NEW YORK—When Ana Lita was a child in Romania she used to sing to her father’s mentally ill patients.
She was afraid of patients who would attempt to touch her. “But my father told me ‘to replace that fear with love, for they have an incurable illness,’” she recalled.
From her childhood in a small Romanian village to her current role as executive director of the nonprofit, Global Bioethics Initiative with an office at United Nations Plaza, Lita has always been deeply concerned about having a moral regard toward others.
She grew up in a village where fewer than 300 families lived, about 75 miles from Romania’s capital. It is called Surdulesti, after a deaf shepherd who was the first one to gather a community there. “I come from this village that means nothing in the universe, but I can make a change,” she said.
Lita could have used her doctoral degree to live an affluent life. Instead she co-founded an independent nonprofit organization. Global Bioethics Initiative does policy research to help improve the global quality of life—working on issues such as organ trafficking and health care.
She said she is able to have empathy for others because she was brought up with unconditional love.
“If you are loved, then you can learn how to love more than yourself,” Lita said.
“In romantic love, the love for the significant other is often the projection of an ideal,” she said. “But unconditional love has no expectations. My parents never asked me for anything.”
Lita’s first love was opera singing. She was trained in piano, clarinet, and voice at a vocational school in Romania. She didn’t have much time left to play games after school, but she didn’t mind because she loved music.
“Music was never torture,” she said. “It was hard work, like learning a language, but I never disliked it at any point in my life.”
Lita is a highly disciplined woman. She speaks English fluently even after learning it at age 30. In addition to her native Romanian, she also speaks Italian and Russian.
She listens to Chopin when she gets ready in the morning. She likes to break into song, especially when thinking of Pavarotti, and despite objections from her friends.
Unfortunately, she never became a professional singer because she failed the national exam required for college.
“I cried for two weeks,” she said. But then she turned to philosophy.
She took an ancient Greek philosophy class in high school and was greatly inspired by its focus on goodness, love, and ethics. “I always thought about what is the meaning of our lives?” she said. “As Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living.”
She went on to get a bachelor’s degree in history of philosophy from the University of Bucharest in Romania. “It was the most beautiful part of my life,” she said. “No matter how passionate I was about music, I always loved philosophy, and French.”
Lita believes in acquiring knowledge for knowledge’s sake. By the time she graduated from high school, Lita was already fluent in French. She learned it for the sake of the beauty of the language.
Living in Romania under communism, opportunities were few and traveling was forbidden. When the communist party fell in 1989 it was a “shocking but desirable fall,” she said, as she remembered how the streets were shut down at night due to electricity shortages.
It was then that she decided to learn English and found a teacher who taught her grammar. In the evenings, she went home and shut herself off from Romania. She only watched English films and listened to English recordings.
Later she took her sense of discipline with her to Prague. There she got her master’s in sociology from the Central European University, and spent her free time studying for the GRE and TOEFL exams.
Naturally, she received a full scholarship in 1995 to get a doctoral degree from Bowling Green State University, where she specialized in applied moral and political philosophy.
She went on to teach philosophy for a year as an assistant professor at Lincoln University in Missouri, and later became a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics.
Nine years ago, she moved to New York City.
“It’s a city with free exposure to culture,” she said. “You meet people you would never meet otherwise.” In her free time, she likes to go to Little Italy to practice her Italian and to Queens to practice her Russian and Romanian.
Bioethics at the United Nations
In 2011 Lita co-founded the Global Bioethics Initiative with Charles Debrovner, M.D.
Bioethics was an area of study that came about after 1954, when the first kidney transplant took place in Boston, raising questions about the ethics of organ donation and wait lists.
“Bioethics is the intersection of biology, medicine, theology, law, and philosophy,” Lita said. “It’s important not only for doctors, but also policymakers, as well as everyday people.”
Organ trafficking exists because there is an unmet demand. “Every 85 minutes someone on the organ wait list dies waiting for an organ,” she said.
Currently the United Nations does not have a protocol for how to deal with organ trafficking. It is listed as a subset for human trafficking, and part of Lita’s work is trying to change that.
“Why do I do what I do? Because so much needs to be done to improve the life of those who are vulnerable, and I came from a country that was very vulnerable,” Lita said.