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Vorsprung durch Technik: On Biotechnology, Bioethics, and Its Beneficiaries


Bioethics as a distinctive field is undergoing a critical turn. It may be a quiet revolution, but a growing body of scholarship illustrates a perceived need for a rethink of the scope of the field and the approaches and priorities that have carried bioethicists through many heady years of success. Few areas of bioethical practice have been left unexamined, ranging from questions as to the sustainability of the discipline in its current form to the “expertise” of its practitioners; the legitimacy of bioethics in the realms of policymaking; its relationship to philosophy; the purchase of empirical and interdisciplinary method; the relationship of bioethics to the real world; bioethical understandings of the concept of “health” (and methods of attainment); its agenda, priorities, and inclusiveness right up to what might be the overarching question: “What is bioethics all about?” Unsurprisingly, these questions elicit varied responses. Scholars from various disciplines have critiqued fundamental tenets of the “ethics” business, albeit as claims of its “conservatism,” “corruption,” and its questionable “usefulness” suggest, not always with a charitable or constructive eye. But quite crucially and often overlooked, bioethics itself has not shied away from the question as to what bioethics is and what it should become; increasingly apparent is that this kind of self-conscious and reflexive theorizing is regarded as a key priority for taking contemporary ethics forward.

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1. Dawson A. The future of bioethics: Three dogmas and a cup of hemlock. Bioethics 2010;24(5):218–25.

2. Gesang B. Are moral philosophers moral experts? Bioethics 2010;24(4):153–9.

3. O’Neill O. Autonomy and Trust in Bioethics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press; 2002.

4. Hedgecoe AM. Critical bioethics: Beyond the social science critique of applied ethics. Bioethics 2004;18(2):120–42.

5. Achard D. Applying philosophy: A response to O’Neill. Journal of Applied Philosophy 2009;26(3):238–44.

6. Berlinguer G. Bioethics, health and inequality. The Lancet 2004;364:1086–91.

7. Rose N. Will biomedicine transform society? Kritikos 2006;3.

8. Häyry M, Takala T, eds. Scratching the Surface of Bioethics. Amsterdam: Rodopi; 2003.

9. As Ashcroft notes, many of the critics of bioethics are at least in part “competing for similar territory.” Ashcroft RE. Bioethics and conflicts of interest. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 2004;35:155–65 at p. 156.

10. See, for example, note 8, Häyry, Takala 2002.

11. See, for example, Ashcroft R. Futures for bioethics? Bioethics 2010;24(5):ii.

12. Häyry M. Rationality and the Genetic Challenge: Making People Better? Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press; 2010.

13. See note 1, Dawson 2010:218.

14. See note 12, Häyry 2010:3.

15. See, for example, Harris J. Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; 2007.

16. Chan S. More than cautionary tales: The role of fiction in bioethics. Journal of Medical Ethics 2009;35(7):398–9 at p. 398.

17. See note 16, Chan 2009:398.

18. Rose N. The Politics of Life Itself. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; 2007:79.

19. de Melo-Martin I. Defending human enhancement technologies: Unveiling normality. Journal of Medical Ethics 2010;35:483–87 at p. 484.

20. West H, Bramwell R. Do maternal screening tests provide psychologically meaningful results? Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology 2006;24(1):61–9 at p. 66.

21. Harper J, Coonen E, De Rycke M, Fiorentino F, Geraedts J, Goossens V, et al. What next for preimplantation genetic screening? A position statement from the ESHRE PGD Consortium Steering Committee. Human Reproduction 2010;25(4):821–3.

22. Shakespeare T. Disability Rights and Wrongs. London: Routledge; 2006:34.

23. See note 18, Rose 2007:79.

24. See note 18, Rose 2007:255.

25. See note 22, Shakespeare 2006:37.

26. Silvers A. On the possibility and desirability of constructing a neutral conception of disability. Theoretical Medicine 2003;24:471–87 at p. 475.

27. See note 22, Shakespeare 2006:36.

28. French S. Setting a record straight. In: Swain J, Finkelstein V, French S, Oliver M, eds. Disabling Barriers, Enabling Environments. London: Sage; 1993:24.

29. Humphrey J. Researching disability politics, or, some problems with the social model in practice. Disability & Society 2000;15(1):63–85 at p. 63.

30. See note 29, Humphrey 2000:63.

31. See note 15, Harris 2006:98.

32. Asch A. Why I haven’t changed my mind about prenatal diagnosis: Reflections and refinements. In: Parens E, Ashe A, eds. Prenatal Testing and Disability Rights. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press; 2000;234–57.

33. Montagu A. The pill, the sexual revolution and schools. Phi Delta Kappan 1968;49:480 as cited in note 34, Maogoto, Anolak 2009:3.

34. Maogoto JN, Anolak H. The pill: A rose ringed by a thorn bush? Past and present ramifications. Australian Journal of Gender & Law 2009;2; available at,2.

35. See note 3, O’Neill 2002:51.

36. See note 3, O’Neill 2002:51.

37. See note 34, Maogoto, Anolak 2009:4.

38. Bender L. Teaching feminist perspectives on health care, ethics and law. University of Cincinnati Law Review 1993;61:1251 at p. 1263.

39. Though allowing many women to exert greater control over their reproductive lives, the reliability of the pill is often overstated, leading to the flawed belief that pregnancy is now effectively optional.

40. Takala T. Human before sex? Ectogenesis as a way to equality. In: Simonstein F, ed. Reprogen-Ethics and the Future of Gender. London: Springer; 2009:187–95 at p. 187.

41. See note 40, Takala 2009:191.

42. See, for example, Murphy J. Is pregnancy necessary? Feminist concerns about ectogenesis. Hypatia 1989;4(3):66–84.

43. See note 18, Rose 2007:31.

44. See note 1, Dawson 2010.

45. See further note 4, Hedgecoe 2004. Hedgecoe notes how bioethical representations of ethics can contrast so profoundly with ethical reasoning on the ground.

46. See note 4, Hedgecoe 2004:121.

My thanks to Joanna Latimer, Martin Weinel, Adam Hedgecoe, Harry Collins, Joan Haran, Russell Hardy, Matteo Fabretti, and Nao Yamada, who have been so willing to engage in discussion and debate with me around a range of themes relating to this piece. Thanks also go to the anonymous referees. Particular gratitude is owed to John Coggon for all of his patience and time as well as the generous invitation to contribute to this issue.

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Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics
  • ISSN: 0963-1801
  • EISSN: 1469-2147
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