Bioethics: Basic Questions and Extraordinary Developments

By Vicini, Andrea | Theological Studies, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Bioethics: Basic Questions and Extraordinary Developments

Vicini, Andrea, Theological Studies

THE 2011 ANNUAL MEETING OF the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities (ASBH) counted over 850 participants. The meeting's theme--Generation(s) and Transformation(s)--suggested that the original heritage of bioethics, rooted in part in religious claims, was at stake. Clinical interests and philosophical approaches preeminently dominated the meeting. (1)

To highlight the importance of this heritage, Commonweal published interviews with key figures in bioethics. (2) With their narratives, new generations of bioethicists, both theological and philosophical, can situate themselves within the history of bioethics, retrieve some intuitions, and expand them in light of new challenges.

Looking for theological bioethics specifically, we find it treated prominently in the second cross-cultural conference organized by Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church (CTEWC) in Trento in 2010. (3) One-third of the posters and almost one-fourth of all 240 concurrent sessions discussed issues in bioethics, plus one plenary session reflected on healthcare in Brazil, India, and Kenya.

Almost 600 theological ethicists from nearly 75 countries listened to colleagues from every continent discuss how to articulate bioethics in today's world. Among the topics were healthcare, HIV/AIDS, end-oflife issues, and cybertechnologies. Fundamental categories in bioethical Catholic discourse were also highlighted (e.g., justice, the common good, the preferential option for the poor, subsidiarity, human dignity, responsibility, relationality, and autonomy). Vulnerability was also used as both an analytical tool and a lens through which to read our lives and interpret our times. (4)

These two major conferences exemplify the two souls of bioethics. They characterized its beginnings and still do today. One soul is mostly national and focuses on issues related to clinical practice and research procedures; it is predominantly philosophical and principle-based. The well-known four principles of bioethics (beneficence, nonmaleficence, autonomy, and justice) play a very significant role. (5) The second soul is specifically theological, at once local yet attentive to the global. It is rooted in religious traditions, particularly Christianity, but also Judaism and Islam. It relies on social justice and virtues, with "strong links between life and ethics and social ethics," as Pope Benedict XVI wrote. (6)

These two souls dialogue and interact in various ways and venues, from the academy to civil society. They shape moral reasoning and influence practices. While the contributions of both souls are constructive, they might become independently self-sufficient. In 2010, two journals, Bioethics and Christian Bioethics, discussed the future of bioethics. There, some authors were skeptical and critical about the future of the discipline, often limiting their reflection to concerns too narrowly philosophical (7) or too confessionally theological. (8)

As will become clear, I prefer the second soul, that is, a bioethical reflection that is methodologically interdisciplinary, animated by a prophetic vision, and promoting personal and social transformation. It strengthens my hope for the future of bioethics. (9)

My note joins these conversations, maybe leading readers to identify their bioethical soul. I divide the note into three parts: recent provocative appeals, what is new in bioethics around the world, and three biotechnological developments: neurosciences, oncofertility, and synthetic biology.


Provocative insights that challenge bioethical reflection today mostly occur not in the field of bioethics but rather in history, journalism, surgery, literature, and even in personal experience. I find five provocative insights, raised mostly by women. They concern human experimentation, medical research for therapeutic purposes, healthcare practices, genetic testing, and care for persons who suffer severe disorders of consciousness. …

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