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How is the work in Bioethics?

The work in bioethics can be characterized as an activity that is normative, that is, not empirical. Bioethics is not an empirical discipline because the empirical evidence that something occurs does not determine that this is what is ethically correct. For example, empirical evidence that most people lie doesn’t lead us to conclude that it is ethically acceptable to lie. As a normative discipline, bioethics examines what “ought to be” which frequently differs from what “is”.

Bioethics is an activity rather than a code of precepts. Bioethics is a discipline consisting of analytic activity based on ethical principles and criteria that guide practice in the different areas related to health. 

Bioethics analysis is carried out in light of fundamental values such as respect for human beings and their capacity to decide for themselves on the basis of their values and beliefs, the well-being of individuals and populations, and justice. The analysis should take into account specific contexts and actual situations, identifying all morally relevant aspects and striving for consistency.

Even if a single individual is conducting the analysis, it should still follow the model of a pluralistic and inclusive dialogue that respects diversity and take the different viewpoints involved into consideration. As a deliberative exercise, ethical analysis does not always lead to a univocal response. It is possible that there is more than one ethically correct way to proceed.       

What is the difference between ethics and bioethics?

Bioethics is the discipline that seeks to clarify ethical problems that arise in health. There are, however, many ethical problems that have nothing to do with health, as is the case with those problems that arise in relationship to business. These are the subject of study of ethics or, more precisely, of applied ethics. Ethics is a more general discipline that studies morality, including ethical problems of different types and the theoretical analysis of moral concepts. Ethics as a discipline is an area of philosophy.

Frequently, when talking about bioethics, it isn’t necessary to use the prefix “bio” because we are referring to principles or criteria that are not exclusive to bioethics, or because it is clear that we are talking about something that has to do with health. For example, the principle of justice is not exclusive of bioethics, as it guides our behavior in areas that have nothing to do with health. This is why it makes sense to call it an “ethical principle” instead of a “bioethical principle”. Furthermore, we speak of “ethics of research in human subjects” and of “public health ethics” because in both instances the relation with health is obvious and it would be redundant to say “bioethics of research with human subjects” or “public health bioethics”.

What is the difference between the duties of the Regional Program on Bioethics and the Ethics Office in PAHO?

The Regional Program on Bioethics works in bioethics as the discipline that studies the ethical problems that arise in regards to the health, for example, when conducting research with human subjects, designing a health policy, or providing health care.  

The Ethics Office seeks to ensure that PAHO employees behave ethically in the exercise of their work: With professional integrity and following the rules of conduct of the Organization. 

Why is bioethics necessary if we already have laws and human rights?

The law is essential to determine the minimum standards that need to be respected. However, legal frameworks are not enough to clarify or solve all ethical conflicts. What is required by law is only one of the many dimensions of ethical behavior; frequently, ethics dictates actions that go beyond what is required by law. In fact, it’s neither possible nor desirable for the law to cover the entire spectrum of the moral life of individuals or societies.

Furthermore, history has proved that the law can require unethical actions and that it is possible for ethical actions to be illegal.  Even when it is not often the case, we need to keep in mind that just because the law requires something, it doesn’t make it ethical. Ethics as a discipline allows for the continuous analysis and deliberation of the law and of what it should require.

Human rights have been established by binding legal instruments that protect individuals and groups from those actions that interfere with fundamental freedoms and human dignity.  These instruments, such as treaties and resolutions, are therefore relevant when it comes to health matters. They are suitable to deal with cases in which governments breach concrete obligations which they have legally committed to obey.

Certainly, human rights are ethically justified and codify certain fundamental values in bioethics, such as respect for persons and justice. This allows for these human rights instruments to serve as a legal framework for the work in bioethics. However, the existence of this frame does not eliminate the constant need for ethical deliberation and analysis in the many complex situations we face in health related matters.

Which are the different areas within bioethics?

Ethical problems permeate all areas of work in health.  Health related activities can be therapeutic (aimed at a direct benefit) or non-therapeutic (aimed at the generation of knowledge). Furthermore, they can aim at the individual or collective level.

The health activity that seeks the benefit of individuals is health care, and the ethical problems that arise in this context are the subject of clinical ethics. The health activity that seeks the benefit of populations is public health and the ethical problems that arise in this context are the subject of public health ethics. The health activity that doesn’t seek a direct benefit for individuals but rather seeks for the generation of knowledge is health research. The ethical problems that arise when conducting health research are the subject of research ethics. Health research can either be clinical research or public health research. Research ethics covers both since they share the same normative and regulatory framework.

This chart illustrates the areas of bioethics according to the type of health activity:





 Clinical Ethics

 Research Ethics


 Public Health Ethics

 Research Ethics 

What does the Health Agenda for the Americas say about Bioethics?

The Health Agenda for the Americas (2008-2017) emphasizes the importance of the work in Bioethics: “Bioethics has to be disseminated and applied more in the countries of the Americas, in order to protect the quality of research and the respect for the dignity of persons, safeguard the cultural diversity and the application of health knowledge, as well as its application in the decision-making process in public health.”

Last Updated on Wednesday, 04 September 2013 08:17

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