What is bioethics?

Bioethics is Your voice. Bioethics opens essential questions for public deliberation.

Roots in the United States

Bioethics explores the ethical, moral and societal questions in medicine, biotechnology and other life sciences. The field began as a discipline in the United States as the turn of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Many legal questions, most importantly those concerning biolaw, are also close to the domain of bioethics.

Today bioethics is a fairly established field in the United States, which is reflected in a wide range of academic institutions, educational programs and academic journals. Furthermore, many everyday practices and customs have grown out of bioethical discussion and inquiry. These practical implementations of bioethics have become fairly common throughout the United States, for example in the form of ethics committees, encompassing both the clinical and academic domains. Bioethics is also present at the national level, as each new president appoints an influential bioethics committee.

In the past few decades, bioethics and its applied practices have spread around the world as the field has been gradually gaining leverage in many Western democracies, including at the EU level. However, bioethics is neither well recognized nor established as a discipline in Finland, which is mirrored by the scarcity of educational programs and research positions available in bioethics, as well as a limited level of public deliberation and societal awareness of bioethical topics. In order to connect the Finnish society with the global development of bioethics—and to narrow the gap between Finland and the neighboring countries Sweden, Norway and Estonia—active participation in bioethics discourse should be encouraged and strengthened in Finland. We also believe the applied practices of bioethics could hold yet undiscovered potential for the development of practical and democratic approaches for resolving ethical issues, for instance, in situations in which ethically sensitive decisions are being made in clinical environments.

Aspiring to create socially inclusive democratic discourse

Ever since the beginning of the field, a central goal of bioethics has been the encouragement of inter- and multidisciplinary discussion regarding the complex ethical questions embedded in life sciences. Moreover, bioethics advocates for open, transparent, plural and accessible ways for addressing ethical issues in different contexts. The latter goal is mirrored by the close kinship between bioethics and deliberative democracy, a discipline for the research and application of participatory methods in political and societal decision-making. The wide scope of bioethical inquiry demonstrates how ethical questions can be approached from many different angles and positions. For example, bioethics explores topics from gene technology to healthcare prioritization to the complex moral and social dimensions embedded in the doctor-patient relationship.

As its central goal, bioethics has aimed at crossing borders between scientific disciplines and societal and political groups by creating democratically legitimized and citizen-empowering channels for ethical deliberation. Bioethics’ success is mirrored in the establishment and institutionalization of a wide range of research ethics and clinical ethics committees around the globe. And yet, bioethics represents much more than merely ethics committees: it is a vast concentration of research and discussion as well as practical solutions developed for fostering ethical practices in life sciences and in their everyday applications. The link between academic bioethics and practical, societal applications is also mirrored by the close connection between bioethics and biolaw.

Those who are interested to learn more about bioethics are encouraged to view Heikki Saxén’s Ph.D. dissertation A Cultural Giant: An interpretation of bioethics in light of its intellectual and cultural history (Tampere University Press, 2017).