May 29, 2024

Katrina reopens debate about goals of bioethics

Abandoned cars in New Orleans -- Reuters Thousands of dead in filthy flood waters, threats of massive outbreaks of disease, hundreds of thousands of homeless, accusations of racism, and the catastrophic failure of officialdom to provide security have opened up a debate over the proper focus of bioethics after Katrina’s devastation. Writing in the American Journal of Bioethics, Jonathan D. Moreno says that contemporary bioethics tends to ignore public welfare and concentrates on issues related to personal autonomy.

The Katrina disaster partly resulted from a failure of public institutions, and bioethics must shoulder its share of the blame,” Moreno writes. “Many commentators have observed that the field has wrapped itself in the embrace of the privileged and their problems. What contribution have we made to the debate about access to health care since the President’s Commission of the early 1980s? The failure to create and execute an escape plan for New Orleans impoverished residents is part of a continuum of inadequate services that often prove deadly even under ordinary circumstances.”

When the term bioethics was coined in 1970 by Van Rensselear Potter, it encompassed the “integration of biology and values… designed to guide human survival” — not just the narrower discipline of medical ethics. Potter had a grand vision for bioethics in which issues related to human reproduction, enhancement technology, end-of-life decision-making and so on merged with environmentalism. “This tragedy also may be the shock that awakens the field of bioethics from a false consciousness and moves it closer to Potter’s vision,” says Moreno.

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