February 26, 2024

New book chronicles history of British bioethics

First in-depth study of how bioethicists shaped policy

While contemporary bioethics took shape in the United States, parallel developments in Britain have been extremely important in shaping debate on issues like embryo research and assisted suicide. Dame Mary Warnock, for instance, the Oxford philosopher, produced a report on embryo research in 1984 which framed future discussion.

A new book, The making of British bioethics, by Duncan Wilson, a Research Associate at the University of Manchester’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, provides the first in-depth study of how philosophers, lawyers and other experts came to play a major role in discussing and helping to regulate issues that used to be left to doctors and scientists.

In Britain, perhaps more than in the US, the moral authority of individual bioethicists plays a prominent role.

“bioethicists now play an equal and sometimes greater role than doctors and scientists in publicly discussing the ethics of issues such as assisted dying, embryo research and genetic engineering. Although the notion of moral expertise remains contested and many bioethicists refuse to acknowledge it, they are often portrayed as what the Guardian called ‘ethics experts’ Thanks to escalating mistrust of club regulation, both in public and, crucially, in government, they derive their authority from being ‘expert outsiders’ who are independent from the profession or procedure under scrutiny.”

(For some reason, a PDF of the book can be found here.)

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