Robert Veatch and I met for the first time in June 1972 at the Hastings Center.  At that early stage of his academic career Bob was coordinating a project that surveyed the teaching of medical ethics in various settings.  In the mid-70s we both produced bibliographies of the bioethics literature.  At the same time, we were both Associate Editors for the first edition of the Encyclopedia of Bioethics, edited by Warren T. Reich.  After Bob’s move to the Kennedy Institute of Ethics in 1979, we became colleagues, frequent collaborators, and good friends.

How should one characterize the central themes and passions of Bob’s long and productive life?  An overarching theme, perhaps the most important theme, was Bob’s identification with underprivileged or oppressed groups who were seeking to assert their basic human rights.   These groups included people of color, people with disabilities, students, research participants, and patients.  A corollary of Bob’s commitment to human rights was his lifelong suspicion of most authority figures – military leaders, university administrators, many politicians, researchers, and physicians.  A second overarching theme was Bob’s commitment to interdisciplinary scholarship.  He earned a master’s degree in a biomedical field, pharmacology, before undertaking graduate studies at Harvard that were allocated equally among three fields – religious studies, philosophy, and the social sciences.  In his later research and writing, Bob was a world-class expert on specific biomedical topics while moving seamlessly among the arenas of moral philosophy, religious ethics, history, and public policy.

Robert Marlin Veatch was born in Utica, New York, on January 22nd, 1939.  His father was a pharmacist.

When Bob was in fourth grade, his family moved to Evanston, Illinois, the home of Northwestern University and Garrett Theological Seminary.  Bob’s father owned a pharmacy in the heart of downtown Evanston.   In a 2014 interview, Bob noted that many of his childhood friends were the sons and daughters of university and seminary faculty members.  To conversations with those friends Bob attributed his life-long interest in value questions.  Bob’s membership in the local Methodist church fostered his identification with the Social Gospel movement and liberal social causes, even as a teenager.  His interest in science was undoubtedly sparked by his father’s work as a pharmacist.

Bob attended Purdue University from 1957 to 1961.  A life-long pacifist, he protested the university’s requirement that all undergraduate males participate in ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) training.  According to the university’s student newspaper, The Purdue Exponent, in January 1960 Bob introduced “A resolution that a student committee be appointed by the Student Body president to study the question of compulsory ROTC and to recommend changes if it is felt necessary. . . . “ (January 14, 1960).  Bob also noted that “eight out of the Big Ten universities have made some kind of study of their ROTC programs up to this date.  Purdue and Iowa are the only universities who have made none.”  During Bob’s senior year at Purdue, he was the student body president.  On February 10th, 1961, the Student Senate approved a bill recommending that the university make ROTC training voluntary rather than mandatory.  During the debate on the bill Bob commented that “a student should be obligated to take courses only so long as they are consistent with his educational objectives.”  He added, “Compulsory ROTC definitely violates this freedom to choose” (The Exponent, February 10, 1961).  (Four years later Purdue’s Board of Trustees would agree to make the ROTC program voluntary.)

Bob earned a B.S. degree in pharmacy from Purdue, summa cum laude, in 1961.  In June of that year Bob and Laurelyn Lovett were married.   One year later Bob received an M.S. degree in pharmacology from the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco.

Bob’s life and the Peace Corps intersected in 1962.  The Peace Corps had been established in March 1961 by President John F. Kennedy.  The first group of volunteers left for Ghana and Tanzania in August of that year.  Bob and Laurelyn were accepted into the second-year class of volunteers, presumably in late 1961 or early 1962.  Later that year the couple participated in the training program for volunteers planning for service in Nigeria.  They were two members of a group of 65, the second of three groups sent to Nigeria for the 1962-1964 term.  According to one of their fellow volunteers, Bob’s autobiographical sketch, included in the syllabus for their training program, read as follows:

Evanston, Illinois.  BS Purdue University 1961.  MS, University of California (Berkeley) 1962 (N.S.F. Fellowship).  President of Student Body, Senator in Student Senate, President, Indiana Methodist Student Movement, president Sigma Tau Gamma [Bob’s fraternity], International Association, Iron Key [top university honor society], Theta Delta Kappa, Kappa Psi [Purdue’s pharmacy honor society], Rho Chi [national pharmacy honor society], graduate Student Council.  Summers as apprentice pharmacist and as a factory laborer.  Minor political campaigning.  Interests: politics, political science, philosophy, theology, baseball, guitar, piano.  Husband of Laurelyn Veatch.

From 1962 to 1964 Bob and Laurelyn served as Peace Corps volunteers in Nigeria – a nation that had gained its independence in 1960.  Their class was the second group to serve in Nigeria.  While stationed there, Bob taught at a high school in Ogbomosho and at the University of Ife in Ibadan, Nigeria.  Both cities were located in Nigeria’s Western Region.  According to Bob’s brother, Bill Veatch, Bob and Laurelyn were initially posted to Ibadan – at that time the second largest metropolis in Nigeria.  After residing briefly in Ibadan, the young couple asked to be relocated to a more rural setting.  Their request was granted, and Bob and Laurelyn moved to Ogbomosha, a much smaller city.

After the couple’s return to the United States in 1964, Bob began graduate study at the Harvard Divinity School.  In 1967 he earned his B.D. (today M.Div.) degree, magna cum laude.  He then pursued a graduate program in Religion and Society, with a focus on medical ethics.  Bob earned his M.A. degree in 1970 and his Ph.D. degree in 1971.  While at Harvard, Bob took courses with, or was influenced by, faculty members John Rawls, Talcott Parsons, Renée Fox, Henry K. Beecher, Robert N. Bellah, James Luther Adams, Ralph B. Potter, Jr., Arthur J. Dyck, and Harvey Cox.

During the late 1960s Professors Beecher, Potter, and Dyck were in contact with a young philosopher in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, about an interdisciplinary research institute that he hoped to establish.  The philosopher’s name was Daniel Callahan.  Bob and Dan met.  After the founding of the Hastings Center in 1969, Dan offered Bob a position as the first associate of the Center.  Bob accepted Dan’s offer in early 1970, even though he had not yet finished his dissertation.

The Hastings Center (initially named the Institute of Society, Ethics, and the Life Sciences) opened its first office on September 1, 1970.  The Center had held meetings before that date at the homes of Dan and Sydney Callahan and Willard and Betty Gaylin.  In his 2014 interview Bob recalled that he was the first to arrive at the office on September 1st and thus had the honor of obtaining the key from the landlord to open the office.

In his early years at the Hastings Center, Bob was the staff director of the Research Group on Death and Dying.  In 1975 he was promoted to the role of Senior Associate at the Center.  Later in his tenure Bob also served as the staff director of the Center’s Research Group on Ethics and Health Policy.

Bob and Laurie’s older son, Paul, recalled the family’s time in Hastings-on-Hudson with the following memory:

When my father was at the Hastings Center, we used to spend time at the homes of Dan Callahan and Will Gaylin.  Dan’s son, David, was in my class at school.  I remember both Dan and Will from the perspective of an eight-year-old child.  For example, what I remember most about going over to the Gaylins’ house was that they had a great dog, a poodle named Dooley.  And they had a huge modern statue in their living room, a bull made of car bumpers.   When I was a child, I loved to climb on the statue, which (amazingly) they allowed me to do.

In early 1979 the late André E. Hellegers, M.D., succeeded in recruiting Bob to the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University.  From 1979 through 2015 Bob was a Senior Research Scholar and Professor of Medical Ethics at the Kennedy Institute.  In 1981 he also received an appointment as a Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown.  Bob officially retired in 2015, but he continued, each day, to do research and writing in his Institute office until the Covid-19 pandemic forced the University to shut down in March of 2020.

What are some of the recurring topics in Bob’s dissertation, books, and articles?  A first theme was the sharp divide between facts and values.  Bob’s Harvard dissertation bore the long title “Value-Freedom in Science and Technology: A Study of the Importance of the Religious, Ethical, and Other Socio-Cultural Factors in Selected Medical Decisions Regarding Birth Control.”  In the dissertation Bob demonstrated that physicians’ recommendations about whether women should use the birth-control pill were closely correlated with their interpretations of the facts about the probable benefits or harms of this relatively new medical option.

A second theme in Bob’s thought was the need for constant conversation and interaction between the natural sciences and medicine, on one hand, and the social sciences and humanities, on the other.  In Bob’s view, argued most clearly in his book titled Disrupted Dialogue, medicine flourished when the field was involved in meaningful discussions with the humanities.  Conversely, medicine atrophied when it developed professional codes of ethics in isolation.

A third theme was Bob’s identification with various human-rights movements, especially movements that we associate with the 1960s.  Bob clearly applauded the civil rights movement, the patients’ rights movement, and the protests against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.  According to his brother, Bill, Bob’s sympathy for the civil rights movement predated his time in the Peace Corps and at Harvard.  In 1961, Bob and a Black friend from Evanston had hatched a plan to travel together to the American South – as Freedom Riders.  Much to the chagrin of both Bob and Henry, their plan was quashed by both sets of parents.

A fourth and final theme was Bob’s thesis that the foundations of bioethics cannot be reduced to just a few principles.  In what might be regarded as a capstone article about his approach to ethics, Bob compared 11 ethical theories, including his own [Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 45 (4-5): August 2020; 540-559.]  In this essay Bob argued for the importance of distinguishing between beneficence and nonmaleficence, thus accepting the thesis of Beauchamp and Childress and rejecting, at least in part, the three-principle view enshrined in the Belmont Report.  Instead of accepting Beauchamp and Childress’s principle of respect for autonomy, Bob argued for a principle of respect for persons, which he then analyzed into four subsidiary principles – autonomy, fidelity, veracity, and avoiding killing.  In Bob’s view, it is difficult to derive the latter three principles from respect for autonomy.  Without further elaboration Bob also mentioned two “other principles,” gratitude and reparation.

Bob played an important role as a consultant to the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects and the President’s Commission on Bioethics.  He was deeply involved with the Karen Ann Quinlan case in New Jersey, Senator Edward Kennedy’s 1973 hearings on human experimentation, and the Baby K case in Virginia.  He was an internationally recognized expert on the transplantation of solid organs, serving on the Ethics Committee of the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) for 18 years.  In 2008 the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities chose Bob for its Lifetime Achievement Award.  Another singular honor was Bob’s invitation to present the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, also in 2008.  Bob later developed his six Gifford Lectures into the book, Hippocratic, Religious, and Secular Medical Ethics: The Points of Conflict.

In May 2004 Scott Stossel published a biography of R. Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps.  When the book was released, Georgetown University hosted a public celebration of Sarge’s career as a public servant.  Bob and his Kennedy Institute colleagues attended this event, held in the university’s Intercultural Center.  Madison Powers recalls a particular moment that occurred after the formal part of the celebration had ended.

Bob carried his original Peace Corps identification card in his wallet for many years.  I remember being with him and Sarge Shriver and several others.  Bob reached into his wallet and pulled out the card to show it to Sarge.  The smile on Sarge’s face was priceless.  So too for Bob.  He was very proud of having been in one of the earliest cohorts.

In May 1987 Bob married Ann Pastore.  Beginning in 1990, Bob and Ann traveled each year to Granada, where Bob offered courses on medical ethics to students at St. George’s University School of Medicine.  The couple also visited New Zealand, Brazil, Taiwan, South Korea, and Scotland, often in connection with Bob’s lectures.  On the home front, Bob and Ann nurtured local performances of bluegrass music at the Lucketts Community Center in northern Virginia.  They were also cofounders of the Lucketts Bluegrass Foundation.  On many evenings between October and April, Bob could be heard announcing to the Lucketts audience, “It’s 7:00 on Saturday night – time for some live bluegrass music!”   He was peerless among bioethicists for his knowledge about the history of, and the major performers in, bluegrass music.

Bob was one of the pioneers in the bioethics field.  His colleagues and his students knew him as a generous person, always willing to take time to discuss any topic on our minds.  Bob was modest about his achievements.  He was also a highly disciplined and productive scholar.  On first meeting, Bob seemed quite serious.  Colleagues and students who learned to know him well were also privileged to enjoy Bob’s wry sense of humor.  We will sorely miss him.

Photos Courtesy of Ann Veatch and Lynn Pastore