Stanford gets on the stage to generate ethics debate

Brain transplantation, genetic manipulation topics Genetic manipulation and a transplant that would test medical ethics at all levels are being examined at Stanford University, but the drama is playing out not in the operating theater, but on stage.

The Medical School of Stanford and the National Center for New Plays at Stanford, both in Palo Alto, CA, have collaborated on two plays that address ethical and moral concerns surrounding advancements in medicine.

According to Philip Pizzo, MD, academic dean at the medical school, using drama to explore the topics of questionable genetic manipulation and brain transplantation is a fairly natural step.

"It is not surprising that there is a strong association between medicine and the humanities that is often depicted in literature, art, and theater," says Pizzo. "The boundaries of medicine rise from their fundamental underpinnings in basic science and extend to the ethereal limits of humanity and spirituality."

David Goldman, director of the National Center for New Plays at Stanford, says that medical procedures or treatments that have not quite arrived yet make excellent material for the stage.

"They are at the forefront of religious and scientific and political debate," says Goldman. "Reinventing Eden" and "Echoes of Another Man" center around the effects that the novel procedures have on the people involved.

"There are several ethics groups connected with Stanford, and since the genetic manipulation play deals with major ethics issues, I think this is very much a joint exposure for medicine and theater," Goldman says. And since genetics is a hot topic at Stanford, the initial production generated some lively discussion, he adds.

"What has interested me is the divide between scientific thinking and non-scientific thinking," says Goldman. "In this case, the first-born boy [in the play] was retarded. The dad, a highly respected genetics researcher, convinces his wife to allow him to put his research breakthrough to work on the next pregnancy so as to avoid the retardation likelihood, but when the 'normal' brother finds out that he was the result of this intervention, he is enraged."'

Goldman says the scientists in the audience thought the boy should have been grateful.

"'Why is he so angry?' were the questions," he explains. "The community audience had the opposite reaction — 'How could he not be angry at this betrayal?'"

Early readings of the second play, about the effects a brain transplant has on the lives of the organ recipient, his family, and that of the donor generated questions among the audience about the effects religious beliefs have on the brain and body.

The intersection of medical science and drama has been successful enough that Goldman and his colleagues at the medical school hope to continue the project.

"I've just heard of an AIDS intervention play that raises significant ethical issues, but I haven't read it yet," he explains. "

Mia McCullough, author of "Echoes of Another Man," the play about brain transplantation, says she knows firsthand that the possibilities for medical ethics-based plays are boundless.

"During the development of the play, a lot of people said to me, '[Brain transplantation] is ridiculous, it's not possible,'" she explains. "To me, it doesn't matter if it's impossible. When I started working on this play, cloning was not yet a reality. But here we are, and I no longer believe in 'impossible.'

"It's made me think we should call science fiction 'science not-yet-happened' instead."

(For more information on the collaboration between the Stanford University School of Medicine and the National Center for New Plays, e-mail David Goldman at davidg1@stanford.edu.)