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Bioethics

Bioethics is the study of moral and social responses to issues raised by advances in biology and medicine. There are a number of frameworks you can use to analyse an ethical issue.

Modern biotechnology raises ethical issues that need to be carefully considered because they can affect human health, wellbeing, society and our environment. Examples of ethical issues include:

Analysing ethical issues

We can analyse ethical issues to determine whether a particular course of action is morally right or wrong.

Analysis usually draws on one or more ethical frameworks:

  • Consequences – weighing the benefits and harms. Who and/or what benefits? Who and/or what is harmed?
  • Rights and responsibilities – are there rights that need to be protected? Who is responsible for protecting those rights?
  • Autonomy  – should individuals have the right to choose for themselves, or does one decision count for everyone?
  • Virtue ethics – what is the ‘good’ thing to do?

These ethical frameworks offer different ways of thinking about a particular issue.

Get information sheet: Frameworks for ethical analysis

Ethics committees

All New Zealand universities and research institutes that carry out research involving people, animals or parts of animals, like tissues, must get ethical approval. The ethics committee at each institution assesses each research project and decides whether it can go ahead.

For example, a group of researchers at University of Auckland use zebrafish to study human diseases that can be inherited. Like any research involving animals, this work is subject to strict ethical scrutiny.

Get information sheet: The ethics of zebrafish in research

Public opinion

It is obviously important for the general public to have input into decisions about how science and technology are used in society.

Toi te Taiao: the Bioethics Council was established by the New Zealand Government to promote public dialogue on cultural, ethical and spiritual aspects of biotechnology. The Council has sought public opinion on issues such as using human genes in other organisms, xenotransplantation, pre-birth genetic testing and using human embryos in research. The Council was disestablished in March 2009, but you can still access their reports on the National Library website which has an archive of the Bioethics site, http://ndhadeliver.natlib.govt.nz/delivery/DeliveryManagerServlet?dps_pid=IE586117

Decide for yourself

You can form your own opinion about any ethical issue. For help using the different ethical frameworks, go to the Ethics thinking tool.

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