Clínica Capio, Talavera de la Reina, Toledo, España.
Medical ethics have evolved over time, and ethical responsibilities have often been shared by priests, the governing classes, and physicians. The emergence of scientific medicine led to the separation of functions, yet physicians have nonetheless continued to enjoy an extraordinary degree of moral authority and great social privilege. From this starting point, professional medical ethics developed as a specific moral system based on special rights and duties (paternalism and medical confidentiality). Various historical events brought this longstanding situation to a point of crisis toward the middle of the 20th century, and for several decades since, medical ethics have been based on freedom of choice for the patient with regard to decisions about his or her own body and health. Recent developments have created a new, still poorly defined model that takes into consideration such matters as euthanasia, abortion, provision of information on the benefits and harm of treatments, the sharing of therapeutic decision-making with the patient and/or family members, the choice of public or private medical providers, therapeutic guidelines, and the extension of the scope of practice to include preventive measures and cosmetic procedures. What is needed now is a new ethical system for plural societies that harbor different religions, beliefs and lifestyles, but that is also rational, universal and subject to ongoing revision-a system always striving for scientific, technical and moral excellence. Such an ethical system would have to be taught in medical schools, as it would need to bear fruit beyond mere good intentions.