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Bioethics: New Technology, New Ethical Concerns, New Opportunities for Religious Infringement

This article originally appeared as part of SSA eNews No. 12 - Secular Summer Fun.

Campus Organizer starts us thinking about the easily-abused questions that naturally arise in the contentious field of thought known as Bioethics.

Technologically speaking, we are capable of more and more each passing day. With this new capability comes indelible responsibility. We are faced with determining whether we are crossing thresholds into improved existence replete with incredible opportunities for exceptional health, or if we are metaphorically opening Pandora's Box, unleashing a bevy of unethical and unnatural solutions. As is often the case, religious adherents are quick to offer their opinion regarding scientific discovery and to influence political policy surrounding the usage and application of technological findings. If we secularists are to participate in the conversations covering the ethical use of scientific advancements, we must become more familiar with the questions raised by bioethics in general. While the debate of the day may change, from stem cell research to euthanasia to harvesting animals for organ transplantation, the underlying paradigm of bioethics remains the same. Let us delve into the philosophy of bioethics to learn how to use this branch of thought effectively. If the past is indeed indicative of the future, this relatively new sub-discipline is only going to become increasingly prevalent in our collective discourse.

A Brief History
According to most sources, bioethics has been around for about thirty years. This branch of thought came into its own when it moved from tackling hypothetical philosophical questions to taking up existing medical, political, and legal concerns. Traditionally, this field is broken up into a triad of divisions: clinical ethics, research ethics, and theoretical bioethics.

Questions Raised By Bioethics
Here are some important questions raised by bioethics that secular humanists must seek to answer in such a way that our values are represented.

  • What is 'the good?' Is it seen as the utilitarian 'greatest good for the greatest number?' This is often the position of the health care system, so what does this mean for those procedures that will not bring the greatest advances to the greatest number because of cost, limited resources and so on?
  • Can we make major decisions about another person's life? How are we defining life? When does it begin, and is consciousness necessary to this definition?
  • Can a distinction be made between quality and quantity of life? Who is in a position to make this distinction?
  • What is the cost? Are 1,000 chimpanzee hearts worth one human heart?
  • Should we perceive a difference between passive euthanasia (withholding food and medicine - which is legal, i.e. Terry Shivo) and active euthanasia (administering lethal dose of some barbiturate - which is illegal)? Are these both killing? Are the words 'killing' and 'humane' mutually exclusive?
  • Do each of us have the right to decide to die with the aid of our doctor?
  • What is consent? Can a terminally ill person make rational decisions? Research shows that thought patterns of terminally ill patients changes over time as they proceed through phases of coming to terms with their illness: can someone with such an 'altered thought pattern' be credible when it comes to something as significant as end of life decisions? If not, should someone close to the ill be allowed to make such decisions? What if they stand to benefit from the person's death?
  • If those with terminal conditions are permitted to make decisions regarding end of life treatment, what counts as a 'terminal condition?' AIDS? Perhaps, but it could be argued otherwise since one dies of an ailment brought on by AIDS, not AIDS itself, how shall we define 'terminal condition?' What about degenerative diseases--should one have to exhibit symptoms, or is diagnosis of the malady enough to warrant end of life treatment?
  • Are zygotes life? Are these human beings existing in a Petri dish? Is it fair to use 10 of these to repair spinal cord damage to one person?

Even a cursory look of these questions will show that they can easily be hijacked by the religious community. They have done it before, and given the chance, they will likely take all steps necessary to form the public consciousness about burgeoning scientific capabilities. We are seeing this right now with the stem cell debate. If we secular humanists are to participate in this discourse we must become well versed: not only in the present issue at hand, but the questions being raised. We must learn how to begin to think about the underlying germinal branch of thought known as bioethics.

This article originally appeared as part of SSA eNews No. 12 - Secular Summer Fun.

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