Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

How Bioethics Got Its Name

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

How Bioethics Got Its Name

Article excerpt

Warren Reich participated in the origin of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics in the 1970s.

The name of this field was born in two places, in Madison, Wisconsin, and in Washington, D C. It was Van Rensselaer Potter, at the University of Wisconsin, who first coined the term bioethics, and it was Andre Hellegers at Georgetown University who, at the very least, first used it in an institutional way to designate the area of inquiry or field of learning whose origins we are celebrating today.

Van Rensselaer Potter, a research oncologist in Wisconsin, used the word in an evolutionary sense rather distant from the meaning it now has in our field, with the result that his use of the term was marginalized. As Potter explained his interest in the conflicts between order and disorder in the world affected by the biological sciences:

The goal of this discipline, as I see

it, would be to help humankind

toward a rational but cautious

participation in the processes of

biological and cultural evolution.

...I chose "bio-" to represent

biological knowledge, the science

of living systems, and I chose

"ethics" to represent knowledge

of human value systems.

But it was Andre Hellegers, the Dutch obstetrician/fetal physiologist/demographer who founded the Kennedy Institute at Georgetown University who used the term to apply to the ethics of medicine and the biological sciences in such a way that the name caught on in academic circles and in the mind of the public. …

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