What is Bioethics?

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  • Written By: Michael Anissimov
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 12 September 2019
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Bioethics is a relatively new field, existing in nascent form since Antiquity but only emerging as an academic discipline in the 1960s. Bioethics concerns itself with ethical questions brought about by advances in biology and medicine. For instance, is assisted suicide just?

Bioethics can also be described as focusing on ethical questions brought up by connections between biotechnology, medicine, life sciences, politics, philosophy, law, and theology. The field is often characterized by conflicts between those who see Christian philosophers, such as the Pope, to be the prime authority on questions of bioethics, and progressives like Peter Singer, who approach the field from a utilitarian rather than Biblical perspective.

The first centers devoted to studies of bioethics were formed in the early 1970s. These include the Hastings Center (originally The Institute of Society, Ethics and the Life Sciences), which was founded in 1970 by psychiatrist Willard Gaylin and philosopher Daniel Callahan, and the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, founded at Georgetown University in 1971. Principles of Bioethics, the first textbook on bioethics, was published shortly afterward by James F. Childress and Tom Beauchamp. This textbook approached the field and its questions from a Christian perspective.


In subsequent decades, more voices were added to the discussion, and rapid advances in medicine and biology granted additional importance to the field. High profile right-to-life cases like those surrounding the deaths of Karen Ann Quinlan, Nancy Cruzan, and Terri Schiavo made bioethical questions a focus of public debate and editorialism. A series of respected thinkers in bioethics emerged, coming from such diverse backgrounds as philosophy, law, theology, and medically-trained clinician ethicists.

In 1995, President Clinton established the President’s Council on Bioethics, a specialized body for advising the President on matters of biomedical ethics. This body became the focus of considerable controversy throughout the term of George W. Bush, when it was accused that the body was almost exclusively composed of Christian-affiliated neoconservatives, and that one scientist had been fired for advocating stem cell research.

Some of the topics that come up in bioethics include assisted suicide, organ transplantation, end-of-life care, abortion, the definition of consent, genome sequencing, cryonics, life support, transhumanism, psychosurgery, reproductive rights, genetically modified organisms, medical malpractice, lobotomy, gene therapy, animal rights, artificial insemination, artificial life, chimeras, brain-computer interfacing, reproductive and therapeutic cloning, and many others. Besides just focusing on present-day bioethical issues, bioethicists also look to the near-term future, when advances in biology and medicine will open up many more ethical questions. Some bioethicists have even proposed that entire avenues of research, such as stem cells and cloning, should be abandoned for the sake of "human dignity."


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