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Why Bioethics Is Important to Medical Research

March 10, 2015

What place does bioethics really have in the field of medicine, where there are new innovations every month it seems that can improve our lifestyle in ways we once only imagined? Does bioethics really help us live a more healthy lifestyle, or does it just pose irrelevant concerns on medical breakthroughs? 

 
 I believe the answer is kind of in the question. If the goal of medicine is to improve our lifestyle, then  it ought to guard against social ills just as much as any other illness or disease. Supporting a healthy society is just as important as supporting a healthy body. The trouble is, while ailments of the body are easy to notice and more quickly treated, social ills are oftentimes too deep-rooted to see and could take decades to treat and cure. Also, there doesn't seem to be a general consensus on what is truly, universally harmful to society.

Each culture has a code of ethics based on either religion, rational interpretations of reality, "pragmatic" morality influenced by wealth and enjoyment, a social ethic or some combination of the four (to paraphrase Christopher Dawson).  And yet, each of these codes of ethics have one common goal in mind: the general well-being of humanity.  

Let's keep that in mind as we look at a recent discovery by stem cell researchers claiming that it may be possible to make human egg and sperm cells from two people of the same sex. This would allow homosexual couples to artificially bring into the world children with each of their DNA. Now does this project have that one common goal, the well-being of humanity, in mind? In what universe is this experiment beneficial to human health or welfare? The research, funded by the Wellcome Trust seems to be a spinoff project within an institute that spends a large amount of its time searching for cures and vaccines for diseases, serious threats to our well-being. 

This new stem cell discovery can't even resemble a health benefit unless we consider the great American paradigm, which is that there ought to be no limitations on anything, and if there is anything that appears to limit us in any way we are justified in rising against it. Many people have greatly benefited from this paradigm. It has broadened the gateway into traditional professions. Normal lay people can become respectable theologians without being ordained. An entrepreneur with no business background can go from rags to riches in a few years. In these cases and more, this great American paradigm has tested the limits of social norms and expanded them. So why can't a homosexual couple make a baby from their own DNA? Is this not just another way to test our limits?

Well, it's one thing to test the limits of society, and another thing to challenge natural law. The former has to do with expanding our cultural horizons. The latter has to do with trying to defy our very essence and existence. I'm all for challenging cultural norms, but who we are as a society or culture is malleable while our nature by definition is not. Our culture is as versatile as the many ways you can cook potatoes, but change the nature of a potato and it's no longer a potato. 

The Wellcome Trust was founded by early 20th-century businessman Sir Henry Wellcome, an American who traveled to England to start a pharmaceutical company  for the "advancement of medical and scientific research to improve mankind's well being." 

The important thing to note is that Wellcome had an end in mind; one can even argue that it was an ethical end. As a philanthropist at heart, he was only interested in scientific and medical innovation insofar as it improved the general health of humanity. In his time, the study of medicine had a clear objective: to cure diseases.

Now we have to consider the social implications of our medical discoveries. If new medical discoveries could potentially have a negative effect on society, Wellcome would be concerned about that. Would he be okay if he found out that a company he founded "to improve mankind's well-being" was now being used to research the possibility of making humans from skin cells? I think he would roll over in his grave.

The most important lesson I get from all of this is that we must remember the meaning and purpose of things. For all of the advancements in medicine and technology over the past few centuries, there is still an important question we've yet to answer: What good can we do with the things we can now do? In other words, what it really boils down to is the great childlike question: "Why?" That may sound a bit too parochial for some, but unless an answer can be given that is rooted in some code of ethics, all these pointless new discoveries that show what we can now do are just like riding a bike without using the handlebars. 

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