Marshall-Walker Publishes Article on Bioethics

Drawing from her experience teaching an interdepartmental bioethics elective course at Andover, Christine Marshall-Walker, Instructor in Biology, published an article titled “Raising the Next Generation: Bioethical Education for a Post-Genomic Age” in National Association of Independent Schools’ (NAIS) Winter 2013 issue of Independent School Magazine. Her article discusses how to effectively integrate bioethical discussions into preexisting biology and philosophy curriculums.

The article addresses the incorporation of classroom discussion on advancements in reproductive technologies and genetic mapping of embryos and fetuses, as these technologies greatly affect the way potential parents think about pregnancy and the idea of starting a family, according to Marshall-Walker.

Testing such as imaging and detection for issues in embryos and fetuses often bring about a set of moral questions for modern parents, according to Marshall-Walker.

“For example, if it is shown through testing that an embryo or fetus is not developing normally like it should, should the parents terminate the pregnancy? People have already, and will continue to face these kinds of moral questions,” she said.

Marshall-Walker believes that a collaborative effort between teachers and parents, including an in-depth bioethical education at school, will equip young adults with skills necessary to handle the moral dilemmas that accompany today’s rapid advancement in technology. She also hopes to address an increasing need for teachers to incorporate the subject in existing core curricula.

“I feel that many biology teachers are starting to become motivated and wanting to teach this type of moral inquiry embedded in a more traditional biology course, but they have a lot of questions as to how it would work,” said Marshall-Walker.

“How you can structure the course? How to incorporate it into pre-existing curriculums smoothly? It seemed to me that these kinds of questions were up in the air. So I thought that there needs to be at least a little bit of sharing of what I’ve learned from running this elective course here at Andover,” she continued.

Marshall-Walker drew on her experience teaching an interdisciplinary elective course on bioethics called “Humanities in the Post-Genomic Era” with Vincent Avery, a former instructor in Religion-Philosophy. The interdisciplinary course examines biological issues that challenge the current understanding of humanity and provides a brief introduction to ethics and philosophical anthropology and their roles in setting public policy, according to the Andover course catalog.

“Every individual has a different take on various moral questions we address throughout the course, and they are asked to form a philosophical stance using biology as a tool to support their claim [and] make the opinions more grounded,” said Marshall-Walker.

Marshall-Walker and Avery received a grant to work over the summer to design the elective together in 2009, and Marshall-Walker worked as a visiting scholar at the Hastings Center in Bioethics during the summer of 2010 to further develop the course. They first taught the course during Winter Term in 2011.

Prior to teaching at Andover, Marshall-Walker was a developmental neuroscientist, working for a postdoctoral research fellowship at Harvard Medical School for five years after obtaining her doctorate at Columbia University on neurobiology.

During her medical education, she studied the development of the brain and examined how different parts of the brain take shape to serve specific functions at different stages of pregnancy.

As she learned more about the process of brain development in fetuses and tests during the first and second trimesters to detect genetic abnormalities, Marshall-Walker became curious and concerned about the moral dilemmas that accompany the advancement in technology.

“I think it’s a natural progression for developmental biologists to start thinking about ethical questions, and most do come to a point when they become more interested in the philosophical questions,” she said.

Marshall-Walker started working on the article in 2010 as a scholar in residence at The Hastings Center, a nonpartisan bioethics research center. She had originally intended it to be specifically for the bioethics community, but as she taught the elective course at Andover, she decided to concentrate on the educational aspect of bioethics.

This was Marshall-Walker’s first published research paper on education and bioethics, but she has written numerous papers on developmental neuroscience while working as a researcher.

In the future, Marshall-Walker said she hopes to collaborate with Avery Publishing Group on a book that will provide guidelines on bioethics and family ethics for couples thinking of starting a new family.