Bioethics is the study of the typically controversial ethical issues emerging from new situations and possibilities brought about by advances in biology and medicine. It is also moral discernment as it relates to medical policy and practice. Bioethicists are concerned with the ethical questions that arise in the relationships among life sciences, biotechnology, medicine, politics, law, and philosophy. It also includes the study of the more commonplace questions of values ("the ethics of the ordinary") which arise in primary care and other branches of medicine.
The term Bioethics (Greek bios, life; ethos, behavior) was coined in 1926 by Fritz Jahr, who "anticipated many of the arguments and discussions now current in biological research involving animals" in an article about the "bioethical imperative", as he called it, regarding the scientific use of animals and plants. In 1970, the American biochemist Van Rensselaer Potter also used the term with a broader meaning including solidarity towards the biosphere, thus generating a "global ethics", a discipline representing a link between biology, ecology, medicine and human values in order to attain the survival of both human beings and other animal species.
Purpose and scope
The field of bioethics has addressed a broad swathe of human inquiry, ranging from debates over the boundaries of life (e.g. abortion, euthanasia), surrogacy, the allocation of scarce health care resources (e.g. organ donation, health care rationing) to the right to refuse medical care for religious or cultural reasons. Bioethicists often disagree among themselves over the precise limits of their discipline, debating whether the field should concern itself with the ethical evaluation of all questions involving biology and medicine, or only a subset of these questions. Some bioethicists would narrow ethical evaluation only to the morality of medical treatments or technological innovations, and the timing of medical treatment of humans. Others would broaden the scope of ethical evaluation to include the morality of all actions that might help or harm organisms capable of feeling fear.
The scope of bioethics can expand with biotechnology, including cloning, gene therapy, life extension, human genetic engineering, astroethics and life in space, and manipulation of basic biology through altered DNA, XNA and proteins. These developments will affect future evolution, and may require new principles that address life at its core, such as biotic ethics that values life itself at its basic biological processes and structures, and seeks their propagation.
One of the first areas addressed by modern bioethicists was that of human experimentation. The National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research was initially established in 1974 to identify the basic ethical principles that should underlie the conduct of biomedical and behavioral research involving human subjects. However, the fundamental principles announced in the Belmont Report (1979)—namely, autonomy, beneficence and justice—have influenced the thinking of bioethicists across a wide range of issues. Others have added non-maleficence, human dignity and the sanctity of life to this list of cardinal values.
Another important principle of bioethics is its placement of value on discussion and presentation. Numerous discussion based bioethics groups exist in universities across the United States to champion exactly such goals. Examples include the Ohio State Bioethics Society and the Bioethics Society of Cornell. Professional level versions of these organizations also exist.
Many bioethicists, especially medical scholars, accord the highest priority to autonomy. Each person, e.g. patient, should determine which course of action they consider most in line with their conception of the good. In other words the patient needs to choose the best treatment for them.
Medical ethics is the study of moral values and judgments as they apply to medicine. The four main moral commitments are respect for autonomy, beneficence, normaleficence, and justice. Using these four principles and thinking about what the physicians specific concern is for their scope of practice can help physicians make moral decisions. As a scholarly discipline, medical ethics encompasses its practical application in clinical settings as well as work on its history, philosophy, theology, and sociology.
Medical ethics tends to be understood narrowly as an applied professional ethics, whereas bioethics appears to have worked more expansive concerns, touching upon the philosophy of science and issues of biotechnology. Biotechnology generally focuses on molecular biology which, can help improve the health of humans as well as prolong the lifespan of humans Still, the two fields often overlap and the distinction is more a matter of style than professional consensus. Medical ethics shares many principles with other branches of healthcare ethics, such as nursing ethics. A bioethicist assists the health care and research community in examining moral issues involved in our understanding of life and death, and resolving ethical dilemmas in medicine and science. Examples of this would be the topic of equality in medicine. Some may believe everyone should have the same health care compared to people who believe healthcare should be distributed based off medical need.
Perspectives and methodology
Bioethicists come from a wide variety of backgrounds and have training in a diverse array of disciplines. The field contains individuals trained in philosophy such as H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr. of Rice University, Baruch Brody of Rice University, Peter Singer of Princeton University, Daniel Callahan of the Hastings Center, and Daniel Brock of Harvard University, medically trained clinician ethicists such as Mark Siegler of the University of Chicago and Joseph Fins of Cornell University, lawyers such as Nancy Dubler of Albert Einstein College of Medicine or Jerry Menikoff of the federal Office of Human Research Protections, political scientists like Francis Fukuyama, religious studies scholars including James Childress, public intellectuals like Amitai Etzioni of The George Washington University, and theologians like Lisa Sowle Cahill and Stanley Hauerwas. The field, once dominated by formally trained philosophers, has become increasingly interdisciplinary, with some critics even claiming that the methods of analytic philosophy have had a negative effect on the field's development. Leading journals in the field include The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, The Hastings Center Report, the American Journal of Bioethics, the Journal of Medical Ethics and the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics. Bioethics has also benefited from the process philosophy developed by Alfred North Whitehead.
Many religious communities have their own histories of inquiry into bioethical issues and have developed rules and guidelines on how to deal with these issues from within the viewpoint of their respective faiths. The Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths have each developed a considerable body of literature on these matters. In the case of many non-Western cultures, a strict separation of religion from philosophy does not exist. In many Asian cultures, for example, there is a lively discussion on bioethical issues. Buddhist bioethics, in general, is characterised by a naturalistic outlook that leads to a rationalistic, pragmatic approach. Buddhist bioethicists include Damien Keown. In India, Vandana Shiva is a leading bioethicist speaking from the Hindu tradition. In Africa, and partly also in Latin America, the debate on bioethics frequently focuses on its practical relevance in the context of underdevelopment and geopolitical power relations. Masahiro Morioka argues that in Japan the bioethics movement was first launched by disability activists and feminists in the early 1970s, while academic bioethics began in the mid-1980s. During this period, unique philosophical discussions on brain death and disability appeared both in the academy and journalism.
Bioethics has also had its critics. Paul Farmer has pointed out that bioethics tends to focus its attention on problems that arise from "too much care", for patients in industrialized nations, while giving little or no attention to the ethical problem of too little care for the poor. Farmer characterizes the bioethics of handling difficult clinical situations, normally in hospitals in industrialized countries, as "quandary ethics". And he refers to bioethicists as "endlessly rehashing the perils of too much care". He does not regard quandary ethics and clinical bioethics as unimportant; he argues, rather, that bioethics must be balanced and give due weight to the poor.
Areas of health sciences that are the subject of published, peer-reviewed bioethical analysis include: