R. Alta Charo

Emerita Professor of Law and Bioethics


B.A., Biology, Harvard University, 1979
J.D., Columbia University School of Law, 1982


R. Alta Charo is the Warren P. Knowles Professor Emerita of Law and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.   In the past, she also has served on the faculty of the UW Masters in Biotechnology Studies program and the Dept. of Medical History and Bioethics at the School of Medicine & Public Health.  For the 2019-2020 academic year, she was on leave while a Berggruen fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. She later completed service as the inaugural David A. Hamburg Fellow at the Nuclear Threat Initiative in Washington DC, where she joined the biosecurity team. 

From 2021-2023, Charo was the lead co-chair of the 4S (safety, security, sustainability and social responsibility) unit of the new Dept of Defense biotechnology manufacturing innovation institute, "BioMADE" and now consults on gene therapy and genome editing in medical and enviromental applications for various pharmaceutical, gene therapy, xenotransplant, infertility therapy, and conservation genetics companies, and for the Dept of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Alta Charo (B.A. biology, Harvard 1979; J.D. Columbia, 1982) is an elected member (2004) of the World Technology Network and (2005) the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters.  In 2006 she was elected to membership in the National Academies' Institute of Medicine (IOM) (now known as the National Academy of Medicine).  In 2013 she was awarded the Adam Yarmolinsky Medal for her service to the IOM. In 2020, she was elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.  She was elected to the German Academy of Sciences (Leopoldina) in December 2022.

Professor Charo served on President Obama's transition team, where she was a member of the HHS review team, focusing her attention particularly on transition issues related to NIH, FDA, bioethics, stem cell policy, and women's reproductive health.  She was on leave 2009-2011 to serve as a senior policy advisor on emerging technology issues in the Office of the Commissioner at the US Food & Drug Administration.

Professor Charo offered courses on public health law, bioethics, biotechnology law, food & drug law, reproductive rights, stem cell policy, torts, and legislative drafting. In addition, she has served on the UW Hospital clinical ethics committee, the University's Institutional Review Board for the protection of human subjects in medical research, and the University's Bioethics Advisory Committee. She has been a visiting lecturer at law and medical schools in Argentina, Australia, Canada, China, Cuba, France, Germany, and New Zealand.  In  2006, she was a visiting professor of law at the University of California -- Berkeley, School of Law (Boalt Hall).

Prior to her arrival at UW in 1989, Professor Charo served as Associate Director of the Legislative Drafting Research Fund of Columbia University (1982-1985); Fulbright Junior Lecturer in American Law at the Sorbonne in Paris (1985-1986); legal analyst for the Biological Applications Program of the congressional Office of Technology Assessment (1986-88); and American Association for the Advancement of Science Diplomacy Fellow for the Policy Development Division of the Office of Population at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Professor Charo has authored or contributed to over 150 articles, book chapters and government reports on law and policy related to environmental protection, reproductive health, new reproductive technologies, medical genetics, stem cell research, science funding, and research ethics.  She has served as a member of the boards of the Alan Guttmacher Institute and  the Foundation for Genetic Medicine, the National Medical Advisory Committee of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and the program board of amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research.  She has also been on the boards of the Society for the Advancement of Women's Health and the former American Association of Bioethics, as well as the ethics advisory board of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.  In addition, she has served as a consultant to the National Academy of Science's  Institute of Medicine and the former NIH Office of Protection from Research Risks.

Charo has also served on several expert advisory boards of organizations with an interest in stem cell research, including  CuresNow, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, the International Society for Stem Cell Research and WiCell, as well as on the advisory board to the Wisconsin Stem Cell Research Program.   From 2005-2009 she was a member of the ethics standards working group of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.  Also in 2005, she helped to draft the National Academies' Guidelines for Embryonic Stem Cell Research, and in 2006 she was appointed to co-chair the National Academies' Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research Advisory Committee.  Later she chaired a workshop on the growing problem of misleading advertising and patient endangerment by unscrupulous clinics purporting to offer stem cell therapy.

Charo's advisory committee service for the federal government includes the 1994 NIH Human Embryo Research Panel, and (1996-2001) President Clinton's  National Bioethics Advisory Commission where she participated in drafting its reports on "Cloning Human Beings"(1997); "Research Involving Persons with Mental Disorders that May Affect Decisionmaking Capacity"(1998); "Research Involving Human Biological Materials: Ethical Issues and Policy Guidance"(1999); "Ethical Issues in Human Stem Cell Research"(1999); "Ethical and Policy Issues in International Research: Clinical Trials in Developing Countries" (2001); and "Ethical and Policy Issues in Research Involving Human Participants" (2001).

At the National Academies, Professor Charo was a member of the IOM Council, the  Board on Health Sciences Policy, the Committee on Science, Technology and Law, and the Board on Life Sciences.  She served as its liaison to the Committee on Research Standards and Practices to Prevent Destructive Applications of Biotechnology and co-chaired its committee to develop national voluntary guidelines for stem cell research.  She also served from 2006 to 2013 as a member of the Institute of Medicine's Board on Population Health and Public Health Practice as well as its Committee on Smallpox Vaccination Program Implementation and its committee to review the FDA and the U.S. national system for the assurance of drug safety. 

Professor Charo also has completed service as a member of a working group of the NIH Council of Councils, reviewing the use of chimpanzees in NIH-funded research (PDF), an IOM committee reviewing the current pediatric vaccine schedule,  an NAS committee updating the code of responsible conduct of science, an IOM committee on the use of mitochondrial replacement techniques,  and on the advisory council for the NIH National Center for the Advancement of Translational Sciences

From 2015 - 2017 she was a member of the National Academies' Human Gene Editing Initiative and co-chaired its committee charged with making recommendations on the use of gene-editing for both somatic and germline (heritable) changes in humans. She also was co-founder and then co-chair of the NAS/NAM Forum on Regenerative Medicine, served on the Program Board of the Greenwall Foundation and was a witness for the congressional panel looking at the practice of fetal tissue research.

 At present she serves on the Academies' committee on emerging science and technology issues, and just completed service on the organizing committee for the Third International Summit on Genome Editing.  She has also completed service on the World Health Organization's expert advisory committee on global governance of genome editing, and on the National Academy of Medicine committee advising the federal government on equitable allocation of the COVID-19 vaccines  She continues to serve on its committee on emerging infectious diseases.

Ms. Charo was born in Brooklyn, NY. She is fond of poker, foreign language study, cats, home renovation, Harry Potter books, old movies, roller coasters, salsa music, Jane Austen novels and Star Trek.  In her free time, she is trying - mostly unsuccessfully - to write a bioethics-driven historical romance novel set in Regency England.

Selected publications are available at: http://ssrn.com/author=549738

Her email signature lines have included, from time to time, the following:

To the wrongs that need resistance, To the right that needs assistance, To the future in the distance, Give yourselves.
-- Carrie Chapman Catt (1859 " 1947)

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
-- Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 - 1968)

Aim above morality. Be not simply good, be good for something.
Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862)

Action indeed is the sole medium of expression for ethics.
-- Jane Addams (1860 - 1935)

Always do right -- this will gratify some and astonish the rest.
-- Mark Twain (1835 - 1910)



Scholarship & Publications


Law Repository

Research Interests

  • Bioethics
  • Biotechnology policy
  • Emerging technology policy
  • Drug safety
  • Medical Research
  • Reproductive rights
  • Bioterrorism


  • Alta Charo is one of two bioethicists serving as advisers to Colossal, a company which seeks to engineer an elephant that resembles the extinct woolly mammoth. The company aims to use woolly mammoth DNA to make a hybridized Asian elephant that could thrive in Arctic climates. 

  • Alta Charo will serve as the lead co-chair of the 4S (safety, security, sustainability and society) program for the newly created biotechnology innovation consortium, BioMADE

  • Alta Charo served on the organizing committee for the "Allocation of Monoconal Antibody Therapies and Other Novel Therapeutics" workshop. She also moderated a workshop panel, "Equitable Allocation for Underserved and Marginlized Populations."

  • Alta Charo was a panelist for the New York Academy of Sciences' meetings on future lunar missions and on bioengineering our bodies and spaceships to adapt for travel to Mars. The meetings, which Charo helped organize, touched on such things as genetically editing human bodies to resist radiation or plants to thrive in zero-gravity.

  • Alta Charo presented "Beyond Borders-Genome Editing and Medical Tourism" in December 2020. Her talk was part of the Council of Canadian Academies and the Gairdner Foundation's international symposium, "Breaking Through: Delivering on the Promise of Gene Therarpy."

  • Alta Charo gave a pair of virtual talks as part of the Annual Weinberger-Vermut Genetics Ethics Lecture series: "Clinical Research and Care Considerations for Genome Editing," hosted by Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and "Challenges for Global Governance of Human Genome Editing," hosted by UCLA Health.

  • Alta Charo presented, "What's Next for Global Governance of Genome Editing," at the 2020 Annual Meeting of the Association for Responsible Research and Innovation in Genome Editing.

  • Alta Charo was appointed to the scientific advisory board for the Innovative Genomics Institute, a joint UC Berkeley/UC San Francisco venture.

  • Alta Charo co-authored "Beyond 2020: A Vision and Pathway for NIH," a critique of the National Institutes of Health with proposals for changes in how to support and diversify basic science and the scientific community in a new presidential term.

  • Alta Charo was the inaugural speaker at the University of Maryland's new Rothenberg Health Care Law and Policy Speaker Series, where she lectured on "Challenges in Equitable Allocation of a COVID-19 Vaccine."

  • In September and October, Alta Charo participated in workshops on strengthening global biosecurity architecture to prevent biological risks, convened under the auspices of the Biosecurity Innovation and Risk Reduction Initiative, a program of the Nuclear Threat Initiative led by former Secretary of Energy Ernst Moniz, with the goal of developing plans to establish an international entity to oversee global biosecurity norms and best practices.

  • Alta Charo participated in an October 20 panel discussion for World CRISPR Day titled, "The Future of CRISPR: Engineering and Educational Challenges."

  • Alta Charo is a member of the National Acadamies of Sciences committee that developed the report, "Framework for Equitable Allocation of COVID-19 Vaccine." Released on October 2, the report advises the CDC on how to prioritize access to COVID vaccines for the public when, in early stages, there is not enough for everyone.

  • Alta Charo wrote "Ruthless Health Law" for a September edition of the New England Journal of Medicine. In the essay, Charo looks at the history of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's opinions related to the Affordable Care Act.

  • Alta Charo presented "What's Next in Global Governance of Genome Editing?" at the American Society for Cell and Gene Therapy Policy Summit, held in September 2020.

News & Media

Teaching Areas

  • Bioethics
  • Food & Drug Law
  • Health Law
  • Law & Medicine
  • Law and Science
  • Legislative Drafting
  • Reproductive Rights Law
  • Torts
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