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, practice, and research. 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 (Greekbios, 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.
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.
Medical ethics is the study of moral values and judgments as they apply to medicine. 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. 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.
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 the 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.
Areas of health sciences that are the subject of published, peer-reviewed bioethical analysis include:
Kilner, John et al. (1995). Bioethics and the Future of Medicine: A Christian Appraisal. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. ISBN 0-8028-4081-7
Kilner, John F., Arlene B. Miller, and Edmund D. Pellegrino (eds.). (1996). Dignity and Dying: A Christian Appraisal. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co.; and Carlisle, United Kingdom: Paternoster Press. ISBN 0-8028-4232-1
Meilaender, Gilbert (2004). Bioethics: A Primer For Christians. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. ISBN 0-8028-4234-8