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Understanding Bioethics


Bioethics is the study of the controversies that emerge with medical and biological advancements. It is generally more concerned with human life, but occasionally deals with the ethics involved with nonhuman life such as animal and environmental rights. Bioethicists ask questions that deal with morality in science. This infuses the fields of politics, law, medicine, religion and science into a larger question of right and wrong. Bioethical issues have been a controversy for centuries. However, the seriousness of bioethics were not fully realized until the discovery of the horrific medical experiments performed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. As an academic research field, bioethics first emerged in the 1960s with the advancements of organ donation and end of life care. The questions of how and when to withdraw care were at the forefront of the movement. It was not until the 1970s that bioethical organizations and policy centers were founded. Since its academic founding, bioethical issues have become prominent news stories including the bitter debate and legal action surrounding the Terri Schiavo case.

Purpose and Scope

The purpose of the bioethics field is to discuss the morality of certain medical advancements and technologies in a civil and intellectual manner. Bioethicists disagree on the issues and even the scope of the field. Some bioethicists feel that only human matters should be on the table, but others feel bioethics should include all sentient beings that feel pain. The issues generally include quality and sanctity of life subjects. Many of the issues question the boundaries of a life as with abortion and euthanasia. Should human technology allow an individual to choose when and which lives begin and end? As well, bioethics takes on the matter of scarce healthcare resources such as organ donation and resource rationing. Should patient affordability or sickness level keep a patient from receiving needed healthcare? Additionally, there is the subject of religion and cultural beliefs intermingling with medicine. Should a patient be able to turn down life-saving treatment due to personal conviction?


Five of the major issues currently facing the field of bioethics are abortion, euthanasia, eugenics, human cloning, and stem cell research.


Abortion is the removal of a fetus or embryo from a woman's uterus resulting in the termination of a pregnancy. The controversy over abortion is actually a greater debate over when life truly begins. Pro-choice bioethicists place emphasis on the ability of a woman to have power over her own body while anti-choice supporters believe life begins at conception. As the public and political debates over abortion are overwhelmed by religious beliefs, pro-life bioethicists are generally secular in their reasons and merely view a fetus as a human life.


Euthanasia refers to the act of purposefully ending a life to eliminate untreatable suffering. It brings up the question of what constitutes a life worth preserving and what lengths should be taken to preserve said life. Supporters of euthanasia view the course of action as a relief to unnecessary suffering if a patient it going to succumb to an incurable disease either way. However, opponents view life as sacred and fear a slippery slope into allowing treatable patients to die of their own well.


Eugenics is a type of DNA manipulation that creates selective breeding to improve the human race. Bioethicists who support gene selection obviously want to see the advancement of the species along with the extinction of certain genetic diseases. However, critics are worried about the slippery slope that could occur. Since eugenics has been associated and discredited by the Nazis radical experiments to achieve an Aryan race, many opponents worry that one race will be deemed inferior and eradicated. This of course is the extreme argument, but opponents debate that eugenics could lead to discrimination against certain races, disabled individuals, or even hair color.


Human cloning is the scientific production of an identical human cell, tissue, or entire body. Bioethicists that support human cloning see the benefits of regenerative medicine in terms of organ or tissue donation. This would eliminate the risk of a body rejecting a transplant and the issue of scarcity of organs and tissues to be donated. Critics fear that the process will produce an onslaught of severely disabled children since the cloning process has not been perfected. As well, they fear that cloning humans for their body parts will produce human farming and the killing of clones for their vital organs.


Stem cells are capable of multiplying themselves through mitotic cell division and embryonic stem cells even possess the ability to differentiate into a range of specialized cell types. This makes them incredibly valuable to disease research. The controversy surrounds the use of these embryonic cells. Supporters see the potential this research has in curing diseases such as Parkinson's Disease. As well, the majority of embryos used for research are left over from in vitro fertility treatments and are on their way to being destroyed anyways. However, most of the opponents are also pro-life on abortion. They see the embryos as the potential for new life and destruction of such embryos as the destruction of life.

Additional Resources

Background Material: a list of resources on specific bioethical issues from The President's Council on Bioethics.

Bioethics and Brain Death: an informative article on the ethical issues involved with treating a brain dead patient.

End of Life Issues: a resource guide to the facts and controversies of end of life care.

What is Bioethics?: A definitive article from The Center for Practical Bioethics.

International Bioethics Committee: an overview and the mission of the IBC.

Berman Institute of Bioethics: a research institution of John Hopkins University with information on current bioethics issues.

Abortion: an overview of the key aspects of abortion as well as the issues facing bioethicists.

Stem Cell Research: an article on how this issue is a crossroads between science, religion, and politics.

Bioethics and Science: a compilation of articles from the The Center for American Progress.

Eugenics, Contraception, Abortion, and Ethics: an ethical look at reproductive rights.

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