December 3, 2022

What the world needs now is more bioethicists. Or not?

In a recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, one of America’s leading voices in bioethics, Emanuel J. Ezekiel, said that Covid had taught the US a lesson about the importance of bioethics. “Ethics must be integrated into emergency decision making,” he wrote with colleagues. “Ethicists should be at the table when policies are formulated, rather than merely serving as external critics.”

They argued that: “The agencies responsible for responding to public health emergencies need to have trained ethicists on staff, regularly participating in scenario planning and advising.”

Surprisingly, another bioethicist is sceptical. Why, asks Franklin G. Miller in a blog post on The Hastings Center website. “Ethics is, or ought to be, everyone’s business, especially with respect to public health emergencies, owing to their pervasive societal and global impacts brought to light in the current pandemic,” he writes. “We need policymakers with ethical sensitivity and openness to competing views about how to resolve ethical problems, regardless of whether ethicists are at the table.”

In any case, he observes: “If, all things considered, ethicists should be at the table, this poses additional questions. Do current practices of educating bioethicists prepare them for being effective and responsible agents in the policy arena? If not, as I suspect, how should education of bioethicists be augmented so that they are equipped with the relevant knowledge and skills to function well in that arena?”