Myra Christopher, who led Kansas City's Center for Practical Bioethics for most of its existence, retired from the center last week.
Christopher was president and CEO of the center from its inception in 1985 until the end of 2011. Until she retired Friday, she was a researcher focusing on pain and palliative care. With her in those roles the center grew to national prominence, but also drew congressional scrutiny for accepting funding from the opioid industry while weighing in on best practices for pain treatment.
In an email to friends and supporters this week, Christopher called bioethics a "growth industry" and said she hopes they will continue supporting the center as it grapples with issues like lab-grown eggs for infertility treatment; insurance coverage for pre-existing conditions; maternal, fetal and child death rates and denials of hepatitis C treatment for people in Missouri prisons.
"When I say support, I’m not just talking about financial contributions, although those are very important," Christopher wrote. "I hope you will read Center publications and messages, attend events and join our conversation online and in the 'real' world."
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John Carney, the center's current president and CEO, said in a written statement that the staff and board of directors "express our heartfelt gratitude for Myra's 3.5 decades of service to the organization, the community and the nation."
"We offer her congratulations for a job well done," Carney said. "We would also like to acknowledge the indelible mark she has left on the field of bioethics and to advancing the cause of better care and health outcomes for patients and families, especially those who are most vulnerable."
Carney noted that Christopher was a 2017 recipient of the American Society of Bioethics and Humanities Lifetime Achievement Award.
Under Christopher's direction the center went from being a unique start-up (a free-standing, community-based bioethics center rather than one based at a university or hospital) to a regional think tank.
She made her mark initially as an advocate for palliative care and for empowering patients and their families to have more say over end-of-life care — a topic that gained a national spotlight in 1990 when a Missouri family sued the state for the right to remove a feeding tube from their daughter, who was in a persistent vegetative state following a car wreck.
The suit went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 that the feeding tube should remain because the daughter's end-of-life wishes were not clearly stated in writing.
Working with Christopher and the Center for Practical Bioethics (known at the time as the Midwest Bioethics Center), U.S. Sen. Jack Danforth, a Missouri Republican, pushed for legislation to require hospitals and other medical facilities that receive Medicare and Medicaid payments to inform patients about living wills and other ways to ensure their care wishes are followed.
The Patient Self-Determination Act took effect in 1991.
Christopher's later work studying what she called the under-treatment of chronic pain proved more controversial because of her ties to a major opioid manufacturer.
Purdue Pharma, the maker of Oxycontin, provided $1.5 million in seed money to endow the position Christopher held — the Kathleen M. Foley Chair for Pain and Palliative Care — after her tenure as president. Purdue also sponsored some of the center's events.
The center is one of several non-profit organizations whose opioid industry funding has been scrutinized by U.S. Senate committees since 2012. A report one of the committees released earlier this year found that the non-profits that took money from the opioid industry "often echoed and amplified messages favorable to increased opioid use."
A spate of lawsuits, including more than a dozen in Missouri and Kansas, have since been filed against Purdue and others by state and local governments across the country. The suits say the drug companies misled doctors and the public about the addiction risks of taking opioids for chronic pain, leading to a national opioid crisis that causes thousands of overdose deaths every year.
Carney said the center hasn't received any money from Purdue since 2016, when it got a single $500 unrestricted donation for its annual dinner. He said Purdue's gift to help establish Christopher's position only came after the company signed documents agreeing it would have no influence over how the money was spent.
Carney said the center has made no decisions about naming a successor to that position.