Beyond the personal: Jonathan Marks argues for broader definition of bioethics

David Pacchioli, Multimedia by Emily Wiley
April 02, 2007

For Oxford-trained barrister Jonathan Marks, the route from London to University Park has been somewhat circuitous. So was his path to the field of bioethics.

In late 1999, after almost a decade of practicing commercial, environmental, and human rights law in various European courts, Marks became involved in the landmark Olivieri case. Prominent Canadian hematologist Nancy Olivieri blew the whistle on potential adverse side effects of a new drug she was testing, despite threats of legal action by the drug's developer, Apotex, Inc., intended to deter her from disclosing her concerns. Olivieri's employers, Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children and the University of Toronto, the latter then in the process of negotiating with Apotex for a multi-million dollar donation allegedly failed to intervene on Olivieri's behalf, and it took several years of legal battles to vindicate her. "The case raised important issues of academic independence, and the ethical dilemmas that arise when the pharmaceutical industry funds research," Marks remembers. "Working on the legal aspects for several years really awakened my appetite for bioethics."

Coming to the United States after 9/11, Marks taught international law and the law and ethics of counterterrorism at Princeton and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before his appointment as a Greenwall Fellow in Bioethics at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins in 2004. In the fall of 2006, seeking to combine his various interests, he joined the Penn State faculty as an associate professor of bioethics, humanities, and law.

"The public face of bioethics," Marks notes, "concerns itself with hot-button issues, frequently at the level of patient care—cloning, stem cells, physician-assisted suicide, and a dozen others." He himself has written extensively on one such issue: the involvement of medical professionals in the interrogations of prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detainment camp.

But underlying those issues, Marks argues, are larger, policy-level questions that are too often neglected, questions involving access to healthcare, the conduct of clinical trials, regulatory oversight, and disaster preparedness. While they may not make for compelling television, he says, these larger questions are no less matters of life and death. "For every hour that Congress debated over whether or not Terry Schiavo's feeding tube should be removed," Marks has written, "two Americans died for lack of healthcare."

Last Updated May 19, 2016