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History Of Bioethics

Bioethics as a distinct field of academic study has existed only since the early 1960s, and its history can be traced back to a cluster of scientific and cultural developments in the United States during that decade. The catalysts for the creation of this interdisciplinary field were the extraordinary advances in American medicine during this period coupled simultaneously with radical cultural changes. Organ transplantation, kidney dialysis, respirators, and intensive care units (ICUs) made possible a level of medical care never before attainable, but these breakthroughs also raised daunting ethical dilemmas the public had never previously been forced to face, such as when to initiate admission to an ICU or when treatments such as dialysis could be withdrawn. The advent of the contraceptive pill and safe techniques for performing abortions added to the ethical quandaries of the "new medicine." At the same time, cultural changes placed a new emphasis on individual autonomy and rights, setting the stage for greater public involvement and control over medical care and treatment. Public debates about abortion, contraceptive freedom, and patient rights were gaining momentum. In response, academics began to write about these thorny issues, and scholars were beginning to view these "applied ethics" questions as the purview of philosophy and theology. "Bioethics"—or, at the time, "medical ethics"—had become a legitimate area of scholarly attention.

In its early years, the study of bioethical questions was undertaken by a handful of scholars whose academic home was traditional university departments of religion or philosophy. These scholars wrote about the problems generated by the new medicine and technologies of the time, but they were not part of a discourse community that could be called an academic field or subject area. Individual scholars, working in isolation, began to legitimize bioethical issues as questions deserving rigorous academic study. But bioethics solidified itself as a field only when it became housed in institutions dedicated to the study of these questions. Academic bioethics was born with the creation of the first "bioethics center."

Ironically, academic bioethics came into existence through the creation of an institution that was not part of the traditional academy. The first institution devoted to the study of bioethical questions was a freestanding bioethics center, purposely removed from the academy with its rigid demarcations of academic study. The institution was the Hastings Center, originally called The Institute of Society, Ethics and the Life Sciences, which opened its doors in September 1970. Its founder, Daniel Callahan, along with the psychiatrist Willard Gaylin, M.D., created the center to be an interdisciplinary institute solely dedicated to the serious study of bioethical questions. Callahan, a recently graduated Ph.D. in philosophy, had been one of the isolated scholars working on an issue in applied ethics, and he had found himself mired in complex questions that took him far afield from the traditional boundaries of philosophy. His topic, abortion, required engagement with the disciplines of law, medicine, and social science, which he felt himself unprepared to navigate. With academic departments functioning as islands within a university, it seemed that truly interdisciplinary work was impossible. The Hastings Center was founded to create an intellectual space for the study of these important questions from multiple perspectives and academic areas.

The second institution that helped solidify the field of bioethics was the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, which opened at Georgetown University in 1971. The founders had similar goals to those of Hastings, though they placed their center inside the traditional academy. While housed outside of any particular academic departments, the Kennedy Institute came to look more like a traditional department, offering degree programs and establishing faculty appointments along a university model.

From these modest beginnings, the field of bioethics exploded, with dozens of universities following suit, creating institutions whose sole function was the study of bioethical issues. Its growth was fueled by the appearance both of new technologies such as the artificial heart and in vitro fertilization and new challenges such as HIV. Bioethics was now permanently on the academic map and central to public discourse.

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