Bioethics: What Is It And Why Should I Care?

“Bio-what? What is that, exactly?” So many people have asked me this question ever since I decided to make bioethics the focus of my undergraduate career at Yale—family, friends, former high school teachers, and even a stranger at a coffee shop who noticed the word “bioethics” on my laptop screen as I was working on this article.

But the more I explain, the more obvious it becomes how very few people understand the technical term and, out of those who do, how rare it is that people actually care about the issues bioethics deals with.

Everyone has heard of the Human Genome Project, informed consent, palliative care, in vitro fertilization, and the like. But bioethics is much more than that. Bioethical issues range from macro-level disputes in healthcare policy, like the legality of physician-assisted suicide or women’s right to abortion, to very personal decisions, such as the choice of birth control or the use of animal-tested cosmetics.

Having studied biomedical ethics for four years in college, I have begun to see bioethical issues and topics wherever I go. Whether it’s the controversy of stem cell research, the continued debate regarding ObamaCare, the latest doping scandal in the sports media, or my own reliance on Red Bull as energy booster, I’m constantly reminded that in our highly interconnected, technological world, we no longer have an option of ignoring the bioethical implications of our decisions about our bodies, our lifestyles, and our health.

While expecting people to delve into the details of modern biomedical challenges might be unrealistic, I think it is important to be aware of what these main challenges are and why they matter.

Bioethics matters because it affects everyone.

While in reality bioethical issues concern us all in one way or another, most people don’t see bioethics as something that is relevant to their lives. Sadly, the it-can’t-happen-to-me attitude is a prevalent reaction. But let me assure you, it CAN happen to you. In fact, chances are it already is affecting your life without you even realizing it.

For example, every time you kick-start your day with a latte, you’re making a bioethical decision because consuming coffee means consuming a powerful stimulant. The chemical effect that caffeine has on your brain’s central nervous system is comparable to the effects of Adderall. The two aren’t sold in the same aisle but while coffee boasts a pleasant vibrant aroma, it is just as much of a drug as other substances used for cognitive enhancement.

Another common encounter with bioethics that most of you, darlings, have probably experienced occurred when you turned 16. When you apply for a driver’s license, there is a question asking if you want to become an organ donor. Checking “yes” means giving your legal consent for donation. Most people, as it turns out, don’t take this question too seriously and don’t even remember whether they selected “Yes” or “No” (Hint: if you see a little heart symbol on your license, it means your name has been entered into your state’s Donor Registry). Another thing most people don’t realize is that consenting to organ donation means becoming an organ and tissue donor. To clarify, you’re not only giving the organ procurement organizations access to your heart, kidneys and lungs, but also allowing them to take your bones, veins, corneas, and skin.

If you are among those who think of bioethics as something that doesn’t affect them, I highly recommend that you reconsider. Given the startling pace of biomedical and technological advancement, today there is a much greater likelihood that you or someone close to you will have to make a bioethical decision sooner or later. And if you want your decisions to be rational and well-informed, you need to become more familiar with the science behind the “bio” as well as the moral implications of the “ethics” of bioethics.

Bioethics matters because without ethics, there would be chaos.

We might live in the world of moral relativism but most people would still agree that our society needs certain ethical guidelines and moral standards to function and thrive. Without morality, there is chaos. In the same way, bioethics brings order and clarity when it comes to questions about society’s responsibility for the life and health of its members.

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Should parents be required to vaccinate their children? Why do we pay sperm donors while paying for a kidney is illegal? Is it fair to put an alcoholic on the liver transplant list? If prenatal genetic testing reveals a severe birth defect in the fetus, should the woman be encouraged to abort? Is a 20-year-old girl’s health insurance supposed to cover annual mammograms? What if that girl’s family has a history of breast cancer? Should a 50-year-old childless woman be allowed to undergo the in vitro fertilization procedure? What about a 40-year old one? And what about a 40-year-old one who already has three other children? Advancements in medical science and technology constantly create new ethical dilemmas and we—as individuals and as a society—need bioethics to help us address these dilemmas in a critical and effective manner.

Bioethics matters because it is, literally, a life-and-death question.

While we often think of bioethics as a field that addresses the issues of modern technology and innovative medical procedures (stem cells, robotic arms, nanomedicine, etc.), the questions that bioethicists explore are as old as humankind. Debating a bioethical issue requires digging deep and raising discussions not only about science and medicine, but about long existing controversial subjects of freedom and autonomy, pain and suffering, rights and responsibilities, meaning of life and death.

Bioethical decisions involve making judgments about body image, determining what constitutes mental and physical wellbeing, exploring the correlation between health and happiness, coming to consensus about whether life begins at conception or at birth, assigning value to human life and finding ways to assess each life’s quality, and so much more.

Bioethical topics are polarizing and divisive, and while they often might seem too philosophical and abstract, they’re not to be taken lightly.

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