“Bioethics” is a term that was first coined by a German pastor, philosopher, and educator in 1927 (Sass, 2007). The term became more common in the 1970s (Cooter, 2004) and according to the bioethicist Sherwin “bioethics emerged in the late 1960s from two major areas: research ethics and clinical medical ethics (Sherwin, 2011). Bioethics intersects with eugenics most pointedly around practices such as prenatal and preimplantation genetic testing for the purpose of quality controlling potential off-spring, the application of various genetic technologies such as gene therapy and human enhancement and topics such do not resuscitate and various forms of euthanasia.
Bioethics: a potted history
In 1927, Fritz Jahr published the article “Bio-Ethics: A Review of the Ethical Relationships of Humans to Animals and Plants”, proposing a “bioethical imperative,” extending Kant’s moral imperative to all forms of life (Sass, 2007). (Whitehouse, 2003) states that in the American context the term “bioethics” was coined by Van Rensselaer Potter (Potter, 1970) as an attempt to integrate biology and values designed to guide human survival. A 2004 Lancet article claims that the term “bioethics” was coined for the USA in 1970 independently by two fractions namely Van Rensselaer Potter, on the one side, and R Sargeant Shriver and André Hellegers of the Catholic university at Georgetown, Washington, DC on the other side (Cooter, 2004). Both sides had quite a different understanding of what bioethics should entail.
Cooter stated: “Whereas for Potter “Man’s survival may depend on ethics based on biological knowledge, hence bioethics”, Shriver and Hellegers needed a catch-all term to describe philosophising around biomedical dilemmas, especially that done by people outside the medical profession. While Potter saw bioethics as a new discipline combining science and philosophy, the Georgetown philosophers and theologians regarded it as a branch of applied ethics” (Cooter, 2004), p 1749). According to (Whitehouse, 2003) Potters understanding was mostly ignored. Jahr’s understanding of the word also was not reflected in the Georgetown definition. According to Sherwin, “bioethics emerged in the late 1960s from two major areas: research ethics and clinical medical ethics (Sherwin, 2011) a statement that reflects a view of bioethics history that did not see Jahr or Potter as the ones giving it its meaning but an understanding that is more in tune with Shriver and Hellegers understanding. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics (UK) understanding also reflects the definition of Shriver and Hellegers when it describes bioethics as follows:
Ethics is about what we ought or ought not to do. Bioethics is one branch of ethics. Since the 1970s the term has been used to refer to the study of ethical issues arising from the biological and medical sciences. According to the Encyclopedia of Bioethics (1995. p. 250) it encompasses: “the broad terrain of the moral problems of the life sciences, ordinarily taken to encompass medicine, biology, and some important aspects of the environmental, population and social sciences. The traditional domain of medical ethics would be included within this array, accompanied now by many other topics and problems. (Nuffield Council on Bioethics; London, 2014).
Resnik outlines various key events in regard to research ethics from 1932-2014 (Resnik, 2014). The Hastings Center--originally named The Institute of Society, Ethics and the Life Sciences--the first Centre organized around bioethics questions, was founded by the philosopher Daniel Callahan and the psychiatrist Willard Gaylin, M.D. in 1969. There are not only many topics covered under the umbrella of bioethics there are also many different ethics theories employed within bioethics(Arras, 2010). One influential approach to guide bioethical reasoning is based on the four principles:
Autonomy – one should respect the right of individuals to make their own decisions
Nonmaleficence – one should avoid causing harm
Beneficence – one should take positive steps to help others
Justice – benefits and risks should be fairly distributed
(introduced by Beauchamp & Childress, 1979).
Bioethics and eugenics
There are many forms that eugenics takes. Diagnostic technologies such as prenatal and preimplantation genetic testing or ultrasound can be used to look for genetic and morphological ‘deviances’ that one then want to act upon through termination of pregnancy of selection of an embryo for implantation use with IVF procedures. These technologies and actions mostly fall within negative eugenics. Various genetic technologies are also under development for the purpose of somatic and germline gene therapy and genetic enhancement which mostly would fall under the area of negative eugenics. A lively policy debate exists for some time that looks into how and under what circumstances to apply these diagnostic and genetic modification technologies.
Bioethicists have been involved in the discussions of eugenics and of the technologies mentioned for some time. If one searches the journal Bioethics, a leading academic bioethics journal, for the term “eugenics”, 88 articles are found; n=119 cover prenatal testing, n=27 preimplantation testing, n=81 “gene therapy”, n=175 IVF and n=297 euthanasia. Recent development to enhance the human body through genetic and non- genetic interventions is also already covered by bioethicists with the journal Bioethics having n=42 articles on “human enhancement” and n=38 covering “genetic enhancement”. Articles that cover the emerging field of synthetic biology which is about building genomes from the bottom up are also already covered n=12 in the journal.
We continuously find new ways to modify biological matter including humans and to act out negative and increasingly positive eugenic ideas. The Canadian Supreme Court just thrown out the prohibition of assistive suicide in Canada indicating another area that will now be even hotter debated in Canada. As such bioethics will continue to be an important field
Arras, J. (2010). Theory and Bioethics. from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/theory-bioethics/
Beauchamp, T. L., & Childress, J. F. (1979). Principle of Biomedical Ethics.<.i> NewYork/Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Cooter, R. (2004). Bioethics. The Lancet, 364(9447), 1749.
Nuffield Council on Bioethics; London, U. (2014). What is Bioethics? , from http://nuffieldbioethics.org/about/bioethics-faqs/
Potter, V. R. (1970). Bioethics, the science of survival. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 14(1), 127-153.
Resnik, D. (2014). Research Ethics Timeline (1932-Present). from http://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/resources/bioethics/timeline/
Sass, H.-M. (2007). Fritz Jahr's 1927 concept of bioethics. Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, 17(4), 279-295.
Sherwin, S. (2011). Looking backwards, looking forward: Hopesfor bioethic's next twenty five years. Bioethics, 25(2), 75-82.
Whitehouse, P. J. (2003). The rebirth of bioethics: extending the original formulations of Van Rensselaer Potter. American Journal of Bioethics, 3(4), 26-31.