What is Bioethics?What is Bioethics?
Bioethics is an activity; it is a shared, reflective examination of ethical issues in health care, health science, and health policy. These fields have always had ethical standards, of course, handed down within each profession, and often without question. About forty years ago, however, it became obvious that we needed a more public, and more critical, discussion of these standards.
Bioethics is that discussion. It takes place in the media, in the academy, in classrooms, and in labs, offices, and hospital wards. It involves not just doctors, but patients, not just scientists and politicians but the general public. Traditional ethical standards have been articulated, reflected on, challenged, and sometimes revised; standards for new issues have been created – and then challenged and revised. The conversation is often sparked by new developments, like the possibility of cloning. But bioethics also raises new questions about old issues, like the use of placebos and the treatment of pain.
What is its Impact?
Bioethics has brought about significant changes in standards for the treatment of the sick and for the conduct of research. Every health care professional now understands that patients have a right to know what is being done to them, and to refuse. Every researcher now understands that participants in their studies have the same rights, and review boards to evaluate proposed research on those grounds are almost universal.
Our understanding of what is ethical has grown, but it is never complete. Ethical advances open new questions: We now see that getting “informed consent” does not rule out exploitation (for instance, of the desperately poor or the desperately sick); exploitation is hard to define. Scientific and technological success also force new choices: What, for instance, do we do with “unused” embryos created in fertility labs?
Finally, political and economic facts are just as challenging: One example is the fact that we are able to hire doctors and nurses away from the world’s poorest countries – but should we? These are urgent, practical questions. Bioethics makes a difference; it advances slowly; and it is not finished.