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Combating Exploitation

Career as medical ethicist took root in student protest days for Alex Capron ’66, P’15

By H.J. Hormel


“I’ve been enormously lucky to have been able to write and teach about topics that not only fascinate me but that are consequential for individuals and society,” says Alex Capron ’66, P’15, shown here at the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. His work cuts across disciplines—he’s an elected member both of the Institute of Medicine (National Academy of Sciences) and of the American Law Institute.

Civil rights and bioethics may seem like different fields but they started to gel for a Swarthmore alumnus when his copy of Anna Karenina was confiscated as obscene material during an arrest his sophomore year.

Alex Capron ’66, P’15, now a globally recognized legal expert in health policy and medical ethics, was detained during a civil-rights demonstration in Chester, Pa. Having already spent a week in jail in the fall, he planned ahead for a march in the spring, bringing along Tolstoy’s novel, which he had to read for a Russian literature class. Unfortunately, the best-laid plans often go awry, and the prison guard confiscated the classic, “convinced by its cover it was a dirty book,” Capron recalls.

His jail time helped lead him toward a legal career. An honors economics major with minors in English and history, he became interested in law when a Penn law professor took on his arrest case.

“I realized I wasn’t going to become a professor of economics, like my father,” he says, referring to the late William Capron ’42, who taught at Boston University and was one of the architects of President Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty.”

After Swarthmore, Capron attended law school at Yale, spending time in the Mississippi Delta and planning to practice civil-rights law. Plans changed, however, and he returned to Yale in 1970. He taught there and collaborated with Jay Katz, a psychiatrist on the law school faculty with an interest in medical ethics.

“I loved teaching and working on the issues being generated by advances in medicine,” says Capron. “The field of bioethics was just being born at that time.” He became a founding fellow of the Hastings Center, a nonpartisan research institution dedicated to bioethics and the public interest, where he worked on a wide range of areas, including death and dying, genetics, and behavior control.

“I think the reason I found bioethics so compelling was that it offered the opportunity to pursue the same values that had motivated my civil-rights work—protecting personal choice and promoting justice, equality, and human dignity,” Capron reflects. He credits his Swarthmore education with fostering those values, inside and outside the classroom.

“You might even say they were nurtured in the womb,” he says jokingly, since his mother was Margaret Ann “Peg” Morgan Capron ’42. The Swarthmore tradition continued with his sister, Margie ’69, and now with his son, Christopher ’15.

Having served on the Penn and Georgetown faculties, he’s been at the University of Southern California since 1985. A university professor and occupant of the Scott H. Bice Chair in Healthcare Law, Policy and Ethics, Capron teaches public health law and torts to law students, as well as medical humanities at the USC Keck School of Medicine. He also collaborates with medical colleagues and others across USC as co-director of the Pacific Center for Health Policy and Ethics.

“Right now, I’m particularly passionate about halting the exploitation of vulnerable people who are recruited to be paid organ donors in countries that attract so-called transplant tourists from Europe, North America, and the Middle East,” says Capron. He had become deeply involved in this area while serving as director of Ethics, Trade, Human Rights and Health Law at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva from 2002 to 2006.

“It’s also important to uphold the ban on organ sales in developed countries, like the U.S.,” he continues to say. “Simplistically, it may seem that creating a market would solve the shortage of organs for transplantation. But the reality is very different, because paying for organs dries up donations and exploits the poor.”

Besides the intergovernmental work at WHO, Capron has worked closely with transplant professionals to help countries focus on caring for their own patients, relying on deceased and living related donors, rather than serving foreign patients. This led in 2008 to the adoption of the Declaration of Istanbul, now endorsed by more than 100 medical and other organizations, which commits the profession to working to stop organ trafficking.

“We’re working very hard with editors of scientific journals, sponsors of transplant research, and governments, to remove every incentive for physicians to do transplants using commercially brokered organs,” he explains.

Capron, who is former president of the International Association of Bioethics, believes that in 40 years the issues surrounding organ transplantation will go away because stem cell technologies will make it possible to grow organs specifically for recipients. Until then “we need a system that doesn’t exploit the poor for benefit of rich,” he says. “This is an area where human rights and justice have motivated my work.”

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