At the Center

Article excerpt

The Czech Connection. Ten years ago, in the summer of 1991, we held in Prague the last of a series of bioethics conferences in central Europe. Supported by a grant from the Soros Foundation, we had met earlier in Pecs, Hungary, and in Dubrovnik, Croatia. Those meetings had been informative and productive--literally opening new worlds for both lecturers and participants--but for me the Prague meeting had a special importance. It was the beginning of a decade-long relationship, continuing to this day, with the Charles University Medical School in Prague, where I was later to be appointed an Honorary Professor.

I had first visited Prague in August of 1968, a month after the Soviet invasion. It was a cold and tense city, heavy with threat and despair. By 1991, two years after the "Velvet Revolution," it was a city of hope and vitality. Bioethics, it turned out, had played a small but interesting part in that revolution: it was a vehicle for discussions about freedom and justice, of a kind that were not tolerated in the political sphere but were hardly irrelevant to it. But bioethics has not had an easy time in the Czech Republic. Forty years of Communist domination had shriveled intellectual initiative, and a much longer tradition of a paternalistic and heavily hierarchical medicine only added to the obstacles. Formal lectures, with little give and take, remain the rule.

The students, I am told, have gradually become more interested in ethics, but--in ways reminiscent of the early struggles in American medical schools in the 1970s--faculty interest remains tepid. Over the years, I have played a minor role in organizing conferences for faculty members, but it has been rare to draw more than twenty to thirty participants (and a conference on human subject research once drew only fifteen). …