The discipline of bioethics arose in the mid-20th century in response to the rapid pace of technological and scientific change. The aim was to develop ethical thinking based on reasoned analysis to offer ethical criteria to be applied to decisions affecting life.
One of the first definitions of bioethics refers to humanity's survival on earth, and defines the discipline as "a call to take responsibility for preserving the environment, the atmosphere, and biodiversity."
But it is in the fields of research and care where bioethics has developed most, arising both from the need to regulate the ethics of research with human subjects following the tragic experiences of World War Two, and and in the clinical context in light of the challenge of taking difficult decisions that involve conflicts of values (limited resources, decisions at the end of life, etc.). Bioethics offers answers and proposes a dialogue between science and the humanities to help find solutions to the conflicts that arise in our daily lives. Bioethics is also concerned more generally with social questions that relate to people's health and therefore concern us all.
The four bioethical principles
Bioethics has been based on and has developed four basic principles that should guide both medical practice and research, and taken together these can help us arrive at better decisions or guide our actions. Ideally, these principles can be reconciled with each other but often conflicts of values make it necessary to prioritize, and such choices are the focus of the deliberations of both clinical and research ethics committees.
Although additional principles have been suggested, the four traditional principles of bioethics remain the most widely recognized:
Autonomy: the individual's capacity to take decisions freely and independently, a capacity that must always be respected, apart from in exceptional cases when it comes into conflict with other essential values.
Beneficence: maximize the potential benefits and reduce the potential harm, taking into account the views of the individual as to the evaluation of these outcomes.
Non-maleficence: do not intentionally cause harm (primum non nocere) or increase the harm already suffered by the individual as a result of our actions.
Justice: treat similar cases equally, preventing situations of inequality in as far as is possible.
To find out more...