April 15, 2024

Sargent Shriver and the birth of bioethics

One version of how the term was coined

death of Sargent Shriver, the brother-in-law of US President John F. Kennedy,
was an occasion for reminiscences about his life of public service. One
achievement, points out bioethicist Jonathan Moreno in Science Progress, is coining
the term “bioethics” in 1970 — although there are other candidates for this

was hosting a meeting to discuss sponsorship by the Kennedy family of an
institute which would integrate moral philosophy, theology and medicine. Shriver
had a moment of inspiration:

of the need to bring biology and ethics together, I thought of
‘bioethics.’  And the people in the room latched onto it as the name of
the Institute.  Our idea was that we were starting an ethics institute
regarding this new science, with primary emphasis on biology with ethics…. I
know full well I proposed the word.  But I don’t think it was a stroke of
genius.  It was as easy to come up with the word ‘bioethics’ as falling
off a log.”

outcome was the Joseph and Rose Kennedy Institute for the Study of Human
Reproduction and Bioethics at Georgetown University (later called simply the
Kennedy Institute). This was the first institution with “bioethics”
in its title. The word was quickly accepted. By 1973 scholars were working on
an Encylopedia of Bioethics and by
1974 the Library of Congress had adopted bioethics as a subject heading.

of those involved in the nascent field felt that there was something
revolutionary about their work which would bypass traditional metaphysics and
ethics. As Warren T. Reich, the editor of the Encyclopedia put it:

think that the field of bioethics started with the word bioethics because the
word is so suggestive and so powerful; it suggests a new focus, a new bringing
together of disciplines in a new way with a new forum that tended to neutralize
the ideologic slant that people associated with the word ethics.

Michael Cook