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Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine

Bioethics

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Sunday Telegraph portrait of the British philosopher and bioethicist Mary Warnock, who chaired a government inquiry into human fertilization and embryology between 1982 and 1984.

Recent decades have witnessed profound changes in the regulation and public discussion of science and medicine. In Britain and worldwide, doctors and scientists are no longer the major participants in regulatory commissions and media discussion of issues such as in vitro fertilization, stem cell research, animal experiments and clinical trials. A diverse array of actors, including philosophers, lawyers, sociologists, theologians, and patient representatives now have a decisive -- perhaps the decisive -- role in determining what is and is not acceptable. This new strategy, which first emerged in the United States during the early 1970s, is commonly known as 'bioethics', and is differentiated from the prior tradition of 'medical ethics' by an increased emphasis on outside involvement and public debate. Although 'bioethics' was considered an American phenomenon in Britain during the 1970s, it gradually took hold here over the 1980s -- prompting the Guardian to talk of a growing "ethics industry" in 1990.

Bioethics is a rich subject for historical investigation. It offers a window onto new relations between professions in the late twentieth century -- between medicine, biological sciences, law and the humanities -- and highlights the emergence of a new form of ethical 'expert' whose authority stems from scrutiny of clinical practice and biomedical research. Studying the history of bioethics also forces us to ask pressing questions about the changing relationship between medicine, science and society in recent years. What historical and cultural factors have created the demand for outside involvement, and what makes specific issues 'bioethical' to the detriment of others? And what forms of expertise have these outsiders claimed to fashion themselves into influential figures?

These questions form the core of Duncan Wilson's research on the emergence of bioethics in Britain and the United States. Charting bioethical debates on human tissue and embryo research, he shows that we can appreciate this new approach as part of the 'advanced liberal' style of government that became prevalent in Britain, Europe, and the United States over the last thirty years – where hitherto autonomous professions were exposed to external oversight in order to enforce public accountability, transparency, and value for money.

Recent publications by CHSTM staff and students

Duncan Wilson. "Who guards the guardians? Ian Kennedy, bioethics and the "ideology of accountability" in British medicine". Social History of Medicine (2011). doi: 10.1093/shm/hkr090

Duncan Wilson. "Creating the 'ethics industry': Mary Warnock, in vitro fertilization and the history of bioethics in Britain". Biosocieties 6:2 (2011), 121-141.

Duncan Wilson. "Bioethics: research on human tissues". Biological Sciences Review 23:3 (2011), 22-25.

Duncan Wilson. "Litigious new world? Human tissue, biomedicine, and the law in Britain, 1980-1995". In Imogen Goold and Katherine Kelly, eds. Medicine and the Law. Oxford: Hart Press, 2009.

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