I've had considerable feedback both in the form of blog comments and off-line e-mail regarding the previous post on bioethicists and conflicts of interest. One e-mail raised a factual issue which I have tried to correct in an addendum to the original post.
However a couple of writers have raised a response which I need to identify and challenge. The claim is that Dr. Glenn McGee may have done something ethically questionable, if not actually shameful, by becoming an executive and spokesperson for a for-profit company that markets unapproved stem cell therapy. But this is of no interest to the field of bioethics. If there is shame, it falls solely on his own head.
Sorry, in my view, this won't wash. When I do our course on "professionalism" for our medical students, if one of them says, "Look, if I want to have sex with my patients, I will go ahead and do it; if somebody objects, the responsibility is solely my own and has nothing to do with the professional of medicine as a whole," then I would gently try to set him or her straight on what professionalism means. (OK, maybe not quite so gently.) The idea that becoming a part of a profession constitutes a sort of collective promise of ethical behavior to society at large is a concept that many of our students, imbued with good ol' American individualism, resist mightily. I would argue that nonetheless it is the only way to think coherently about the concept of professionalism as an ethical or normative (not as a sociological or descriptive) notion.
Now, just what bioethics is has been debated for decades, and many assert for good reasons that it is not a profession as such. (There is, for instance, no standard licensing exam.) That said, and not boring you with that debate, I would assert that bioethicists should regard themselves as professionals, and most are in fact professionals of one stripe or another--physicians, nurses, attorneys, university professors. So I think bioethics cannot evade the implication that bad behavior by one of us reflects badly on the entire "profession" or field or whatever; and without that assumption I would have had no grounds for calling attention to Dr. McGee's behavior or offering my opinion of it.
One writer suggested in an e-mail that Dr. McGee has now left the field of bioethics, so presumably if he wants to make a bundle of money doing something questionable (to put it as kindly as I can), so be it. If that were true, I wish he would have said so, instead of accepting a position that has "ethics" in its official title.
NOTE ADDED 2/29/12: Nature has chimed in with news coverage to confirm that Celltex is not only banking and growing stem cells, for a hefty price tag, but also is involved in injecting the cells into patients, which is not FDA approved and is considered unproven therapy:
The Nature coverage also quotes Dr. McGee as claiming that he's at work designing new, ethically sound rules for Celltex's research, which again does not suggest that he thinks he has "left the field" of bioethics. It may be worth noting that no one at Celltex, Dr. McGee included, was willing to answer Nature's questions on the record regarding what treatments thay are now offering to patients.