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What is Medical Bioethics?

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  • Written By: Klaus Strasser
  • Edited By: J.T. Gale
  • Last Modified Date: 30 November 2016
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Medical bioethics is the study of ethical issues stemming from the development of medical and biological technologies. People who are medical bioethicists discuss the moral and normative quandaries that arise from such advancements. A derivative of the classical philosophical study of ethics, these issues can be approached from the perspective of fundamental philosophical questions. Since many medical bioethics issues address the future of humanity as a whole, these debates typically pose deep questions concerning the essence of what it means to be a human being and what it means to live within a society.

The study of medical bioethics is a diverse area of philosophical investigation. Examples of issues include abortion, assisted suicide, genetic cloning, organ donation, health care, and human stem cell research. Medical bioethics argues for or against these notions, using traditional concepts such as individual rights or normative values. It differs from bioethics in its emphasis on issues related to the medical and health care fields.

Medical bioethics became a wholly independent branch of ethical study in the 1960s. This was due in part as a response to information being made public about the Nazi biomedical experiments conducted during World War II. In the early 1970s, many of the first institutes devoted entirely to the study of medical bioethics were formed.

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According to the relative nature of ethics, medical bioethicists possess many contrasting opinions. Insofar as it is difficult to reach a consensus on any moral or ethical issue, medical bioethics reflects this same tension. Arguments in favor of or against abortion, for example, may stress the right to life of the fetus, or give significance to a woman’s right to choose.

Medical bioethicists that emphasize traditional or conservative viewpoints construe the emergence of new medical and biological technologies as potentially disrupting the traditional structure of society. Others may view these technologies as conflicting with inherited religious values. In contrast, medical bioethicists may argue that an individual’s personal liberty must be protected against any societal or communal standards and rules. Other perspectives, such as those of transhumanists, endorse the utilization of technology for the creation of a new and superior form of human being.

Since most medical bioethicists are trained in philosophy, they typically see the advantage of examining these issues through debate and dialogue. Being both aware and respectful of the variety of different ethical viewpoints that exist, solutions usually should be approached in a manner that is considerate to other perspectives, rather than exclusionary. The emphasis on interdisciplinary approaches to medical bioethics has led many non-philosophers to become active in the field. These ethicists may come from, for example, theological, scientific, or medical backgrounds.

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