Bioethics: Areas, Issues & Human Life

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  • 0:00 Bioethics
  • 1:00 Background, Areas and Issues
  • 2:45 Bioethics and Human Life
  • 5:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Bioethics are an important area of debate in our modern world. In this lesson, you will explore several areas and issues within this field, and test your understanding with a brief quiz.


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When is science moral and when are we pushing it too far? Is it ok to test new medicines on animals? Can we use gene splicing if it helps prevent disease? Can we finally clone that frozen mammoth they found in Siberia? Please?!

These questions and more are amongst those that scientists and philosophers together must address in the field of bioethics, or ethics applied to scientific advances in biology and medicine. When is research moral and when is it crossing the line? In other words, how do you prevent the rise of mad scientists? That's what we're here to find out.

Background, Areas, and Issues

The term 'bioethics' was first coined by a man named Fritz Jahr back in 1926. Scientific research was really taking off but after the atrocities of World War I, people were starting to rethink their ideas of progress. Yes, medicine and scientific research could be advanced, but how far are we willing to go? This issue became prominent again in the 1970s and '80s when computer technology opened up even more possible fields of scientific research.

Although bioethicists do not always agree on exactly how wide their focus should be, in general, this field is concerned with the application of scientific and medical research on living organisms. There are many complex issues here, but at its most basic, the ethical debate comes down to two opinions.

First is that scientists and researchers have a moral responsibility to respect life in all living things. This is an important issue when dealing with things like animal testing. The other side is that researchers have a moral obligation to do whatever it takes to advance the healthcare of humans. In other words, because we have the tools to help humanity, we have a moral obligation to do so and that's more important than the lives of a few rats.

And the issues just get more complex from there. Cloning, gene therapy, genetic engineering, DNA manipulation - these are all possible through science and technology, but are they moral? The question of weighing costs and benefits remains, as does the basic question of whether or not humanity is meant to control such basic processes of life.

Bioethics and Human Life

These are the basic issues in bioethics but at the end of the day, the focus is generally on preserving human life. After all, the end goal of biological, and especially medicinal research, is usually trying to help protect humanity. So we agree that scientific research is important, but how do we weigh the benefits of medical research against the cost?

For example, animals are often used to test new treatments and medicines before they are used on humans. Some feel that this is immoral since humans have a responsibility to protect the world we live in. However, at some point, all medical treatments must be tested before they can be used on the general population. All bioethicists agree on that one. So do we use humans as the first test subjects? Or is it better to use animals, just in case?

The mainstream viewpoint in bioethics is that testing animals is acceptable, as long as the tests are not meant to be harmful and are eventually intended to have human application. This viewpoint also recognizes that sometimes sacrifices are made for a greater good. But that's just one bioethical issue. These same questions apply to all areas of bioethics, from cloning to gene therapy, with arguments focused around the benefit to human health and the risks to our own humanity.

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