Md. philosophy class gets a real-world question: Should professor give a kidney?

St. Mary's philosophy professor Michael Taber offered his class an unusual challenge.
St. Mary's philosophy professor Michael Taber offered his class an unusual challenge. (Matt McClain - For the Post)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 23, 2010; 10:22 PM

In late August, students in Philosophy 380 at St. Mary's College of Maryland received an unusual assignment centered on this question: Should the professor donate a kidney to a stranger?

Organ donation, a subject ancient philosophers hardly could have imagined, often comes up nowadays in college courses because of the ethical implications of the many stunning breakthroughs of modern medicine.

St. Mary's professor Michael Taber wanted to push the topic a step further, making it personal instead of theoretical. He figured it would show students a connection between their education and the real world. He also was curious whether the discussion would change with the stakes raised.

"It's easy for philosophy seminars to get lost in the clouds," said Taber, 51. "I wanted them to take the readings and seminar discussions and apply it to a concrete decision."

In 2009, there were more than 13,600 kidney donors in the United States, federal data show, about 6,300 of them living and the rest dead. Meanwhile, more than 87,000 people are awaiting a kidney donation, which would enable them to forgo dialysis treatments and potentially add years to their lives.

Medical advances in the past 20 years have made it easier and safer for living donors to give one of their two kidneys. Still, most such donations are made to help a relative or close friend.

Taber first considered giving a kidney more than five years ago, after one of his students wrote a paper about the end of life and how varying definitions of death affect organ harvesting. Sometimes he would broach the possibility of donation in a class discussion. A few years ago, he talked about donation with his wife and took a blood test.

As the school year began, though, he had yet to answer several daunting questions: What did his family think? What risks did he face? Would he need that kidney in the future? Would this be an altruistic act or an egotistic one?

He asked his eight students in the seminar to study the subject, formulate a yes or no recommendation and write a paper explaining their reasoning.

In an initial discussion in October, the students mostly agreed that donating a kidney was an upstanding thing to do. But as talk shifted to their professor, the issue became more complicated.

The students realized, "Oh wait, this is a real thing. This isn't an exercise," said Lex Cosenze, a junior majoring in anthropology, philosophy and history. Although philosophy students sometimes like to debate whether to save a train of orphans headed toward a cliff or save one beloved person, Cosenze said, "you don't get something this huge in your day-to-day life."

Many St. Mary's students meet Taber through a first-year leadership program. Taber, who has taught at the public college in Southern Maryland since 1987, is known on campus as a friendly, fatherly mentor.

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