Bioethics – Concept, principles, history, uses and examples

We explain what bioethics is, what its principles and history are. Also, what is it for and some examples of this ethics.

Bioethics - DNA
Bioethics could be used as a “bridge” between the life sciences and classical ethics.

What is Bioethics?

The concept of bioethics refers to the ethics of life or biology. Of Greek origin, the term bios means “life” while ethos it means “ethics.”

Biochemist and oncologist Van Rensselaer Potter was one of the first, in the 1970s, to use the word bioethics and tried to define it as an intellectual discipline that Its object of study is the “problem of the survival of humanity”. At the same time, he considered that it could be used as a “bridge” between life sciences -in all its scopes- and classical ethics.

Principles of bioethics

Bioethics - baby - life
Bioethics works in favor of well-being, seeking to protect without damaging.

The researchers and experts who founded bioethics as a discipline established four principles:

  • Respect for autonomy. This principle establishes that the possibility that people have to choose and decide for themselves must be respected. This implies that there should be no limitations or interference towards the person when making a decision.
  • Charity. This principle establishes an equation between cost and benefit. This goes beyond harming third parties: it implies working in favor of well-being, protecting without harming.
  • No maleficence. This principle refers to promoting the good, as well as the prohibition of damaging or carrying out malicious actions. Basically, you cannot harm or harm third parties to save a life.
  • Justice. The last principle implies that there is fairness between three key issues: costs, benefits and risks. At the same time, it is synonymous with an equitable distribution between responsibilities, material assets and rights.

History of bioethics

Bioethics has its origins in Egypt and Mesopotamia. It was there that the first regulations related to medicine were detected. It is to Hippocrates (Greece, 460-370 BC) and who is awarded the Hippocratic Oath, that is, a mandatory guide that guides doctors in their work.

On the other hand, scholasticism advanced in a moral theology that addresses the questions of natural laws, as well as the preservation of life. From the seventeenth century, books and texts began to be recorded that dealt, jointly, with morals and medicine. These ideas, soon after, made a leap into the secular world, and are considered the origins of Medical Deontology.

Beyond these origins, in which the term “bioethics” as such did not exist, in general, the history of this discipline It is divided into two main stages: before Potter and after Potter.

The Before Potter stage includes the two items mentioned above: the Hippocratic Oath and Medical Deontology. The stage called After Potter is located within the period that goes from the Nuremberg Code to the first heart transplant, carried out by Christian Barnard in 1967.

In a nutshell, the Nuremberg Code is a set of principles that regulate experimentation with human beings and it was the result of the Nuremberg Trials that were carried out after the end of World War II.

What is bioethics for?

Bioethics - Nuclear plant
Bioethics regulates the advances that put the environment and the Earth at risk.

Four fields can be identified in which bioethics as a discipline should be applied and they have to do with the regulation of scientific advances. Bioethics establishes that not everything that is scientifically possible is necessarily ethically admissible.

The four fields to consider are the following:

  • Regulation of advances in genetics. This includes everything that is linked to birth, including cloning.
  • Regulation of those advances that put the environment and planet Earth at risk. In this case, you must have control of all those practices that endanger natural habitats, air or water, as well as limit everything that leads to global warming.
  • Regulation of those advances and knowledge that have to do with procreation. This includes abortion, contraception, assisted fertilization, and birth regulations.
  • Regulation in health centers. This has to do with practices such as euthanasia, palliative and even the care given to people who are in intensive care.

Examples of bioethics

Bioethics - blood transfusion
Blood transfusion is a debated topic where bioethics can be applied.

Bioethics is usually applied in very specific cases that, due to their characteristics, generate debates of all kinds. Some examples of these cases are the following:

  • Blood transfusions.
  • The use of chemical or nuclear weapons.
  • Termination of pregnancy (abortion).
  • The use of animals to carry out experiments and tests of new medicines or vaccines.
  • Organ donation.
  • The duration of life or quality of life.
  • Euthanasia.

Bioethics in philosophy

Bioethics was influenced by various philosophical currents, ranging from Plato to Marxism, through Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, pragmatism and utilitarianism.

Broadly speaking, different theoretical schools that influence bioethics can be identified:

  • Mainly bioethical. It is governed by the four principles mentioned above.
  • Universalist bioethics. Consider that, when making a decision in which there is a dilemma, you should choose the option choose the majority. Part of the idea that consensus is the best form of authority.
  • Personalistic bioethics. He considers that the center of the debate is in each person and his dignity. It is always governed by the ultimate good of the person.
  • Utilitarian bioethics. It is governed by the following principle: “The greatest good for the greatest number of people.”