Alice Herb (’55, LL.M. ’92)
For the past thirteen years, Alice Herb has been Assistant Clinical Professor of Family Practice and Associate at Law, Division of Humanities in Medicine at State University of New York, Downstate Medical Center. In addition, she has been a visiting professor at Sarah Lawrence College since 1996. Prior to her current role as attorney-ethicist, Herb was a producer, director, and writer for ABC News as well as independent news and cultural affairs cable programs from 1966 through 1988. After receiving her J.D. from NYU School of Law in 1955, she practiced law for eleven years.
Herb serves on a wide variety of ethics committees and is a member of the New York State Bar Association, the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities, the American Society of Law, Medicine and Ethics, and The Hastings Center. Herb has authored numerous publications, including two articles which will be published this fall: Cochlear Implants in Children: Ethics, Informed Consent, and Parental Decision-Making, Journal of Clinical Ethics, co-authored with A. Berg and M. Hurst; Three Stubborn Misconceptions About the Authority of Health Care Agents, NYSBA’s Health Law Journal, co-authored with K. Burke and R. Swidler.
Interview with Alumnus/Alumna of the Month
Alice Herb (’55, LL.M. ’92)
What is your area of specialization and how did you come to work in this area?
I specialize in health law and bioethics. I teach, I consult, I advocate. My present professional career is my third; I began as a practicing attorney, then became a TV journalist and am now an attorney-ethicist. Bioethics has enabled me to combine my professional skills and personal experience in pursuit of a more humane health care environment.
I came to bioethics as a result of an interview I did with a surgeon. A very thoughtful man, he raised ethical issues that he thought would occupy medical thinking for many years to come. The more I thought about what he said the more interested I became. Ultimately it led me back to the Law School and the LL.M. I earned in 1992.
Do you believe the recent debate over the Schiavo case will affect or provoke change in the judicial and legislative process that is currently in place for patients who are in a persistent vegetative state?
I am loath to predict what will occur in this hyper-charged political atmosphere. I do believe, however, that politics should be kept out of this very private domain of decision-making. It is the right of every individual to decide how (s)he wishes to be treated. Personal autonomy should reach beyond a person’s capacity to make decisions; everyone should be able to make their wishes known for the future by way of an advance directive—a health care proxy, living will or other documentation of preferences. Even oral declarations heard by family, friends and others can serve to provide “clear and convincing” evidence of wishes. Personal choices reflect personal values and/or religious beliefs that should be respected and should be free of public or state interference. In the Schiavo case, the state legislative and executive branches sought to override the judiciary, and the U.S. Congress attempted to empower the federal judiciary to overcome state judicial decisions. In both instances, these extraordinary efforts were made even though the U.S. Supreme Court refused to intervene. In any event, this was a “bad” case that would make “bad” law. We should take note, however, and protect against another such travesty.
What do you think is the most critical medical ethics issue facing us today?
There are several critical medical ethics issues:
Stem cell research would head my list. Once again politicization of the issue has overtaken the scientific facts and rationale. Stem cell research holds much promise in the treatment of debilitating and terminal illnesses, but the ethical issues involved in the research must also be carefully evaluated in line with the guidelines proposed by the National Institute of Science.
Gene therapy is another critical issue. Much research is still needed, but the ethical implications are myriad. Will such gene therapy be confined to changes for the individual or will we permit changes that will affect future generations?
Research ethics in general remain a critical issue. Generic issues such as informed consent, confidentiality/privacy issues in the age of DNA identification, and evaluation of clinical trials, particularly pharmaceutical trials, still need serious attention. In addition, international research efforts continue to stir up ethical concerns.
Issues of death and dying will likewise keep us occupied.
What was your first job out of law school?
My first job out of law school was with a law firm specializing in personal injury/tort work. I worked there for six months until I found work with a single practitioner specializing in commercial law. I should stress that it was rather difficult for women to find work in 1955. I received letters from law firms stating outright that they did not hire women!
Who are your role models in the legal profession?
I don’t know that I actually had role models when I first practiced law. There are, however, several attorneys/judges whom I have always admired. Among them are Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., Justice Thurgood Marshall, Lawrence Tribe and those intrepid souls who successfully both teach a new generation and toil for the vulnerable among us.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
Teaching is a great reward when students become involved and that spark of enthusiasm leads them to expand their thinking, to reflect seriously about their beliefs and learn to respect other peoples’ values and beliefs. Consulting is rewarding when consensus is reached, and a patient is freed of technological tethers and dies quietly amidst family who are at peace with the decision.
How did your years at NYU School of Law prepare you for the career you have had thus far?
My early years at NYU School of Law trained me to think differently. The structure of legal thinking and analysis is excellent training. Even for those like me who do not practice law in a conventional manner, the training was an intrinsic part of my intellectual development. In fact, I cannot remember not being an attorney since I graduated at age 22. My second stint at NYU School of Law was wonderful. I was working full-time getting on the job training in bioethics while taking courses in constitutional law, health law, and ethics. Every course I took was and remains relevant to my work.
How do you balance work and life?
Balancing work and personal life is extremely difficult, although at this stage in my life, it is perhaps easier. I was widowed when my children were quite small, and the mandates of work and obligations to family were often impossible to reconcile. It seemed that something was always sacrificed. One needs to have a sense of humor to put matters into perspective. It has been a rich life, if at times overwhelming.
If you could chose another profession to be in, what would it be?
I did work as a TV journalist for more than 20 years. I was torn between law and journalism for many years. Bioethics has been a fine resolution of this conflict.
What advice would you give to current students?
Be vitally interested and involved in whatever you do. We spend so much of our lives working that we better love what we do. And if we love what we do, it is easy to be invested and do well. Take the time to think about what you really want to do. If it turns out not to be the right choice, or is no longer engaging, you can change. I am a good example of that.