Bioethics is a subfield of ethics, the philosophical study that looks at the moral basis of human behavior. For example, a bioethicist may be asked to answer such questions as:
Is it okay to let a person refuse life-saving medical treatment?
Should terminally ill patients be allowed to end their lives with physician-prescribed medication?
Who should receive limited medical resources like organ transplants?
Can researchers destroy frozen embryos in order to isolate stem cells that may be used to develop new medical treatments?
Should parents be allowed to choose the sex of their child?
Can doctors quarantine or forcibly treat patients carrying an infectious disease like tuberculosis?
Where do bioethicists work?
Bioethicists work in a variety of settings. Many bioethicists are healthcare providers who work in hospitals, long-term care facilities or hospices. In that capacity, they may serve as clinical ethics consultants who are called upon to deal with challenging cases involving refusal of treatment or end-of-life care. Alternatively, they may be educators training clinical staff on how to deal with difficult patients, or administrators developing policies for rationing of scarce resources like ICU beds.
Some bioethicists are scientists or regulators employed by academic institutions or private companies doing biomedical research. At those places, the role of the bioethicist might be to review and oversee the conduct of clinical trials of new drugs or medical devices, ensuring that the rights and safety of study participants are adequately protected.
Other bioethicists are lawyers, public officials and policy makers, developing new laws or programs to address public health concerns like obesity, smoking and access to affordable health care. They may also be called upon to address novel ethical challenges that arise as a result of new scientific and technological advances, such as genetic engineering, cloning or nanotechnology.
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