Bioethics is a discipline in science that is a combination of philosophy and medicine. There are numerous applications and countless case studies that make the field interesting and intricate simultaneously. This article does not plan to cover what bioethics is, but instead, it is an introduction on why people need to be familiar with the field in general. At the moment that you are reading this article, this whole concept of bioethics may mean nothing to you. But, it is certainly possible that sometime down the road, you may know someone around you who will encounter a decision that is considered as a part of bioethics.
What is Right and What is Wrong?
Many of the issues in bioethics deal with events that do not have one clear solution. For instance, doctors and patients often find themselves in bioethics through the issue of euthanasia. A debate stirs itself between active and passive euthanasia, and the both sides argue whether passive euthanasia is more moral than active euthanasia, which is prohibited by laws in many places.
Which one is more moral? Everyone understands that it is wrong to take someone’s life away. But, at the same time, if the patient has an incurable disease and will only suffer severe pains even after further surgeries, is it justified to end the patient’s life as a means to end their pains? James Rachels, an American philosopher with specialty in ethics, wrote in one of his articles, “If one imply withholds treatment, it may take the patient longer to die, and so he may suffer more than he would if noire direction action were taken and a lethal injection given.”1
The difficulty in this decision depends in the types of patients. Usually, people tend to be more sensitive if the patient is a baby or a young child. In his article, Rachels discusses Down’s syndrome, and how some people are naturally opposed to letting the babies die, or committing passive euthanasia. At the same time, he acknowledges that there are those who will not let their babies to go through the agonizing operations and therefore, die without suffering through any pain.
There is no right or wrong answer (at least as in 1+1 = 2 and every other number is wrong), and it is difficult for people to understand the level of seriousness that is involved in this process. What if the doctor wanted to go to surgery to save the baby while the parents did not want it? Is it moral for parents to do this even though the doctor may have very slim chance of saving the baby? And, what about vice versa?
From Individual Level to Society Level
Euthanasia is an example of individual or family-level application of bioethics. For the society as a whole, a heated topic is the sale of kidneys. Although this topic is much less applicable to people’s own lives in many cases, this issue is frequently mentioned and brought in the shows like Law & Order and CSI. Many people are opposed to this grotesque trade, and therefore, have prohibited in numerous places.
An article from a respected medical journal called The Lancet made following argument about the issue, “However, the vendors [those who choose to sell their kidneys illegally] are themselves anxious to sell, and see this practice as the best option open to them.”2 The significance of this statement is that it takes the issue and looks to analyze “why” of the process. As in the case of euthanasia, people involved in bioethics do not try to just say something is right or wrong, but attempt to understand why certain actions came as they did. In this case, behind the illegal sale of kidney are attempts of poor to make money for living.
For Your Own Sake…
It seems like a good idea for people to understand the basics of bioethics in terms of surgery and operations. If they have fundamental understanding of what they should do, they can ease the difficulty in these decisions if they were to happen in the future. Bioethics, as I stated earlier, is a very complex and difficult field, and is not meant to be covered in a simple article like this one. My goal, however, was to inform people to at least know about the field and learn further if they want. I highly suggest people to check out the Bioethics Course Reading List from MIT Open Courseware for some recommended articles and readings.
1. Rachels, James. “Active and Passive Euthanasia.” New England Journal of Medicine 292 (January 9, 1975): 78-80.
2. Janet Radcliffe-Richards et al. “The Case for Allowing Kidney Sales,” The Lancet 351 (June 27, 1998): 1950-2.