Movement to Explore Bioethical Issues
An extraordinary movement is under way to put together the most conscientious thinking in the nation on the many moral and ethical issues raised by advances in the medical and biological sciences. The object is to develop a set of commonly accepted principles to guide those responsible for making life and death decisions—as some put it, to guide man in “playing God.” Problems in medical ethics are not new but in recent years they have taken on a character and dimension undreamed of in the past. Doctors have always had to weigh the benefits of certain medications against their hazards. But never before have the options signified such fateful consequences for the individual and for society.
Major new developments in the biological and medical sciences call for moral and ethical decisions for which there are few precedents. They include fertilization of human egg cells in the laboratory; determination of certain genetic characteristics, including the sex, of the human embryo; modification of genetic traits by tampering with egg cells; modification of behavior and mood by chemical and neurological means; transplantation of vital organs from one person to another; and prolongation of life.
“A revolution in the biological and medical sciences…raises a whole spectrum of critical problems which…appear to transcend the inherent capabilities of science and scientists to deal with them and to present acute challenges to both existing law and conventional wisdom,” Merlin K. Duval, Assistant Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare for Health and Scientific Affairs, said at Senate hearings in 1971.The hearings were on a resolution, subsequently approved by the Senate, to create a national commission to advise on ethical and social issues in the health sciences. “Modern medical technology,” Dr. Duval continued, “has made possible unprecedented experiences that society has vet to integrate into its traditions.”Pressure to revise legal standards pertaining to medical practice—on questions of abortion and determination of death, for example—compound the ethical problems presented by the new powers of science to intervene in the natural processes of life and death.