Innovative ACU: Course explores biomedical ethics

Biologist, theologian team up to challenge pre-health students 


Dr. Jim Nichols, left, and Dr. Vic McCracken
Dr. Jim Nichols, left, and Dr. Vic McCracken

Photo by Paul White

For students who major in the natural sciences, much of their course material follows the scientific method: a series of logical steps to test a hypothesis or discover an answer. But when those principles of biology are applied to real-life medical situations, tricky questions often arise.

For the past 13 years, Abilene Christian undergraduates from various departments have engaged with those questions in a Biomedical Ethics course.

The course addresses issues at the intersection of science and faith and is team-taught by Dr. Jim Nichols (’66), professor of biology, and Dr. Vic McCracken (’99 M.Div.), associate professor of Bible, missions and ministry, “I think students are really hungry to wrestle with these questions,” said McCracken, who has been Nichols’ co-teacher since 2008. “We do our students a disservice when we give them pat answers. If there were easy answers, we wouldn’t spend any time wrestling with them.”

The course syllabus is broad and deep, covering beginning-of-life issues such as abortion, cloning and stem-cell research; the effects of health care systems on communities; multicultural medicine; health care policy and social justice; and end-of-life issues. Through readings, case studies and discussion, Nichols and McCracken urge students to consider not only their own moral positions on a variety of issues, but the ways in which health care policy can be crafted to deal with complicated questions.

The course is open to students of any major, which helps broaden the perspectives offered in class discussions.

“Hearing my co-teachers’ perspectives has been enlightening and the student comments are sometimes incredibly perceptive,” Nichols said. The course also has informed his work as a hospital and hospice chaplain.

“I tell students there are very few truly common human experiences,” Nichols noted. “But everyone will get sick and die and have people they love get sick and die. In these few common experiences is where our stances as God’s people in community need to distinguish us.”

“Many students have emailed us after going to medical school to thank us for this course,” McCracken added. “They tell us the ideas we explore in this class put them ahead of the curve. The course gives them space to wrestle with questions they might have to face as doctors that are not technical in nature: they’re moral questions, ethical questions.”

While the course material has always varied, the particular discussions have changed over the years in response to issues in the news, such as the health care debate on Capitol Hill, or advances in medical technology.

“The critical moral questions are the same, but the context in which they are considered does constantly change,” McCracken said. He and Nichols will continue to help students address them from a biomedical and an ethics perspective.


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