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Friday, September 24, 2004 - Page updated at 12:53 A.M.
Adding women's voices to debates over bioethics
By Luke Timmerman
Hinsch had already been following digital technology's influence on society. She was nearing the end of a 12-year stint at Microsoft, where she had responsibility at one time for selling up to a billion dollars of software.
But this was weightier ethical turf. On runs, she asked her friend, "Have you thought about the unintended consequences? What might happen when there is widespread testing of unborn babies for genetic diseases? What do our genetic makeups reveal about us?"
It wasn't a fleeting curiosity. Hinsch left Microsoft and went to study bioethics at Harvard. She's now back in Seattle to start the Women's Bioethics Project, a think tank that aspires to have national-level influence on policy. Its goal is to amplify women's voices in debates over how biotechnology and trends in health care are changing the way we live.
The project is still at an embryonic stage. Since January, Hinsch has assembled a basic plan and a roster of more than 125 supporters, including prominent women in academic bioethics, law, politics, marketing and the biotechnology industry. She has hired a staffer, and is recruiting a board of directors.
Hinsch has personally invested $50,000, but says she isn't rich enough to float the organization on her own. She has just begun fund raising toward a goal of $1 million by year's end.
But fundamentally, Hinsch said the group does believe in abortion rights. It favors the advancement of technology, but not without an ongoing discussion about societal consequences. It also aims to protect vulnerable people, asking questions like whether an expensive new drug improves society's health, or widens the gap between haves and have-nots.
She said the think tank aims to be independent, and does not intend to boil down issues like stem-cell research into simple left- or right-wing political footballs.
The questions being raised are tough, futuristic and commonly overlooked in public debate: Who is harmed when women are excluded from clinical trials of new drugs? What is the impact of commercial surrogate motherhood on minority and immigrant women? Will it become obligatory to enhance children genetically before they are born?
Many of the issues are settled in individual court cases, without public debate, Hinsch said.
"I thought, 'How are we going to figure this out?' " Hinsch said. "In the past, we looked to government to provide regulation, or to religious institutions to provide guidance, but I found that all of those institutions were lacking in their ability to keep pace with biotechnology issues."
When Hinsch organized a kick-off meeting on a sunny late-June evening at a private club in Seattle, she drew an overflow crowd.
In her speech, she warned that "extremely conservative" groups "are weighing in, framing the debate, and if we don't get involved, it is they, rather than us, who will influence the course of public opinion."
H. Stewart Parker, chief executive of Seattle-based Targeted Genetics, a leading woman in biotechnology, said Hinsch has "found a real opportunity, and a real void."
"This has potential to be a great tool, to be a responsible group asking these questions," she said.
Hinsch is more animated talking about the issues than about her background or philosophies. She's 45, and lives in Seattle with her husband, a software developer. She has no children.
Hinsch was born and raised Catholic in a middle- to upper-class suburb of Detroit. She drifted away from the church in her teens, partly over its stance on abortion, she said.
She became such a fan of politics and moderate Republicans in the late '70s that she moved West to attend The Evergreen State College in Olympia. She said she admired former Gov. Dan Evans, who at the time was Evergreen's president.
She later went on to work on Evans' U.S. Senate campaign, and then as a policy analyst for moderate Republican Gov. John Spellman. She moved to Microsoft in 1986, got experience in press relations, and left in 1998 as senior director of worldwide marketing for Windows CE.
After that intense experience, Hinsch traveled, ran a marathon, and gave away some money. She became an Episcopalian, because of that denomination's tolerance and inclusiveness, she said. She went to Harvard in 2002. "I needed a new identity," she said.
Wylie Burke, a well-known bioethicist at the University of Washington, said she's an enthusiastic supporter of the think tank, partly because of the strategy, and because of Hinsch's organizational skill.
"I'd like to live in a world where we didn't need the Women's Bioethics Project, but that's not the world we live in. We'll miss things in the debate if women's voices aren't heard," Burke said.
Other bioethicists around the country who haven't joined the project say they are intrigued.
Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said, "I think the need for such an institute will fade in the years to come as more and more women enter what has been a male-dominated field. But for now this new project has an important role to play if it can secure financial support and sponsor high-quality meetings and research."
There will be plenty to discuss, said Susan Wolf, a leading feminist bioethicist at the University of Minnesota. "Practically every issue in biotechnology has implications for women, but that doesn't mean there is one women's voice. Hopefully it will represent a range of views," she said.
Cool, a scientist who co-founded Ceptyr, a Bothell-based biotech company, said the project could stumble if it doesn't align itself with the biotechnology industry. The industry has a history of branding critics as fools who don't understand the benefits of technology (think genetically-modified crops). "It's arrogance," Cool said.
Still, Cool said, many in biotech want a thoughtful debate about ethics. The industry needs it, she said, because a poorly-informed ethical firestorm, over something such as prenatal genetic testing, could stall the field.
She said she believes Hinsch can find the balance of being independent and influential.
Hinsch concedes getting the organization rolling is harder than she imagined, like starting a business. Her supporters say they still think she can lift it off the ground.
"Kathryn has got organizational skills from Microsoft, she knows how to take an idea and build an industry around it," Cool said. "She has tremendous people skills. ... And the need for what she's doing is great. It's a crying need."
Luke Timmerman: 206-515-5644 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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