Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Major Events and Publications Related to the Birth of Bioethics, 1925-1975 with Special Attention to the Anglican Contribution

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Major Events and Publications Related to the Birth of Bioethics, 1925-1975 with Special Attention to the Anglican Contribution

Article excerpt

Introductory Note

The chronology that follows highlights major events and publications that led, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, to the emergence of a new field called bioethics. Within each year the individual items are arranged in the following order: (1) official government actions; (2) actions of or documents by non-governmental organizations; (3) other notable events, including scientific discoveries, technological developments, and violations of human rights; (4) books not included in the first two categories (in alphabetical order by the last name of the author or editor); and (5) articles.

The Church of England and the Episcopal Church in the United States have been deeply involved in the discussion of bioethical issues for at least the past seventy years, as the asterisks in the chronology indicate. The initial focus of the Lambeth Conference, the moral theologians, and several study groups, was on sexuality and reproduction. In 1930 the grudging acceptance of contraception by the Lambeth Conference broke new ground among Protestants. By 1958, one sees how an initial narrow focus on the ethical permissibility of contraception has expanded to include a much broader understanding of the marital relationship and of family life.

The 1948 report on artificial insemination, written by a commission appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, was a major milestone in the evolution of Anglican ethical analysis. This seventy-page report, based on more than two years of study by an interdisciplinary group, remains even now a model for its clarity and comprehensiveness.

Episcopal theologian Joseph Fletcher presented a creative Protestant synthesis of biomedical ethics in his 1954 book, Morals and Medicine. Fletcher acknowledged that the Catholic moral-theological tradition had been much more attentive to issues in biology and medicine than all the Protestant traditions combined. Fletcher's book was notable for presenting issues primarily from the patient's viewpoint: in one chapter he explicitly advocated "the patient's right to know the truth." Three of Fletcher's chapters dealt with reproductive questions, and the remaining chapter discussed euthanasia:

By the early 1960s there was less debate within the Anglican community about the venerable topics of contraception and artificial insemination. However, two new issues arose, both having to do with life and death. At the beginning of life the primary life-and-death question was abortion. At the end of life the major question was: what kinds of treatment are appropriate for seriously or terminally ill patients?

The abortion discussion continues until now, most notably with the 1993 report of the Board for Social Responsibility entitled Abortion and the Church: What Are the Issues? At the other end of life the question of voluntary euthanasia has been considered, to be sure, but the most distinctive Anglican contribution may turn out to be Cicely Saunders's empathic focus on the needs of terminally ill and dying patients. Already in her 1959 articles in the Nursing Times one sees the recurring themes of attentiveness and active pain management as the best means for assisting patients in their quest to "die well." With her establishment of St. Christopher's Hospice in 1967, Dr. Saunders began to embody her ideals in a new institution. Her novel approach was so successful that in 1988 she could claim that, of the 140,000 patients who die of cancer in the United Kingdom each year, some 40,000 have contact with a hospice or hospice-like program (St. Christopher's in Celebration, 1988, p. 10). The ideals of Cicely Saunders play a central role in the final Anglican report cited in this chronology, On Dying Well: An Anglican Contribution to the Debate on Euthanasia (1975).

Two Anglican authors deserve special acknowledgment for their contributions to the 1958 book entitled The Family in Contemporary Society and to a series of reports published between 1959 and 1975 by the Church of England's Board for Social Responsibility (see the years 1958, 1959, 1962, 1965, 1971, and 1975). …

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