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  • Writer's pictureJohn Lantos

Who (or what) is a bioethicist?

Quick, tell me: who, among the following people, is a bioethicist?

Amy Guttman, Jodi Halpern, Pedro Almodovar, Renee Fox, Jodi Picoult, Maimonidies, Stanley Hauerwas?

Correct answer: All of them. Or maybe none of them. All have contributed in significant ways to discussions of important bioethics issues. Not one, I would guess, identifies themself as a bioethicist.

So, who is a bioethicist and how do you become one? When students ask me this, I say, “It’s easy. Just start telling people that you are one.” It is more like being a Frisbee player or bread baker than like being a hair stylist or commercial truck driver. You don’t need a license. Eventually, you should be prepared to be interviewed by a journalist or named to a bioethics commission.

This can be vexing. Renee Fox, who once disavowed being a bioethicist, and then went on to be awarded lifetime achievement award in the field, noted that the field has been criticized “regarding its conceptual framework, methodology, multidisciplinary composition and dynamics, agenda of moral issues, relationships with the social institutions and culture of American society, and its international scope and relevance.” Carl Elliott worried that bioethicists played too many roles – consultants, bureaucrats, compliance officers, motivational speakers, self-help experts. Tuija Takala sees bioethicists as “demagogues, firefighters, and window dressers” whose work she describes as being less academic and more partisan or political in nature. British historian Roger Cooter sees bioethicists as “priestly-looking interlopers acting as moral police.”

In spite of these criticisms, bioethics has established itself as a field. It has done so not because self-identified bioethicists are uniquely qualified to comment on the complicated issues that arise at the intersection of science and society. Instead, it has done so because the issues are of universal importance. Technology is changing the way we think about birth, death, health and disease, identity,, freedom, and our obligations to one another. Technology is a double-edged sword that can be used to enhance human flourishing or to destroy the things that are the essence of our humanity.

Bioethics is not really a professional field Instead, it is a set of concerns about the ways that biotechnology has an impact on our world and our lives. Thus, issues such as in vitro fertilization, artificial wombs, performance-enhancing drugs, euthanasia, or genetic engineering all lead us to think in new ways about what it means to be born, to live, and to die. The implications of new technologies that change human possibilities touch us all. There is not one methodology for analyzing such issues. When Almodovar makes a film that starts with an EEG machine showing the characteristic flat lines of brain death, or when Leonard Cohen writes a song on his deathbed about being ready to die, or when Pope Francis convenes a Vatican conference on pediatric palliative care, they are all contributing to bioethics.

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