New Harvard Law School research center explores bioethics boundaries

Issue April 2006 By Andrea R. Barter, Esq.

It seems like on a daily basis some area of legal development involving the biotechnology revolution arises: the rights of a surrogate parent; genetic manipulation; what happens to intellectual property rights in a pandemic; end-of-life decisions.

In an effort to research and analyze legal matters associated with advancements in science and technology, the Harvard Law School has created the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology and Bioethics. This new interdisciplinary research program will investigate a variety of issues at the intersection of law and health policy, including issues of health care financing and market regulation, biomedical research and bioethics.

According to Faculty Director Einer R. Elhauge, Carroll and Milton Petrie Professor of Law, Harvard Law School, "Technology is the biggest cause of rising health care costs; new technologies raise novel and interesting questions about mankind's ability to alter itself through genetic selection or manipulation; and issues about technological property rights are highly important for figuring out how to distribute health care throughout the world. This research center will provide new ideas on these topics."

The center is financed by a $10 million grant from the Carroll and Milton Petrie Foundation and Joseph H. Flom, a partner with the Manhattan firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, and a 1948 graduate of Harvard Law.

"What we have, the rapidity of change as a result of the biotechnology revolution, is such that it has outstripped the legal underpinnings," said Flom. "It is a very great thing to have someone like Harvard Law School take on and research the law, how it was and will be, how it all ties in together, with ethics being a big component."

To that end, the center will employ an interdisciplinary approach, exploring the topics from sociological, philosophical, political and economic angles, and will collaborate with professors at the School of Public Health, Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Medical School.

Petrie-Flom Executive Director Barbara A. Fain explained that the center will have an interfaculty board. "That is one way to make sure what we are doing at the law school and from a legal perspective is connected with all the other disciplines. It's necessary if we are going to have an impact on public policy. We bring a unique perspective, and so do the other disciplines," said Fain.

But the center does not aim to advocate a particular position on public policy or support a particular political agenda. "We are nonpartisan, so we don't come at issues with any prejudgment," said Elhauge. "We are just trying to foster reasoned debate and the development of new scholarship and empirical findings."

"Our focus is on good scholarship, understanding there are different perspectives and people can draw different conclusions. Our work will be to contribute to the debate," added Fain.

A core group of six professors will work at the center, including Elhauge and law school professors William W. Fisher, Martha L. Minow, Charles R. Nesson and Alan A. Stone. Bass Professor of Government Michael J. Sandel, who currently teaches a course on ethics and biotechnology for law school and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences students, will also participate in research activities at the center.

The center will fund large-scale research projects and hold conferences, but the primary focus of the center will be a research fellowship program, which will provide law and graduate students, mid-career scholars and professionals with a $60,000 stipend to conduct research for two years. The center will also fund a group of fellowships for law school and graduate students to work at the center for an academic year or during the summer.

Fain said, "We have also taken initial steps to building the health law curriculum and bringing in visiting faculty. Professor Elhauge will be teaching a new health law workshop, which will weekly bring in leading academics from around the country. That is open to the general community on a drop-in basis. Students can enroll for credit, but the workshops are open to faculty and those in the policy world interested in these topics," said Fain.

The program is generating enthusiasm from students and staff alike.

Chris Robertson, co-president of the Ethics, Law and Biotechnology Society at Harvard Law School, said that "For some time, there has been a noticeable shortage of faculty at Harvard Law School working in the fields of health law and bioethics. The few courses that were offered were typically over-subscribed, with long waiting lists of students."

He pointed out that health and biotech issues, such as patents for newly created organisms, products liability for pharmaceuticals, stem cell research and euthanasia, "cut through almost every other area of law, and that is pretty exciting from a student's perspective. They can be part of an exciting career, whether you want to do litigation, hospital administration, political activism or scholarship," said Robertson.

Stone has been working to increase the profile of health law at Harvard Law School for some time. He believes the implementation of this program indicates Harvard's recognition of the importance of health law in the United States. "It looks like they're finally going to do it, in just the way I hoped, to steer the very, very best people we can find into health care law," said Stone. "We have already recruited terrific people for fellowships, just an amazing collection of people… People of this quality are now going to turn their abilities to health care law. It is a great step forward," he added.