What is Bioethics?

Bioethics concerns itself with addressing ethical issues in healthcare, medicine, research, biotechnology, and the environment.  Typically these issues are addressed from many different disciplines. People contribute to the bioethics discussion drawing on expertise and methods from the sciences, social sciences, and the humanities.  Professionals working in the field of bioethics include philosophers, scientists, health administrators, lawyers, theologians, anthropologists, disability advocates, and social workers. People may teach, do research, treat patients in the clinical setting or work to change laws or public policy. The issues of bioethics are at the intersection between medicine, law, public policy, religion, and science. Each field contributes important insights, resources and methodologies and efforts to think about or make changes to practices and policies that raise ethical concerns are often strongest when they draw on resources across disciplines. The Showcase submission formats include some commonly used formats to present bioethics-related proposals or findings.

Examples of topic areas that have been the focus of bioethics for a long time are organ donation and transplantation, genetic research, death and dying, and environmental concerns.  New developments in science and technology have focused attention on topics such as assisted reproductive technologies, neuroethics (ethical issues around brain imaging and testing), and nanotechnologies (using small particles to deliver medicine or other medical treatments).

Key ethical concerns in bioethics often involve big questions such as:

  • What should I do? How should I act?
  • How should I treat others? What are my obligations or responsibilities toward others?
  • What type of person should I be? What does it mean to be a good doctor or a good nurse or  a good bench scientist?

Big moral considerations in bioethics often revolve around questions about:

  • Whether one ought to act to maximize the best outcomes or ought to act to uphold important moral rules and duties?  Or how to do both?
  • Are we required only not to harm others or must we also act in ways that benefit them or make their lives better?
  • What should be done when we think policies or law are unethical because they don’t treat people fairly or equally? What does it mean to treat people fairly?
  • How could we design access to a scarce resource such that all people have a fair or maybe an equal opportunity to obtain that scarce resource, e.g., organ allocation policies?
  • How and when should we share information about a medical treatment to best permit others make informed and voluntary decisions about what is done or not done to their bodies?  What resources are needed to support people in making these decisions?
  • When can minors make their own health care decisions? Who should decide if a minor child’s opinions about a medical treatment for them differs from that of his/her parent(s)?

Some issues about which bioethics concerns itself:

  • Physician patient relationship
  • Death and dying
  • Resource Allocation
  • Assisted reproductive techniques and their use
  • Genetic testing and screening
  • Sexuality and gender
  • Environmental  ethics
  • Clinical research ethics
  • Disability issues
  • Consent, vulnerability, and/or coercion
  • Mental health illness, treatments, and care for patients
  • Ethical treatment of research subjects in clinical trials
  • Ethical treatment of animals