The word bioethics is formed from the Greek word for life (bios) and the traditional word for the systematic study of right conduct (ethics). Bioethics is one of society's attempts to manage new and far-reaching powers over life, powers coming from recent advances in MEDICINE, GENETICS, MOLECULAR BIOLOGY, reproductive BIOLOGY and other specializations in the life sciences.
The most extensive developments and applications of these sciences have occurred in pluralistic societies, ie, those composed of a number of communities holding different moralities and philosophies of life. These communities differ on questions of right and wrong and often take conflicting positions on how advances in the life sciences may, should or should not be applied.
The conflict may arise from differences about governing beliefs and assumptions concerning human life (ethos), fundamental and dominant values (morality) or the norms and methods to be used in resolving value conflicts (ethics). Such moral and ethical issues may arise in any domain of activity; however, those created by developments in the life sciences have been most prominent in attracting public attention and mobilizing societal reflection in recent years.
The principal issues have come from questions about research involving experimentation on human subjects; withholding or withdrawing various forms of life-support treatment from critically ill patients; euthanasia; ABORTION; prenatal diagnosis, genetic screening and selective abortion; sterilization of the mentally handicapped, BIRTH CONTROL, artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization and surrogate motherhood; transplantation of organs and implantation of artificial organs; the definition of DEATH; psychosurgical, psychopharmacological and conditioning approaches to the control of human behaviour; the HIV epidemic and AIDS; the HUMAN GENOME PROJECT and genetic therapy, the use of information technologies in health-care systems; and finally the just distribution of limited resources.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, a number of ethics institutes, law-reform commissions and public-policy commissions throughout the world promoted the interdisciplinary study and resolution of these issues. Following the leadership of the Institute of Society, Ethics, and the Life Sciences (Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, established 1969), the Kennedy Institute of Ethics (Georgetown University, Washington, DC, 1971) and the Society for the Study of Medical Ethics (London, England, 1972), institutes for bioethics have been established in many countries.
The principal Canadian organizations that have contributed to the development of bioethics are the Centre for Bioethics of the Clinical Research Institute of Montréal (1976), the Protection of Life Project of the Law Reform Commission of Canada (Ottawa, 1976, and now defunct), the Westminster Institute for Ethics and Human Values (London, Ontario, 1978) and bioethics research and teaching institutes at Université Laval (1980), Université de Montréal (1981), Université du Québec Rimouski (1984), University of Calgary (1984), University of Manitoba (1985), McGill University (1986), University of Alberta (1986), University of Toronto (1989) and University of British Columbia (1993).
A number of professional associations, such as the CANADIAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION, have established their own bioethics committees, and the Canadian Hospital Association has given its support to the concept of ethics committees as an aid to ethical decision making in hospitals and in health-care facilities. Moreover, the Canadian Bioethics Society was established in 1986 and the Fonds de la recherche en santé du Qué (FRSQ) has formed the FRSQ Network for Research in Clinical Ethics (1995).
Institutes and committees for bioethics represent a societal effort to mount and maintain systematic reflection on the ethical uncertainties, dilemmas and conflicts raised by advances in biomedical science and technology. Innovations in genetics, human embryology, fetal medicine, geriatrics, gerontology, immunology and the neurosciences, pharmacogenetics and the use of information technologies in health care systems will add new challenges to the agenda of those working in bioethics in the coming decades.
The goal of interdisciplinary, international and intercultural research and reflection in bioethics is to clarify the content of policies designed to harmonize individual rights and welfare with the common good of present and future generations.
See alsoMEDICAL ETHICS.