Becoming an Ethical Healer
Bioethics noun: a branch of applied ethics that studies the philosophical, social and legal issues arising in medicine and the life sciences. It is chiefly concerned with human life and well-being.
Dr. Devan Stahl didn’t start her professional life intending to become a bioethicist. She was well on her way to becoming an academic theologian while attending Vanderbilt University Divinity School. But a serious illness altered her career path and made her realize that many physicians aren’t great at talking to — or with — their patients.
And so, instead of concentrating on her plans to become an academic theologian, “I actually got into chaplaincy because I thought, people are so vulnerable when they’re ill, and they have these new diagnoses and need someone to talk to about that. Sometimes that person is their physician, which was great. But often it’s not because physicians aren’t trained to do that really well,” she said.
During Stahl’s time as a chaplain, she met a bioethicist.
“I thought that being a bioethicist was just an incredible job,” she said. “So, I followed her around and learned what she did and decided that was the sort of profession I wanted to go into.”
That experience eventually led to Stahl earning a PhD in healthcare ethics from Saint Louis University.
Stahl is now an assistant professor of religion at Baylor, where she teaches bioethics. Beginning with its debut in the Fall 2021 semester, she also oversees the new Bioethics Certificate program in the College of Arts & Sciences.
“It is an interdisciplinary certificate that shows that students who have earned it have a competence in bioethics,” she said. “It extends across a number of different Baylor departments. It is probably the most appealing to students in prehealth, premed, nursing, social work — anyone who plans on working in a health field one day.”
“[The Bioethics Certificate] extends across a number of different Baylor departments.It is probably the most appealing to students in prehealth, premed, nursing, social work — anyone who plans on working in a health field one day.”
Dr. Devan Stahl
To earn a Bioethics Certificate, which is noted on a student’s transcript, candidates are required to complete 12 hours from a variety of theoretical and applied bioethics courses. Two of the courses are required — Introduction to Medical Ethics and the upper-level course Bioethics, the latter of which Stahl teaches. For the remaining six hours, students can choose from 14 additional courses in disciplines such as medical humanities, anthropology, religion, public health, social work and history.
“It’s a small group of courses that are really focused,” said Dr. Paul Martens, associate professor of ethics in the Department of Religion and director of interdisciplinary programs for the College of Arts & Sciences. He also serves as acting director of the Baylor Ethics Initiative.
“A certificate is meant to give you a focus of study in one particular field, so that when you’ve done the sequence of courses in the certificate, you have substantial knowledge — focused knowledge — in one particular thing,” Martens said. “That’s the place of the certificate in the undergraduate curriculum in the College of Arts & Sciences.”
The first certificate program offered through the College of Arts & Sciences was the Certificate in Spanish for Health Professions, which debuted in 2018 and is designed to help healthcare workers relate more effectively to Spanish-speaking patients. The Bioethics Certificate is the second offered by the College, and Martens said certificate programs in other areas are being investigated.
A knowledge of bioethics is especially important, Stahl said, due to the sheer complexity of the medical field. In her work as a bioethicist, Stahl is often called on “to help physicians and nurses think through difficult things they’re experiencing in patient care,” she said.
“They don’t necessarily train you to manage ethical conflicts in medical or nursing school,” Stahl said. “There’s more training in ethics now, but it’s so complicated. In other professions there are often right and wrong answers to ethics questions, but in healthcare there is a lot of gray area. Healthcare professionals always want to help their patients, but it’s not always clear whether help means giving people all the treatments they want, or whether to say no because the treatment patients want won’t make them better.”
Stahl said bioethical questions often arise at the beginning of life and at the end of life, and answers rarely come easily.
“At the beginning of life, no one wants to see a child in pain and suffering, or potentially even have a life cut short, so those beginning-of-life questions are so complex,” Stahl said. “And at the end of life, we really want to help people die well. There’s an incredible fear amongst people that they’re going to be hooked up to a bunch of machines and die in a hospital. Very few people want to die that way. We want to be able to give them everything possible to make sure that that’s not the case. But taking away medicine at the end of life can sometimes feel like we’re giving up on people.”
Macie Hutto, a junior medical humanities major, was one of the first students to express an interest in the new Bioethics Certificate. She learned about the program during a conversation with Dr. Anne Jeffrey, assistant professor of philosophy, when Hutto was a student in Jeffrey’s Introduction to Medical Ethics class.
“I looked at all the courses [for the Certificate], and they were already courses I was going to take, or similar to ones I was going to take, but they had a greater focus on bioethics,” said Hutto, who is planning to attend medical school after Baylor. “And I thought the things we were looking at in class — how a lot of issues have so many different perspectives, and how what you believe, your morals, your values, have such an impact on the way you view certain situations — were all very interesting.”
The medical ethics course gives students a broad overview of how to think through a problem ethically and looks at virtues that are needed to come to ethical conclusions.
“We’re catching them at the beginning and the end,” Stahl said
Stahl said her upper-level class also looks at bioethical issues but from a Christian perspective.
“What are the resources in the Christian tradition that we use? What are the values of Christians? How do we apply this idea that we have of who we are as Christians to very real cases and questions? It’s not always as easy as it sounds,” Stahl said. “We have this idea that we all have dignity, we’re made in the image of God and we have to care for people. But that doesn’t necessarily tell me that the child in front of me needs palliative care or that we should give them the full-court press of all the treatments possible. It doesn’t translate easily. Bioethics is about how to integrate those kinds of values in this decision-making process.”
The study of bioethics came about in the 1960s, Stahl said, “so it’s a fairly new discipline.”
“More and more schools are offering either majors, minors or certificates in bioethics,” she said. “Colleges want to help people get into the health professions, which are incredibly competitive — especially medical school. So, any way you can give a student a leg up is helpful.”
But giving prehealth students a valuable addition to their résumés is not the only reason to offer training in bioethics.
“Some students, of course, end up deciding they want to go on to become bioethicists,” Stahl said. “I’ve only taught my bioethics course here for one semester, and I've already had two students from that course go into graduate work in bioethics. They want to be bioethicists, which I thought was pretty amazing. There are a lot of job opportunities for bioethicists.”
Those job opportunities are the positions that were once held by “the founders of bioethics,” who are now retiring. There wasn’t much of an up-and-coming group of bioethicists until recently, Stahl said, “so there’s this new, young group of bioethicists who are getting these amazing jobs that were sort of being held on to by the founders.”