We read the newspapers and journals of public interest; we watch the news on television or movies; we navigate on the web…, what do we read and see very often? Issues directly connected with biotechnology and biomedicine, and with bioethics and human life. Some current bioethical concerns are in vitro fertilization and embryo transfer, organ transplant and donation, surrogate motherhood, experimentation with embryonic stem cells, abortion, euthanasia and physician assisted suicide, gene therapy, drug testing, regenerative medicine, etc.

       Facing these issues, the scientific question is, can it be done? The ethical question is, what can be done, should it be done? Is it right?  In our world dominated by science and technology, is not bioethics truly important and relevant for all human beings today?


       The word bioethics was coined in 1970 by oncologist Van R. Potter in his trail blazing article The Science of Survival. Potter wanted this new science of bioethics to be a bridge to the growing separation between the scientific culture and the humanist culture. Since then the meaning of bioethics has been enriched by positive contributions from other sciences, in particular the social sciences, ecology philosophy, and theology.

       Etymologically, bioethics (bios: life; ethics: ethics) means life-ethics, or ethics of the life sciences. It refers mainly not to a technical science (biology), but to a normative science (ethics) that studies moral principles, values, norms and practices concerning biomedical interventions on human life. Because bioethics is the ethics of human life from the moment of conception to natural death, and in-between life and death, bioethics is an important normative life science for all persons.

       Substantially, bioethics is not “a fundamentally new ethics, but the application of ethics and its basic principles to the new possibilities open up to us by modern biology and biotechnology with regard to human life” (Josef Fuchs). And yet, bioethics, while focusing on healthcare ethics, goes beyond it to encompass social, business, and ecological ethics.

       Bioethics may be divided into micro-ethics and macro-ethics. Micro-ethics refers to the analysis and care of personal cases (of illnesses of individual persons). Macro-ethics studies the impact of biomedical decisions on society, public policy on health for all, and on justice and solidarity in healthcare.


       Bioethics today is usually presented as secular ethics or ethics from the perspective of reason. Humans ground moral decision-making on human dignity and rights, which are equal in all human persons, beginning with the fundamental right to life.

       There is, moreover, religious ethics, which speak of the value of life not only from the perspective of reason – radically of natural law, or the law of being human -,  but mainly from the vision of faith in God, and, in the case of Christians, in the Son of God Jesus Christ. Theological bioethics confirms the fundamental ethical principles and values developed by reason, and provides a deep meaning to life, suffering and death. Christians and many men and women of good will defend and promote a consistent-life-ethic and a dignified life for all.

       For Christians, the radical sources of their faith-vision are the Sacred Scriptures and Tradition, which are explained by the magisterium or official teaching of the Church. An easily available written summary of the Church’s doctrine is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992, 1997), more concretely in its third part on general Christian ethics and the commandments. There is a pace-setting encyclical on bioethical problems and concerns: Evangelium Vitae, EV, or The Gospel of Life (1995) of St. John Paul II. There are other significant and more in-depth documents on bioethics and life from the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith.


       Bioethics is important for everyone. We are all potential patients in need of a doctor. Bioethics helps us know better our human dignity, which ought to be respected by all, and our human rights, including the right to health care, to proper healthcare information, the right to refuse useless treatment, and the right to privacy and confidentiality.

       Bioethics is important, in particular, for the family. The central concern of bioethics is human life, a great value for all human beings, in particular the family, which is the community of life and love. For believers in Jesus and for many other peoples, the family is founded on marriage and is the basic cell and foundation of society. The Christian family is the sanctuary of life, and is asked to proclaim, celebrate, and serve life (EV 92). The family values life and contributes immensely to the promotion of a culture of life. The members of the family are tasked to be “people of life and people for life” (St. John Paul II).

       The continually growing relevance of bioethics in our time is attested by the fact that bioethics education is today an important part of integral education. It is a subject in the health sciences, in the humanities, in philosophy, and in theology. Certainly, “bioethics interests everyone concerned with the interface of technology, nature, and human nature; as a result, it has been a highly successful addition to educational curricula” (William Callahan).

       Bioethics is necessary for physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and other healthcare professionals, who have to know and practice the bioethical dimension of a scientific and humane medicine. “Clinical analysis and ethical analysis in health work are inextricably linked… No doctor can escape the influence of ethical theory and practice” (Charles M. Culver). Bioethics in human and Christian perspective is also necessary for Christian healthcare workers. Their vocation is a ministry in the Church’s healing mission (cf. New Charter of Healthcare Workers, 2017, by Vatican Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development).

       Bioethics is also necessary for scientists, researchers and legislators. Science is not ethically neutral, neither laws. Like any human activity, scientific research and human laws have a moral dimension. The scientist, the lawmaker are ethical persons, professionals guided by an ethical code that respects every human person and his/her dignity as expressed in human rights and basic laws. The human person is the central criterion of any ethics and of the ethical dimension of science, biology, biomedicine, and laws. Kant wrote: “Act in such a way that you always take humanity in yourself as well as in every person as end and never as means.”  A radical principle of ethics – and bioethics is this: The human person ought to be respected always, and never used as means. For the Christian, every human being is a creature and a child of God and therefore his/her life is sacred.

       Bioethics is also important for teachers. “All teachers are to be inspired by academic ideals and by the principles of an authentic human life” (Ex Corde Ecclesiae). Teachers are to be competent not only in their own subject matter, but also knowledgeable concerning the basic questions of life and its meaning which are part of the extracurricular questions of our students. I remember these words of Saint Augustine:  “I learned not from those who taught me, but from those who talked with me, as I try to pour into their ears the way I felt about things.”


       Bioethics is important for everyone in another sense. As custodians of our health, bioethics may help us be healthy – and ethical. Mens sana in corpore sano – a sound mind in a sound body: a temperate life style, a hopeful and joyful attitude, a virtuous living. In Christian perspective, the following of Christ is the healthiest way of living!

       The goal of bioethics – of any ethics – is not merely to know but mainly to do:  “To know and not to do is not yet to know” (Buddhist Proverb).  To do what?  To do good; radically, to be good. Theologian Peter Kreeft asks himself:  What is the purpose of ethics? To answer:  “To be good, that is, virtuous,”to love! When all is said and done, what really matters in ethics, bioethics, theological ethics – in life, really – is love: love is the value and the virtue of life! Authentic love respects truth. God is Love and Truth. True love is the best defense and promotion of human life consistently. Indeed, “to be is to love” (E. Mounier).

(Published in O Clarim: May 19, 2017)