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What is a Bioethicist?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 08 November 2016
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A bioethicist is a person who works in the field of bioethics. Training for this type of career can be diverse and usually involves training with some medical/scientific background combined with other studies in ethics. In addition to these studies, the bioethicist typically has graduate work in the law, theology, or philosophy. With this education, there are many places that bioethicists might work.

Essentially, these professionals are trained to help advise others or suggest courses of action in medicine and medical research that are in keeping with ethical choices available. The way ethics is determined may be differently construed, depending on the moral system from which medical ethics arises. For instance, a Catholic hospital, when faced with a moral dilemma, might depend on the advice of a Catholic bioethicist. This person would consider the problem from the ethics that have evolved from Catholic teaching, ultimately suggesting a course of action, or several possible ones that the hospital could pursue.

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A bioethicist may do much more than advise hospitals or the occasional patient at a hospital who faces an extreme ethical dilemma. Many of these medical ethics specialists work independently of any organization and might be asked to consult about particular issues. Companies or businesses that could ask for consultations include those setting up research trials that involve humans, hospitals, medical clinics, laboratories, and others. Some bioethicists consult with or participate on think tanks that help create government policy. At this level, understanding diversity of ethical interpretation is extremely important, especially when advising for countries with extremely large and varied populations.

Another place that the bioethicist may work is in university environments. More and more schools are offering bioethics programs, instead of having people piece together the career through multidisciplinary studies. Creating programs where bioethics becomes a focus and often a doctoral degree means having professors to teach those classes. While in philosophy, medicine or other departments there may be a few people with focus in bioethics, having a large department and major in this area, means requiring a greater collection of specialists from which to learn this discipline.

Some may still be confused about the tasks a bioethicist could accomplish. As mentioned, they tend to advise, teach, help set policy, create research protocol, and answer or suggest solutions on ethical dilemmas. This last often creates the confusion, since what is an ethical dilemma in medicine? Actually there are many, and people may be very familiar with them. A few issues in which bioethics could have interest include the following:
1) When does life begin?
2) To what degree does treatment purposed affect quality of life?
3) Is a treatment/experiment respectful of life and of small danger to humans undergoing it?
4) At what point should treatment be halted?
5) What degree of research is permissible on humans and what level of development makes up a human (stem cell research)?
6) Does abusive treatment of humans means results of research should be discarded?

There could be many different answers to these questions, depending on moral, theological and even political leanings. Bioethicists don’t always agree on these huge issues, but they base their arguments on a study of ethical systems. This helps them create rationalization for the things they advise, but doesn’t necessarily come up with single answers on which all in medicine/ethics can agree.

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