Course Spotlight – Bioethics and the Law

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Course Spotlights – Bioethics and the Law

Bioethics and Law was offered for the very first time in the online program this Spring. Bioethics and Law and the Public Health Law Policy and Ethics course are discrete, but I think you’ll see they’re connected in some really fascinating ways and I’ll explain what that means.

Both of these courses explore the relationship between law, ethics and policy, and as they are relevant to the health of individual, both the nation’s population to some extent a more global population. Both consider challenging questions about the law’s role in responding and maybe even the law’s role in shaping ethics guidelines and public policy in the health care arena.

For me bioethics is, quite honestly, super exciting. I just feel so blessed that I can work in this area. It deals with essential life and death question that face– I can’t say almost everyone – but face absolutely everyone because everyone is born and everyone will die.

Societies have – on the one hand – dealt with bioethical challenges for as long as there were people were born, aged, reproduced, fell ill, and died. As many of you know, the Greek healer Hippocrates, is said to have composed an oath that bears his name – the Hippocratic Oath – that is still, in some part at least, recited in medical schools graduations. He composed it in the fourth century B.C.

In a way, you see, bioethics has existed as long as there have been people. But in the contemporary West, bioethics and bioethics and the law are new, at least in university context. It really entered the world of modern academia in the middle of the twentieth century. In fact, interestingly, the first card in the Library of Congress catalogue that bears the term “bioethics” can be dated to the 1970’s.  So on the one hand, it’s a very ancient field, and on the other hand, a very modern field.

As a modern field, it has responded to some very specific developments. In particular, it’s responded to shifts in the world of medicine and shifts in the character of the patient-physician relationship. It also has responded to new, exciting but challenging – both ethically and technologically challenging – developments that allow us to, for example, keep people alive on tubes long after they would have been alive even half- century ago to provide for the birth of babies without regard for space and time in some sense. Babies now can be born – I mean we’re not even sure how long after – but decades certainly, after the gametes that produced them are created.

In the same period, we’ve seen relevant and very remarkable shifts in the law’s vision of human rights in the United States and in the world more generally. These trends have all come together in the creation and development of bioethics which is now taught – I’d be surprised there’s not a college, a law school, or a medical school where bioethics by that name or some other name, for example –  medical ethics, this is taught. This is really now, a de rigueur course.