(L-R: Wilson Turade, Dr. Kristine Sunga, and Amiel Villanueva)

In the mid year break of 2016, three Filipino doctors flew to the East Coast of the United States to attend a week-long course on medical ethics, held at Princeton University.

The seminar, entitled “Medical Ethics: A Natural Law Perspective”, ran from June 12 to 18, 2016 and was organized by the Witherspoon Institute, a research center in Princeton, New Jersey that works to enhance the public understanding of the moral foundations of free and democratic societies.

Originally intended for medical students, the seminar saw at the time its most diverse set of attendees. Apart from medical students from Yale University and Duke University, pre-med students, a nurse and a philosophy graduate student were in attendance. There were also two ladies from New Zealand involved in law and non-government organization work.

The Philippine delegation was composed of Kristine Noelle M. Sunga (Saint Louis University), who then recently passed the physician licensure exam, as well as Christian Wilson R. Turalde (University of the Philippines College of Medicine) and Cary Amiel G. Villanueva (University of the Philippines College of Medicine) who were both beginning internship at the Philippine General Hospital (PGH). They were encouraged to go by Universitas CEO Atty. Oliver M. Tuazon who earlier attended one of Witherspoon’s summer seminars.

The program faculty was composed of two distinguished individuals. The morning sessions were usually led by Farr Curlin, MD (Duke University), a specialist in internal medicine and hospice and palliative care. Dr. Curlin formerly taught at the University of Chicago and delivered a speech on conscience before the U.S. President’s Council on Bioethics. Stimulating discussions on philosophy were then handled by Christopher Olaf Tollefsen, PhD (University of South Carolina) who has several publications on natural law and medical ethics.

The 2016 faculty and participants of Medical Ethics: A Natural Law Perspective

A Fresh Approach to Medical Ethics

A few weeks prior to the seminar, the participants were mailed a set of readings to be familiar with. This allowed them to engage with the professors and the group when they were on campus. Rather than lectures, the sessions were interactive roundtable discussions.

On the first day, each faculty member started setting the stage for the course. Dr. Curlin began discussing what is perhaps the oldest text on medical ethics, the Hippocratic Oath, and how it has evolved to its contemporary forms. He also walked through a keystone article by Dr. Leon Kass on health being the proper end of medicine and how this impacts the role of physicians in society.

Prof. Tollefsen talked about the tenets of New Natural Law Theory based on his introductory paper in Lyceum . These concepts would prove most useful when tackling difficult issues in the succeeding days.

There were different themes for each day: the doctor-patient relationship, the beginning of life, the end of life, and conscientiousness in society.

While bioethics is taught as a small part in the curriculum of most Philippine medical schools, the approach taken by this seminar was quite novel for the participants. The professors shed light on the way issues are tackled by the more popular principlism versus natural law, the latter having existed since the thought of Ancient Greeks.

“In this time when individual preferences and relativism seem to have taken over even the practice of medicine, it was refreshing to learn about this approach,” said Amiel Villanueva. “We learned to appraise actions and important medical decisions in a sensible and objective way.”

Princeton Campus Experience

Princeton University with its awe-inspiring Gothic architecture served as the perfect venue for the seminar. This gave participants the chance to explore its iconic sites including Nassau Hall, the Princeton University Art Museum and the University Chapel which holds both ecumenical Christian and Catholic services.

Wilson and Amiel in front of Blair Hall on the campus of Princeton University

The atmosphere was cordial and conducive to serious thinking and fruitful exchanges. Participants were accommodated in the cozy campus dormitories. They would have breakfast together at a dining hall, and were joined for lunch and supper by the course faculty.

While classes were held at the Dante Seminar Room, discussions would extend beyond the classroom. During breaks and in the evenings, participants held friendly conversations around the campus and nearby establishments along Nassau Street, sometimes over cold beer.

“The campus itself is already intellectually stimulating. The short walks around Chancellor Way near Firestone Library and the summer ambience allowed participants to frequently engage in healthy volleys of ideas – though most of the time we were in disagreement” said Wilson Turalde.

Kristine and Amiel at the Dante Seminar Room

The group also watched the 1997 sci-fi film “Gattaca” which imagined a future with genetic engineering and discrimination. This prompted reflections relevant to issues on the beginning and making of life.

On one evening after a dinner buffet, the participants sat down with Donald W. Landry, MD, PhD, chair of the Department of Medicine at Columbia University Medical Center. Dr. Landry is truly a five-star physician: a specialist in nephrology, a basic science researcher, a manager at his institution, an inspiring educator, and a sure advocate for patient care.

L-R: Amiel, Wilson, Dr. Landry, and Kristine

Bringing Home Bioethics

Near the end of the seminar, the trio from the Philippines was brought to the Witherspoon office by Felix Miller, the Director of Programs. Mr. Miller showed them the institute’s work on education and research as well as producing publications, and encouraged them to do something similar in the Philippines.

During their internship year, Amiel and Wilson were joined by a few friends to form the Biomedical Sciences and Ethics Study Group. In partnership with Universitas, they conducted a series of talks under “Inquies Pro Medicina: Conversations in Science, Medicine, Law and Ethics” aimed at recreating the experience with Witherspoon. The activities were attended by a good number of students and faculty members from the University of the Philippines Manila.

Amiel was also invited to teach as guest lecturer on bioethics to second year students in the Integrated Liberal Arts and Medicine (INTARMED) Program which he himself graduated from. As part of the history of medicine course, he shares key ideas from the summer seminar. “Despite dissenting opinions from students, I think what’s valuable is that they appreciate the sound logic that this perspective offers,” Dr. Villanueva said.

Similarly, Kristine was guest lecturer on bioethics at the Saint Louis University School. She began with asking the third year medical students regarding their conceptions on bioethics as a subject and its importance in future practice. “It is important to first know how the students perceive bioethics and use it as a benchmark for the discussion,” she said. Also included in her lecture were the perversions of the art of medicine, the importance of knowing ‘what the end goal of medicine is’, ‘why we need to philosophically think about medicine’, the reality of health, the incommensurability of basic goods, and natural law as the intersection of law and morality.

Dr. Sunga shares, “Being able to echo to my alma mater was a great privilege and a good avenue for me to open and rattle the brains of these soon-to-be doctors. In medical school you are mostly worried about trying to acquire knowledge as much as you can for your future patients and of course to pass the subjects. Bioethics is usually in the backburner and most see little importance in the subject. Hopefully these students would give more importance to Bioethics and have better judgement calls when one is faced with an ethical dilemma.” And she adds, “Who knows? One of them may even develop the passion I have with regard to medical ethics”.

Presently, Wilson and Amiel are doing residency training at PGH in adult neurology and internal medicine respectively. Meanwhile, Kristine is specializing in ophthalmology at the Baguio General Hospital.

For these three doctors, that summer remains memorable. New friends were made whom they keep in touch with online. A deeper understanding of the medical vocation was realized. And they were reminded of doing good and the goal of becoming good physicians.

NOTA BENE: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and the speakers mentioned in the article, and not necessarily to the Foundation.

Be our partner in forming principled leaders!

Universitas is a non-stock, non-profit organization relying heavily on the financial support of donors like you. Donations of any amount are very much appreciated, and would form part of the funds to be used for education, research, social welfare and outreach, and other endeavors aimed ultimately at the formation of future leaders who are competent, with the right character and a well-formed conscience.

Support Universitas today, and it only takes a minute!