The Inge Lotz Foundation, which was established by her father Prof Jan Lotz after the 22-year old Stellenbosch University (SU) student was tragically murdered in her Welgevonden flat in Stellenbosch, has donated R1 million to the Unit for Bioethics at SU.
The Unit is situated in the Centre for Applied Ethics in the Philosophy Department of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and is headed up by Prof Anton van Niekerk, who specialises in bioethics, the philosophy of religion and philosophy of the human sciences. Van Niekerk is also the Director of the Centre, which consists of four units – the Unit for Bioethics, the Unit for Environmental Ethics, the Unit for Business Ethics and Public Integrity, and the Unit for Social and Political Ethics.
The donation, says Van Niekerk, “liberates the Unit to explore areas that we otherwise would not have been able to do because of financial constraints".
Prof Lotz is a well-known radiologist and an Emeritus Professor in the Division of Radiodiagnosis at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at SU. He completed an MPhil in Bioethics at the unit, with Dr Susan Hall supervising his thesis.
“Over the years my interactions with Prof Lotz grew and we had many conversations about his interests," says Van Niekerk.
“During our most recent conversation this year, Prof Lotz indicated that his foundation would be interested to become more involved in the work of the unit. But I was completely surprised when he offered to make a donation of R1 million to the unit. This donation will free us up to pursue a number of new research projects, one of which is a study on human enhancement that I am working on with some of my colleagues and postgraduate students, as well as other ventures. One of these ventures involves looking into the moral issues emerging from the government's proposed National Health Insurance Scheme, which will bring with it a conundrum of moral and ethical issues."
In addition, the unit hopes to also use part of the funding for postgraduate bursaries.
Bioethics, explains Van Niekerk, is one of the oldest as well as one of the most recently emerged academic disciplines of Western society. It is the discipline that led the Greek medical philosopher Hippocrates to formulate the Hippocratic Oath, an oath (in amended form) taken by medical practitioners up to this day to show their commitment to the ethical care of all patients. However, in spite of this oath, says Van Niekerk, ethics had for many centuries not been taken very seriously and had only been taught as an add-on to the curriculum of medical students.
“But as our knowledge has grown, medical personnel have started to wield enormous power over sickness, health, and even death. And history has shown us what this kind of power can lead to."
The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, says Van Niekerk is such an example. In this instance, a medical experiment was conducted in Tuskegee, New Mexico, in order to establish whether penicillin might be an effective treatment for syphilis. The project, which involved 600 black males and started in 1932, eventually lasted for 40 years, despite penicillin already being identified as an effective treatment for syphilis in 1947. Of the individuals who participated in the control group and only received placebos – this in spite of penicillin already being known to effective – 128 passed away due to complications from syphilis and syphilis itself.
“It was quite clear that penicillin was working as a treatment. However, there were some doctors who argued that they would want to see the “natural progression" of the disease. Since it was already clear that penicillin works, the motivation for continuing the experiment with a control group that only received the placebo, was wholly unpersuasive, yet it continued for a long time. This experiment was continued with government funding until the time when Nixon was President of the United States. It was clear that it was an immoral experiment. Because government money was used for this research, Nixon as President was obliged to make a public apology for these actions," explains Van Niekerk.
“This is when people started to realise that health care workers are not necessarily moral angels, but could also become moral monsters in the pursuit of immorally acquired knowledge."
Advances in technology and medicine in the course of the 20th century, says Van Niekerk, have brought with them many ethical questions and have played a big role in medical treatment and even in how we define death.
“One of the main factors that changed how we thought about death, was when Prof Chris Barnard transplanted a heart. We had to ask ourselves: can we be sure that the patient's whose heart is removed for a transplant is really dead? As a result, the criteria for establishing death were changed. Every new development in technology requires us to ask new questions around the morals and ethics that inform medical decision-making."
All of these examples, says Van Niekerk, motivate why donations like that made by the Inge Lotz Foundation are so vital.
“We are extremely honoured to have received this donation and excited about the possibilities that it has opened up for us in bioethics. I want to personally thank Prof Lotz, whose involvement in the unit led to this donation, but also the foundation's Board of Trustees who made this donation possible."
Photo insert: A R1 million donation was made to the Unit for Bioethics in the Centre for Applied Ethics at Stellenbosch University by the Inge Lotz Foundation recently. Inge Lotz (pictured) was a Stellenbosch University student who was tragically murdered at the age of 22. (Supplied)