Whose profit? Why bioethics needs a global perspective

Global justice and human rights are remarkably absent in discussions of bioethics. Julien Harneis

Innovations deriving from genetics research, stem cell research, nanoscience and neuroscience will soon revolutionise medicine.

With the potential for biotechnologies to alter natural processes and redefine what it means to be human, it’s hardly surprising that there’s been growing interest in bioethical issues.

Bioethics as a field

Bioethics has grown rapidly as a professional field since its emergence in the United States in around 1970.

While it is multi-disciplinary in perspective, in practice the field is dominated by moral philosophy, a discipline concerned with articulating and defending the rights and wrongs of behaviours.

So bioethics has been preoccupied with applying abstract principles to concrete situations. For example, the principle of autonomy has been applied to research involving human subjects.

These abstract principles – autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence, and justice – were pioneered and popularised by Tom Beauchamp and James Childress, in their multi-edition book Principles of Biomedical Ethics, originally published in 1979.

While such principles have served, and to some extent continue to serve, a useful purpose in the field, the limits and indeed dangers of their application are becoming increasing apparent.

As one bioethicist has argued, the doctrinal application of bioethics principles, or so-called principlism, has “thinned” public debate on substantive questions arising from new biotechnologies.

According to prevailing accounts of bioethics’ history, these principles were originally developed to resolve dilemmas arising from the increasing use of technologies in biomedical research and practice.

These dilemmas include the use of life support systems, such as dialysis machines, and technologies of reproduction.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.