Vardit Ravitsky in September became president of The Hastings Center, a bioethics think tank based in Garrison. She succeeded Millie Solomon, who retired.
What were you doing before Hastings?
I’ve been teaching for nearly 15 years at the University of Montreal, and also for the last few years at Harvard Medical School. Before, I lived all over the world. I obtained my doctorate in Israel, my master’s in Albuquerque and my bachelor’s in Paris. I’m originally from Jerusalem, born and raised.
Where did your interest in bioethics come from?
I grew up in a family of philosophers and educators; I was naturally attracted to conceptual thinking and asking big questions, but I had this sense from an early age that science changes how we live. We see daily how technology extends our life, gives us new information about pregnancies and allows us to create more food and put a pig kidney in a human body. The driving question for bioethics is: We can do it, but should we? Without the should question, technology can be used in intentionally or unintentionally bad ways. I’m pro-tech and love scientific advancement and opportunities, but with responsibility.
What are questions we should be asking?
Even if it’s to find a cure for cancer, how is the research done? Does it only benefit certain populations? What risks are research participants taking so future generations can benefit? Sometimes scientists and clinicians look at bioethicists as if we’re here to tell them not to do certain things. We’re here to help them do what they’re doing by adding that lens of responsibility. If you don’t do that, you’re going to get shut down by regulation or have a societal backlash.
In what ways has bioethics changed?
Historically, bioethics has focused on bio-medicine. Our scope is expanding to include issues like climate change, our relationship with other species and the impact of technology on the planet and on communities. Artificial intelligence is here, but significant changes are still in the years to come. The Hastings Center is a relatively small organization with a huge impact, but we cannot do everything. We are thinking about how to prioritize our resources so we can develop advice, recommendations and guidelines to help anyone — from a legislator to a director of a hospital or clinic — tackle these challenges.
What initiatives are underway?
We recently hired new scholars and are launching a long-term fundraising effort to build an endowment that will allow us to hire even more and do more public outreach. We have an online publication, a newsletter, we’re doing webinars and we want to start a podcast. We’re planning to host an open house for the community in the spring. We want to welcome people to the facility and make them more aware of what we’re doing. We would welcome the support of the community.