Bioethics Blogs

For whom the bell tolls: precision medicine, private virtue and the public good

On Saturday our Assistant Director Peter Mills was in Washington, DC, to present at the AAAS Annual Meeting on Global Science Engagement. The following is a transcript of his talk from the session on Precision medicine and bioethics

I want to preface my remarks by saying something about what I see as the work of bioethics in relation to the emergence of precision medicine. Bioethics is often seen, wrongly, as impeding science and innovation: an unnecessary subterfuge that distracts from the ‘vital’ work of science and raises obstacles in the path of progress. I want to recall that what drives developments in bioscience and biomedicine – and the funding of science and scientists – is a profoundly moral impulsion to improve human health and wellbeing. Bioethics is not against but on the side of this impulse. It recognises, however, that to achieve its ends this impulse has to find expression in a more complex moral and social reality.

No man is an island

My starting point is a simple observation about precision medicine that may appear trite but that I think, nevertheless, has some non-trivial and mostly unresolved implications. The observation is this: that, in general, the precision with which we can treat any one person depends upon the quantity, quality and variety of information we can obtain from a great number of other people. The more data we have about the multitude, the better we may treat the individual.

In the early seventeenth century, recovering from a sickness that brought him close to death, the English metaphysical poet and divine, John Donne, put it well when he wrote:

No man is an island entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main;

The proposition that the advance and the very effectiveness of precision medicine depends upon the cooperation or contribution of many people together immediately foregrounds something about the relationship between an individual and the other members of the population of which they are a part.

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.