Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Judging the Past: How History Should Inform Bioethics

 2016 Apr 19;164(8):553-557. doi: 10.7326/M15-2642.

Judging the Past: How History Should Inform Bioethics.


Bioethics has become a common course of study in medical schools, other health professional schools, and graduate and undergraduate programs. An analysis of past ethical scandals, as well as the bioethics apparatus that emerged in response to them, is often central to the discussion of bioethical questions. This historical perspective on bioethics is invaluable and demonstrates how, for example, the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study was inherently racist and how other experiments exploited mentally disabled and other disadvantaged persons. However, such instruction can resemble so-called Whig history, in which a supposedly more enlightened mindset is seen as having replaced the "bad old days" of physicians behaving immorally. Bioethical discourse-both in the classroom and in practice-should be accompanied by efforts to historicize but not minimize pastethical transgressions. That is, bioethics needs to emphasize why and how such events occurred rather than merely condemning them with an air of moral superiority. Such instruction can reveal the complicated historical circumstances that led physician-researchers (some of whom were actually quite progressive in their thinking) to embark on projects that seem so unethical in hindsight. Such an approach is not meant to exonerate past transgressions but rather to explain them. In this manner, students and practitioners of bioethics can better appreciate how modern health professionals may be susceptible to the same types of pressures, misguided thinking, and conflicts of interest that sometimes led their predecessors astray.

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