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Bioethics: Definition, Importance, and Scope Term Paper

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Updated: Sep 3rd, 2021

Wikipedia encyclopaedia defines Bioethics as the ethics of biological science and medicine. It is concerned with the ethical questions that arise on the relationships among life sciences, biotechnology, medicine, politics, law, philosophy and theology. Abuses of human subjects in biomedical experiments, especially during the Second World War, brought world wide attention to the framework that should guide any scientific research. According to Wikipedia encyclopaedia, in the era of Second World War, during the Nuremberg War Crime Trials, the Nuremberg code was drafted as a set of standards for judging physicians and scientists who had conducted biomedical experiments on concentration camp prisoners. This code is credited with jump starting the interdisciplinary field now called bioethics. Bioethical principals are principles that should underlie the conduct of biomedical and behavioural research involving human subjects. In the United States, a National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioural Research, was set up in 1974 under the National Research Act and was charged with the duty of identifying the basic ethical principles and guidelines that should guide the conduct of biomedical and behavioural research involving human subjects. The guidelines were published in 1979. It further received a boost when President Clinton directed the Advisory Committee to uncover the U.S history of human radiation experiments during the period 1944 to 1974 since first human radiation experiment was carried out tin 1944 and bioethical Act was enacted in 1974.

Why do we need to have bioethics?

One of the criticizers of scientists Merton (1973), said that “scientists are just like normal mortals and do not possess special moral qualities; they are not ‘recruited form the ranks of those who exhibit an unusual degree of moral integrity’” From the onset of scientific researches, it is estimated that human being were used as subject of major medical researches. It can be evidenced by the radiation experiments in the U.S. where it is claimed that radiation was released in the air to see its effects on human being. This amounts to using human subjects prior to informed consent and with little regard to the long term effects. Hence bioethical issued arise due the need to have an institution that governs the methodology of carrying out research on human subjects. Henk Van den Belt says, “One way to overcome the problem of the interpretative flexibility of general norms, at least partially, is to install special bureaucratic agencies that are charged with overseeing the rules and norms that are to be followed. As part of their mandated mission, such agencies will undertake to clarify and more strictly define the pertinent norms”

The scope of Bioethics

Bioethicists focus on using philosophy to analyze issues. However, the scope of bioethics is quite big and the approach of using interdisciplinary approach is sometimes preferred to that of using philosophy. This is because of the diverse interest groups seeking to safeguard human rights as far as research subjects are concerned. Religious Bioethicists have come in and developed rules and guidelines on how to deal with bioethical issues from within the viewpoint of their faiths. There has been disquiet already from the secular Bioethicists arguing that religious Bioethicists don’t have academic degree or training in philosophical subjects of bioethics

Bioethical issues have been classified to three main principles, of respect for autonomy of the person, beneficence and Justice. First, importance is created on the informed consent of the research participants. No person should participate in a research without being informed that he/she is a subject of research. This has been the subject of a court case between the Libyan Government and foreign doctors accused of using the Libyan children of HIV/Aids trials without their informed consent and consequently infecting them with the virus. This has been a long legal battle which ended with the doctors and nurses being convicted of a bioethical crime.

The second focuses on the assessment of risks against benefits of the participants. It is important to analyze the risk exposed to the participants otherwise the long term effect of the research may end up being more costly than the subject of research. The principle of mal-beneficence stress that any research carried out on a subject must not be harmful but rather beneficial.

The other principle deals with fair selection of research subjects. The sample size selected should try to minimize bias as much as possible. It should be a representative of the actual population. Biased research cannot be accurate and considering the magnitude of a biomedical research as the consequences, it must be carried out as accurately as possible.

Have we integrated our bioethical research issues in our researches?

According to Michiel Korhals, science is impersonal, objectives and without values while ethics is seen as the counterpart of science as something personal and subjective. Hence ethics can be helpful to some scientists with pangs of their conscience by giving them some psychic relief. Keulartz et al. (2002), says that between science and ethics there is a very complex, fundamental, problematic, ambivalent and sometimes even dilemmatic relationship that is absolute worthwhile to study. There is difficulty with the liberal position in terms of making decisions determined by the scientific community and ethical attitudes including care, perfectionism and virtue. Human have obligations and rights towards others. Hence there is need for wholistic approach while dealing with scientific matters. This requires social interaction to discuss issues pertaining to the world, profits and people.

However some scientific issues may take personal dimension, with each and everyone taking a different stand. David B. Resnik raises issues concerning human genome and ethical principles emerging with patenting. He says “one of the influential arguments against patenting human DNA is that the human genome is the common heritage of mankind” human genome is a common resource and not a common heritage of mankind. Hence patenting of DNA is morally acceptable as long as that we will honour our moral duties concerning the genome like that of stewardship and justice. According to Iran Pollard, (2005), the manipulation of heredity in medicine and Agriculture for carefully defined purposes and under appropriate supervision, can both be ethically acceptable and socially desirable. It may help in saving the endangered species. Perhaps questions of responsibilities of scientist remain one of the ethical issues up to date. Scientific catastrophes have occurred and caused death in many parts of the world. Starting with the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War to the Kremlin and Chernobyl disasters, many questions remains to be answered about the responsibility of scientist and scientific advancement. I argue about these disasters because to they should also be treated as ethical issues. Do you think the use of biological weapons whether in warfare or not should be treated as an ethical issue? It involves the safety of human beings and animals and hence it should be an ethical issue. The much we talk about the effects of research experiments in line with prior intention, so should we talk about the effects of using biological weapons or the scientific disasters as mentioned above because the effects are all but the same. More complex modern bioethical issues are on the rise creating more heated debates. There is a bioethical debate about treatment decision for gender identity disorder. Somatic treatment as an accepted intervention in managing gender identity disorders has created ethical issues for many psychiatrists. There is a heated debate on the use of the treatment for gender transmutation. What is miscalled “transsexuals” has led to the most tragic betrayal of human expectation in which medicine and modern endocrinology and surgery have been engaged. One psychiatrist had problem in using the proper pronouns while referring to patient who had undergone “vaginoplasty” as a young man and has been living as a woman” Most of the patients undergone this treatment some for hormones and sex reassignment while some it is for entertainment where principle of ‘do no harm or mal-beneficence’ and ‘do not remove a healthy organ’ are put into contradiction. This has been an issue of contest among many psychiatrists. There is also an ethical issue of informed consent when dealing with genital surgery for minors with inborn biological sexual errors like pseudohermaphroditism. Although it is thought that substituted consent by the parent is okay, what about the child conscience reaction when grown up and learn about it?

Although we have made some recognizable strides, we still have a long way to go to integrate our bioethics principles to our biological and social research. We are still to integrate issues concerning warfare, gender role in researches, biotechnology and its effects and the role of human in protecting the environment.


Henk Van den Belt. (2000). Applied Philosophy Group. Wageningen University and Research Centre, Hollandsewef, Netherlands

Kleulartz, J., Korthals, M., et al. (eds.), 2002. Pragmatist ethics for a technological culture. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht. The International Library of Environmental, Agricultural and Food Ethics no. 3

Merton, R. K., (1973). The normative structure of science (essay orig. public. 1942). In: Storer, N. W. ed. The sociology of science. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 267-278

Pollard, I. (2005). Life, Love & Children – A Practical Introduction to Bioscience Ethics & Bioethics.

. Bioethics. Web.

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