Somerville, Margaret

Margaret Somerville, ethicist, legal scholar, writer (b at Adelaide, Australia, 1942). Margaret Somerville completed her first degree, in Pharmacy, at the University of Adelaide in 1963. After working as a pharmacist in Australia for several years, she returned to study law at Sydney University, graduating with an LLB. (Hons) in 1973. She then went to do a doctorate in Civil Law at McGill University. Somerville joined the McGill Faculty of Law in 1978, and went on to become the founding director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics, and Law in 1986.

For more than two decades, Somerville has been a prominent national and international figure in the developing field of bioethics and the intersection of medicine, ethics, and the law. She has served as a consultant on a range of issues to the Canadian government, the World Health Organization, and the UNITED NATIONS. Somerville is also a prolific author, writing for both academic and general audiences. Her topics range from the broad, including Do We Care? Renewing Canada's Commitment to Health (1999) and The Ethical Imagination (2006), to the specific, such as Death Talk: The Case Against Euthanasia and Physician Assisted Suicide (2002).

Somerville published her 2000 The Ethical Canary: Science, Society, and the Human Spirit hoping to foster public debate on some of the new ethical issues created by rapid developments in medical technologies. In this book, Somerville sets out her own positions, and the counter-arguments against them, on such topics as euthanasia, cloning, and cross-species transplantation. She repeatedly asks two central questions: does the new technology demonstrate a respect for life; does it threaten the human spirit?

Somerville has also maintained that it is an ethicist's job to help society pose questions on important contemporary issues, and she has therefore been in the forefront of a number of contentious debates. For example, she has been a spokesperson for society's ethical obligation to provide safe injection sites for intravenous drug users. She has also stated publicly her opinion that the legal definition of marriage should not be changed. While she acknowledges that the status quo is discriminatory against same sex-couples, she asserts that the traditional marriage definition is more than just an arrangement between two adults, but also carries with it societal rights and protections for children. She argues that as the most vulnerable members of society, children's rights should take precedence, and must remain part of any definition of marriage. Somerville's 2006 Massey Lecture, titled What We Owe Each Other, examines our ongoing search for a "shared ethics."

Margaret Somerville has earned many national and international awards and honours. She is a Fellow of the ROYAL SOCIETY OF CANADA, a member of the Order of Australia, and was the inaugural recipient of UNESCO's Avicenna Prize for Ethics in Science in 2004.

See also BIOETHICS; MEDICAL ETHICS.