A program that focuses on the application of ethics, religion, jurisprudence, and the social sciences to the analysis of health care issues, clinical decisionmaking, and research procedures. Includes instruction in philosophical ethics, moral value, medical sociology, theology, spirituality and health, policy analysis, decision theory, and applications to problems such as death and dying, therapeutic relationships, organ transplantation, human and animal subjects, reproduction and fertility, health care justice, cultural sensitivity, needs assessment, professionalism, conflict of interest, chaplaincy, and clinical or emergency procedures.
Bioethicists pose questions on right and wrong and apply them to science and medicine.
When is it wrong to save a life? Under what circumstances does a patient lose the right to make decisions about their body? Is there a morally viable way to limit population growth? These are questions without easy answers, and bioethicists confront them every day. They are scientists, philosophers, lawmakers, care workers - what unites them is a willingness to tackle controversial subjects such as data privacy, genetically modified crops, and death intervention in an informed context.
Bioethicists may do both practical and theoretical work. A clinical worker with expertise in bioethics may be called upon to explain end of life options to a family or as a consultant in a genetic testing situation. A bioethicist working as an attorney may file a suit against a technology company who has harvested a user's medical data. Many practicing bioethicists have a background in theology or history; others have pursued advanced studies in philosophy, medicine, or law. In a sense, it is using the humanities to understand the impact of the sciences, but it also requires an understanding of how the sciences impact humans and our world in ways that can be difficult to reconcile.
Work in bioethics may include:
- Identifying potential ethical conflicts in science
- Contextualizing and analyzing new developments
- Educating others about relevant issues
- Collaborating with scientists to minimize harm
- Advocating for patients or communities who may be adversely impacted
- Writing or shaping policy to advance a certain position
- Conducting research on emerging conflicts
Bioethicists are employed by government offices and committees at various levels, as well as hospitals, care facilities, and universities. They may serve on boards or work as consultants for healthcare organizations or pharmaceutical companies; some work alongside researchers during the proposal or development of new biotechnologies. While opportunities exist across industry and sector lines, it's important to consider that not all of them constitute careers. Bioethics is a fairly new field that has seen significant growth in the last few decades, and available positions don't match up to the number of existing bioethicists. However, as more organizations begin to recognize the benefits of considering bioethical questions in their work, more positions may be created to fulfill this need.
The educational requirements for bioethicists vary, but a Bachelor's degree is essential. Only a few schools currently offer formal undergraduate degree programs in bioethics, so students interested in the field often take a range of courses in related disciplines. The path of study varies; some may study biology but take coursework in philosophy, while others may focus on public health and policymaking. The questions bioethicists ask may appear in any number of contexts, from theology to psychology to data science to genetics, and exploring them at the undergraduate level can be very helpful. It's possible to work in the field with only a Bachelor's degree, but most bioethicists pursue graduate study. This is where things get interesting; many programs offer joint degrees in bioethics and another discipline or allow graduate students to focus their studies on applying bioethics to their chosen field. It's not uncommon for bioethicists to attend law school or pursue medicine; even divinity schools and dentistry programs are starting to offer courses in bioethics! Masters degrees, PhD programs, and postdoctoral research fellowships in bioethics are all viable options for someone seriously considering a career in the field.
Whether you choose to focus on research, policy, or bringing ethical considerations into clinical work, bioethics is a valuable field of study. If you believe in holding scientific developments accountable for their rights and wrongs, it may be worth exploring!
For more information, please follow the links below:
- Bioethics.net is a comprehensive resource with news, information, and more.
- The Center for Practical Bioethics works to address ethical issues in health and healthcare.
- The Hastings Center Ethics Research Institute was instrumental in establishing bioethics as a field and produces valuable work.
- The American Society for Bioethics and Humanities promotes interdisciplinary work and learning in clinical bioethics and beyond.