Graduate Theological Union

A Moral Agent

2005 GTU Alum of the Year Laurie Zoloth

Laurie Zoloth (M.A., Ph.D. ’93) has spent her professional life reminding doctors, researchers, and government officials of their shared responsibility to society and humanity. “You are going to be a doctor,” she tells her students, “and if I have anything to do with it, a decent moral agent in a complex world.”

Zoloth has taught at Northwestern University since 2003. She is currently professor of medical humanities and bioethics and of religion, the director of the Center for Bioethics, Science and Society at the Feinberg School of Medicine, and professor of Jewish Studies in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. From 1995 to 2003 she was professor of ethics and director of the Program in Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University. Zoloth earned both her master’s in Jewish studies and her doctorate in social ethics from the Graduate Theological Union in 1993.

The Politics of Science and Health
Zoloth’s work focuses on the intersection of class, race, and gender with healthcare and biotechnology. When examining technologies like cloning and stem-cell research, she searches for the economic and social implications. “What is triggering the drive to develop this technology? How do we do it with justice and compassion?” she asks. “Who will be able to avail themselves of these advances?”

Her concern about the greater good goes beyond domestic issues. The first moral philosopher to sit on the National Advisory Council for NASA, Zoloth is currently a member of its Planetary Protection Committee, an international group that oversees safe and environmentally sound space exploration. She also sits on NASA's Animal Care and Use Committee. A visiting faculty member with Haifa University, Zoloth has served on the boards of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, the Society for Jewish Ethics, and the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities.

Where Theology and Technology Meet
Zoloth’s background in Jewish scriptural study guides her ethical views. She is deeply concerned that theological and ethical questions be raised in the public arena. “It is the job of the ethicist, perhaps especially the Jewish ethicist, to worry, to make trouble, especially about the meaning of the vulnerable self and the state,” she says.

For her lectures on bioethics, Zoloth has mined the Hebrew scriptures for themes such as justice and forgiveness?the debts people owe one another and how they are released. She has explored stories of betrayal, slavery, and sacrifice. Her essay on reproductive cloning, “Born Again: Faith and Yearning in the Cloning Controversy,” draws from several sources: the book of Job and its paradoxical rabbinic commentary that notes women brought death into the world, rabbinic analysis of the Tower of Babel and Noah’s Ark as new technologies, and modern texts exploring the desire to overcome deaths caused during the Holocaust, what she calls “the yearning for the genetic, scientific fix for history itself.”

Excellence on the Cutting Edge
As the director for Northwestern’s Center for Bioethics, Science, and Society, Zoloth oversees several groundbreaking projects, including the study of health care allocation in the foster care system and the exploration of the ethics of nanotechnology. This fall, Northwestern was named a Center of Excellence in Translational Human Stem Cell Research by the National Institutes of Health. It is home to the NuGene genetic banking project that will collect and match the DNA of 100,000 individuals with their health profiles. The project will create a database that researchers can use to examine the role genes play in the development and treatment of common diseases.

Laurie Zoloth describes herself as part of a generation of GTU scholars trained by an outstanding faculty to care about justice within bioethics. Now, almost 20 years after helping to organize the Jewish students and faculty of the GTU to stand against apartheid in South Africa, she is training another generation of professionals to address injuries to not only the body, but the spirit, the family, and society as well.

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