Bioethicist Françoise Baylis appointed to the Order of Canada

- July 6, 2016

Françoise Baylis (Graham Kennedy photo)
Françoise Baylis (Graham Kennedy photo)

Dal bioethicist Françoise Baylis has spent her career pondering some of the thorniest issues in contemporary medicine from stem-cell research to the sale of sperm or ova.

But she says her aim all along has been rather simple: to make the world a better place.

“I know that that sounds soppy, but it’s kind of how I live my life,” says the Canada Research Chair in Bioethics and Philosophy at Dal.

Dr. Baylis has been published widely, served as an expert voice in the public policy making process, and been an outspoken advocate on women’s health issues over the years, particularly those pertaining to assisted human reproduction.

Earlier this year, Dr. Baylis became the first Dal faculty member to receive the Distinguished Academic Award from the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT). And now, she’s been presented with one of the highest civilian honours in the country: the Order of Canada.

Dr. Baylis was one of 113 new appointees named to the order late last week in a pre-Canada Day announcement from Governor General David Johnston, which cited her contributions as a “champion of health care ethics in Canada” and her role in “creating forums to discuss current medical ethics issues” for her appointment as a member.

“I’d like to believe that what is being recognized is a long-term, consistent orientation to fight for the good, however one chooses to understand that,” says Dr. Baylis, who joined Dal’s Faculty of Medicine in 1996 with cross appointments in Philosophy as well as Obstetrics and Gynaecology.

She joins the likes of Dal faculty members Fred Wein (Social Work) and Mary Anne White (Chemistry), who were appointed to the Order earlier this year, as well as other recent honourees such as Susan Sherwin (Philosophy, Gender and Women's Studies), Tom Marrie (Medicine), and President Emeritus Tom Traves.

A scholar in demand

Dr. Baylis’s fascination with bioethics began more than 35 years ago in a first-year philosophy class at Laurentian University not long after scientists had created the world’s first baby by in-vitro fertilization (IVF).

Rather than jumping straight into a survey of philosophical texts, the professor asked students to think about a recent directive from the Vatican saying masturbation was wrong in the context of IVF and assisted human reproduction.

“I thought, ‘What, I can actually question? I can actually entertain the idea that the Vatican is wrong about something?’” she remembers. “I thought, ‘Wow, if this is philosophy, I can do this.’”

Even though bioethics was technically not even a discipline at the time, she was hooked on the topic then and there and became one of the leading scholars in the field over the years.

In the early 2000s, Dr. Baylis was very involved in helping do work on the guidelines for stem-cell research in Canada and on legislation for assisted human reproduction. Some of that legislation has changed over the years, but she remains engaged in the debates to this day, through her academic work and more public-facing channels.  

For instance, Dr. Baylis heads up the Impact Ethics research group at Dal, an interdisciplinary team that explores issues straddling the health, bioethics and public policy realms. The group runs an eponymous blog that’s aimed at engaging broad academic and non-academic audiences and improving ethics literacy — a project that she says fits into her philosophy of advocacy and impact.

“Our big-picture goal is to support democracy by helping people to understand what the issues are and what is at stake and how they can then think about and position themselves vis-à-vis the science,” she says.

In addition to running short, topical pieces by experts in the field, they also give a voice to patients and others outside of academia. Dr. Baylis says by encouraging global discussions on important scientific developments, she also has an obligation to help people participate in that discussion — something she achieves with the blog and as a regular guest on CBC and Radio-Canada and in other media outlets.

The important things

The Order of Canada is hardly the first accolade Dr. Baylis has received for her work. In addition to her recent CAUT award, she was inducted into the Royal Society of Canada in 2007 and is a member of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences.

“We are extremely proud to have Dr. Baylis appointed to the Order of Canada,” says Dr. Martha Crago, vice-president of research at Dalhousie University. “This award is recognition of her significant contributions as a champion of health care ethics in Canada, and we are thrilled to have her contributing to our Dalhousie community every day.”

Dr. Baylis says there have been some fundamental shifts in the field over the years, one of which is the growing influence of money and private companies on how some of these bioethical questions are now considered. She says it is becoming harder to raise concerns or objections without being cast as a “bio-Luddite” who is resistant to change, a claim some have made about her.

“What I try to say back to people is that is not how I understand my work,” she explains. Instead, she advocates for something called “slow science,” especially when it comes to radical new developments in areas such as human gene editing.

“I’m not saying, ‘Stop, stop, stop.’ I’m saying, ‘Slow down, there are really important things happening here and you don’t want to make decisions off the cuff and then wake up five or 10 years down the road and say how could we have done this without understanding that is where you were going.”

Celebrating achievement

Dr. Baylis was not the only individual with Dal connections who was announced as an Order of Canada recipient last week: seven alumni and five honorary degree recipients (LLD) were also among the ranks.

  • Isabel Bassett (LLD'95)
  • Timothy Borlase (BA'73, BAHC'74)
  • Sharon Carstairs (BA'62, LLD'13)
  • Roberta Jamieson (LLD'90)
  • John McCall MacBain (LLD'10)
  • Terrence Montague (MD'72)
  • Robert Pace (BA'75, MBA'77)
  • James Walker (PhD'73)
  • Howard Weston (LLB'74, LLD'13)
  • James Wright (PGM'82)


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