Having recently begun pursuing a master’s degree in bioethics it has come as no surprise to me that I now see bioethical issues and topics wherever I go. Whether it’s the rise of sex-selection abortions in India and China, Syria’s use of chemical weapons, the continued controversy of Obama Care here in the US, the pros and cons of embryonic stem cell research, or my use of caffeine as a stimulant, I’m confronted with the reality that we live in a world that must daily deal with the ethical implications surrounding life’s beginning, end, and desire to flourish.
Yet this bioethical reality is predominantly ignored by most of us. This is partly understandable in our day and age when we’re bombarded by more issues we can legitimately process on a personal, local, and global scale. We have enough to worry about. Why concern ourselves about bioethical issues on top of everything else? We can leave those topics to the few scientists, ethicists, and theologians it impacts.
Unfortunately, ignoring today’s bioethical challenges is not a viable option. While we may not have the ability or time to fully understand all the issues at hand or delve into their details, we all need to be aware of them and why they matter. Specifically, there are three broad reasons why bioethics matters. These reasons are deeply interrelated, yet also stand alone.
Bioethics matters because worldviews matter
“Worldview” is an often overused word, but the reality it conveys is essential to bioethics. One’s view of the world, the way they interpret reality and its purpose, will directly relate to how one sees, processes, and responds to bioethical issues. For example, what do you believe about God? Is he good or evil; does he exist or not exist; is he one or many; did he create the physical world or is it an illusion? What we believe about questions such as these, our worldview, will directly impact what we think and believe about issues such as abortion, chemical weapons, health care, and human-enhancing drugs.
Bioethics matters because humanity matters
To a certain degree we all believe that humanity matters. We oppose or promote war, vaccinate (or don’t vaccinate) our children, go to school, visit doctors, eat, sleep, and build friendships because we know that humanity is important. But we need to ask ourselves how our understanding of humanity’s significance impacts our view of bioethics. Are humans unique or simply the product of time, chance, and chemicals? Who decides which life is worth living and which life should end? Is health and happiness more important than the length of one’s life? When does life begin? When should it end? What does it actually mean to be human? Questions like these, far from being philosophically abstract and theoretical, will govern how we handle the bioethical challenges we face. Are euthanasia and abortion morally acceptable? Should athletes be allowed to take drugs that enhance their abilities? Should health care be universal? Your belief about humanity and why we matter will shape how you answer these and a host of other questions.
Bioethics matters because morality matters
We may live in a world that champions moral relativism in word, but we practice the presence of moral standards in our actions. Without some moral standard in place to ground us, we fall into chaos and anarchy. The question then becomes, who or what sets the moral standard for what is acceptable in bioethics? Is it ever morally acceptable for a physician to break confidentiality with a patient? Do I have the moral right to have an abortion, even if the father wants to keep the baby? What should be the limits of scientific studies on humans? Should patients have the right to refuse a life-saving treatment for themselves or their loved ones? Should marijuana be legal? Should parents be required to vaccinate their children? Is genetic testing ethical; what about genetic altering? These are all moral questions many of us are facing today. We are all building our answers on a moral framework, good or bad, whether we realize it or not.
While there are many more reasons why bioethics is important, the reality of worldview, the existence of humanity, and the presence of morality plays a key role in determining why this subject should matter to us. It’s a topic few of us take seriously, but as today fades into tomorrow these issues will confront all of us directly. How will we respond?
If you are new to the field of bioethics and looking to learn more, I suggest getting a copy of Life on the Line: Ethics, Aging, Ending Patients’ Lives, and Allocating Vital Resources by Dr. John Kilner.