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What is Bioethics?

When the Greek physician Hippocrates advised doctors to "First, do no harm" in caring for their patients, he was touching on a basic aspect of bioethics.

Ethics is a branch of philosophy which deals with questions of right and wrong conduct. This includes what society and individuals should do and what they should refrain from doing. Professional ethicists also consider issues of rights and obligations, and try to determine what this means for each person, as well as how such rights and obligations relate to the broader society.

Bioethics is a relatively new field of applied philosophy which traces its recent historical origins to the Nuremberg Code. This Code, which emerged from events in World War II, established that human research subjects must provide free and informed consent. This right was broadened over the next two decades to require free and informed consent to all medical treatment. Since then, bioethics has been applied in all fields that touch upon the biology of humankind.

The scope of bioethics in itself has also evolved. First, it seeks to define appropriate action in health-related matters. Second, it addresses dilemmas. An ethical dilemma occurs when there is more than one morally justifiable solution to a problem. By identifying, structuring and balancing sometimes conflicting public values, bioethical analysis assists in determining the most ethically appropriate course(s) of action.

Bioethics - also referred to as "biomedical ethics" - usually concerns itself with questions that arise in the areas of medicine and biological sciences. These include informed consent to medical treatment, the design of clinical trials, the right to refuse life-sustaining treatment, and active and passive euthanasia. As science progresses, new ethical dilemmas have emerged concerning genetic testing, fetal transplantation, and the rationing of health care resources.

Up until the late 1980s, bioethics was unknown as a discipline of study and a methodology of moral decision-making. But today, virtually all Canadian hospitals have ethics committees which consider a variety of issues concerning clinical practice and medical research. Such hospital ethics committees are usually composed of physicians, lawyers, other professionals, members of the clergy and community representatives.

The creation of the Canadian Bioethics Society in 1988 was an indication of the recognized importance of this emerging field. Today its membership includes several hundreds of people with multi-disciplinary backgrounds in areas including medicine, nursing, social work, law, theology, health administration and government.