Bioethics involves the ethics of medicine and biological science, and the ethical questions that arise at the intersections of science, biotechnology, law, philosophy, theology and medicine.
Ethical issues related to science include abuses of human subjects in biomedical experiments. After World War II, the Nuremberg code was drafted as a set of standards for evaluating the scientists who had performed medical experiments on prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. The Code also brought international attention to bioethics. Other well-known cases involved the Tuskegee Experiments, in which the federal government studied nearly 400 poor African American men with syphilis for 40 years without informing them of their illnesses and withholding available treatment and cures. The U.S. government also mandated human radiation experiments for 30 years before the Department of Health, Education and Welfare finally adopted federal regulations to protect human subjects.
In 1974, the U.S. government enacted the National Research Act and established the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. Four years later, the Commission published a set of ethical principles and guidelines regarding scientific research and human subjects.
Today, many bioethicists blend backgrounds in philosophy and medical science, while others develop bioethical guidelines from religious standpoints. Bioethicists have consulted and worked on health and science issues including stem cell research, nanomedicine, genetic engineering, cryonics, euthanasia and artificial insemination.
In MAPPING STEM CELL RESEARCH, Dr. Laurie Zoloth, a bioethicist at Northwestern University’s Center for Bioethics, Science and Society, explains that human embryonic stem cell research incorporates unchartered legal terrain and some of the newest theoretical uses of both molecular biology and genetics to ever challenge the field of bioethics. Related questions involve the “moral status” of the embryos used: Is it ethical to destroy potential human life for basic research? As Zoloth asks, “What does it mean to be human, what does it mean to be free, and what does it mean to confront the suffering of others? What must I do about the suffering of others?”