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Philosophy in Action

by Deirdre Kelly

photography by Sofie Kirk

Dolly the sheep. The Human Genome Project. Stem cell research. Assisted dying. The one thing all these have in common is Eric Meslin (BA ’83), a bioethicist who studied philosophy at York before going on to influence public policy debates worldwide. 

Raised in North York, Meslin rose to prominence in the mid-1990s in Washington, D.C., first as the director of the Ethical, Legal and Social Implications (ELSI) program of the Human Genome Project, then as executive director of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) established by American President Bill Clinton in 1995. 

These influential positions put Meslin at the centre of some of the world’s most important policy discussions. The ELSI program, for instance, funded cutting-edge research into the human genome. The NBAC, meanwhile, weighed in on ethical issues that arose from the birth of the first cloned sheep, Dolly, and again when scientists went on to grow embryonic stem cells in the lab. “It was exciting to be around when history was being made,” Meslin says. 

He came to sit on Clinton’s bioethics commission in 1998, recruited from the Ethics Centre at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital, where he was director. At the White House, he worked with NBAC Chair Harold Shapiro, then president of Princeton University, and the commission’s 18 members. While still in his thirties, Meslin led a 20-person staff of lawyers, social scientists and fellow ethicists undertaking research and public consultation to help the White House and U.S. Congress answer questions about the ethical acceptability of federal policies on everything from mental health studies to HIV clinical trials in Africa. “Our job was to advise, which included arguing strongly for good decisions but not telling people what to do,” Meslin says.

He credits York for teaching him to look at world problems from a fresh perspective. While taking political science courses in preparation for a possible law career, Meslin took an elective on moral problems in medicine taught by the late Don MacNiven. It changed Meslin’s life. A philosopher of practical ethics at McLaughlin College, MacNiven created a directed-reading course brimming with the subjects that Meslin would come to address as a full-time bioethicist. That course included the writings of John Stuart Mill, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Rawls, philosophers whose thinking on the common good greatly influenced Meslin’s. 

York enriched Meslin in other ways. As an undergraduate, he played on the York Yeoman volleyball team and worked part-time as a bartender at the Vanier pub, extracurricular activities he claims made him a better academic. “York was a place with a real willingness to explore the applications of ethical issues in society,” he says, “and for me, it was a great starting point.”

After York, Meslin pursued graduate studies in bioethics at Georgetown University’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics in Washington, D.C., where he took an MA in 1985, followed by a PhD in 1989. Since then, the now-married father of two grown daughters has travelled as a researcher, teacher and policy advisor to such far-flung destinations as Australia, Hong Kong and Kenya. From 2001 to 2016, he served as founding director of the Indiana University Center for Bioethics and as Indiana’s first endowed professor of bioethics. Over the past 30 years, he has also held a variety of academic positions at University of Toronto, Oxford, Cambridge, the University of Western Australia and the University of Toulouse while serving as an advisor to organizations including the World Health Organization, UNESCO, Genome Canada and the UK Biobank. 

His work has brought him recognition. In 2007, Meslin was appointed a Chevalier de l’Ordre national du Mérite for his services to French bioethics policy; in 2015, he was elected a Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences. 

Meslin, 58, returned to Canada in 2016 as president and CEO of the Ottawa-based Council of Canadian Academies (CCA), an NGO providing evidence-based analysis for use in policy decisions by the federal government and other groups. In this role, he leads a team of researchers who convene expert panels, working on challenges like antimicrobial resistance, medically assisted dying and the threat of climate change. “It’s always rewarding to contribute to big questions,” he says. “I’d like to think I’m having a modest impact.”  ■  

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