April 30, 2012 | Posted By David Lemberg, M.S., D.C.

“A call to arms” may be a bit martial for many bioethicists, but we live in perilous times. Meaningful action is needed across the board with respect to the functioning of government, whether federal, state, or local. We are confronted with the effects of benighted policies (or lack of policies and lack of regulations) that threaten to destroy our national (and global) financial system, our national health care “system” (really a default hodgepodge of buyers, sellers, and canny middlemen), and our global ecosystem. Standards of living continue to erode in the U.S. and Europe. Unemployment persists at high levels. In the United States, at least, educational achievement is in free fall. We live in a national culture that has degraded to the narrow perspective of me and mine. It is not an exaggeration to assert that many Americans have lost their moral compass, if indeed they ever had one. For the rest of us, those who recall what it means to be blessed with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, it is long past time to do what anchorman Howard Beale did in Network: throw open the windows to the street, lean our heads out, and shout I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!

What’s a bioethicist to do? The answer is, plenty. Our profession came to be partially in response to national outrage following the surfacing of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. The new field’s three cardinal principles were expounded in the Belmont Report:

  1. Respect for persons
  2. Beneficence
  3. Justice

Each principle can be unpacked almost without end to yield robust ethical and moral frameworks applicable to the majority of modern medical conundrums. Of course, bioethical frameworks are not procrustean devices and each set of circumstances is evaluated on its own terms and merits.

But the need for bioethics and bioethicists is now more broad and more great than that required by the actions and policies of hospitals, medical device companies, and global pharmaceutical corporations. Society is at a crossroads and it’s time to call for all hands on deck. Bioethicists, trained in ethics and philosophy, are a precious resource. We possess and command a special skill set that is sorely needed in every area of public policy. But the potential for meaningful action is distinct from actually being active. The question is how to begin?

Waiting to be invited to participate with a select committee or a working group is not an effective strategy. Unless one is proactive, those invitations will never come. In contrast, if one is committed to making a difference, the time-honored and proven mechanism of change is grass-roots organization and community action. The civil rights movement is the classic example of such a bottom-up approach. In early December 1955, Rosa Parks asserted her right to take a seat on that bus in Montgomery, Alabama. A few days later the Montgomery Bus Boycott was organized by Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Dr. Martin Luther King. Less than nine years later President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Education was a critical ingredient in the civil rights movement, and community education is a very good starting point today. Bioethicists can take the lead here, bringing a wealth of knowledge and experience to town hall meetings and other impactful public venues. Ethics, after all, is a doctrine of action, engaged in elucidating the distinctions between right and wrong. What kind of society do we want to live in? Is it appropriate to care for those less fortunate, and if so, how do we do that? What are the implications of actively taking on stewardship of our planet? Do we intend, as a society, to engage in equitable distribution of resources, and if so, how might we begin to go about doing that? These are the big questions. But if no one is asking them, we will likely continue on our present course of devolution. And the singular vision of American democracy will vanish.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers graduate online masters in bioethics programs. For more information on the AMBI master of bioethics online program, please visit the AMBI site.

2 comments | Topics: Bioethics and Public Policy , Bioethics in the Media , Education , Environmental Conservation , Ethics and Morality , Health Care Policy , Sustainability


Richard R. Pesce,MD,MS, FCCP, FACP

Richard R. Pesce,MD,MS, FCCP, FACP wrote on 05/09/12 7:36 PM

Lemberg's call to arms is appropriate and necessary. We are in educational free fall, to paraphrase: the veneer of American Society is thin.Political screeching is at an all time high an the distinguishing of facts from "true
facts" deem nonstarter the insincerity of our,eager ship. The3 principles outlined in the Belmont report are necessary to hold our nation together. Theirs especially truesince the American populace has littlein the way of common ground to share anymore. Ther appears to beno unifying force. So perhaps as bioethicist we can take a stand and bring forth a national conversation on these and about these principles. It one's down to the idea of recognizing the intrinsic dignity of each person, no matter their station in life. To affirm and recognize, respect and acknowledge this dignity would go a very long way to getting us back on the correct course and establish the common ground for all of us- an individual's intrinsic dignity:the one element that each of us has that each of us can and should respect. Justice and beneficence would flow from this action.
Michael Orenstein

Michael Orenstein wrote on 05/10/12 12:52 AM

Market triumphalism, as Michael Sandel points out in his new book, What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, has transformed us from a market economy into a market society, where everything is or sale. From prison cell upgrades at $82 /night, to surrogate services, sales of organs, admissions to schools, etc., there seems to be no limits. Democracy itself is threatened when ultra stratification means that there is no common cause between the haves and have nots. The good things in life are being degraded and new norms established in every aspect of human endeavor. Liberals can no longer shy away from debates about what about what values need to be preserved.

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BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.