Bioethics program of study has educational, global importance

Alayna Flor

Thanks to vast medical, agricultural and technological innovations, there is a gray area around what is ethically correct and what is not.

Bioethics, a program of study offered at Iowa State, can help all students realize the ethical issues important to their careers and everyday lives.

“Bioethics issues arise in every aspect of our lives,” said Clark Wolf, bioethics program director and professor of philosophy. “We can be thoughtful how they affect us, or we can be thoughtless about the way they affect us. But we cannot escape them.”

In 1974, Congress created the branch of bioethics, which was headed by the departments of Health, Education and Welfare.

Historically, bioethics has focused on anything dealing with medicine. Today, bioethics is used in animal science, medicine, environmental policy, biotechnology, veterinary medicine, ecology, engineering, agriculture and many other areas.

“There are academic questions that are fun to address, but many of the issues [in bioethics] are direct and affect peoples’ lives, whether we like it or not,” Wolf said.

Bioethics analyzes the ethical practices of science and medicine and is an important focus of U.S. government. Animal cloning, genetically modified food, and stem cell research all are issues that divide the United States on ethical grounds.

Just as in the area of agriculture, there are local concerns and global concerns that involve bioethics.

“Agriculture policy affects everyone in Iowa. Iowa crops are covered by intellectual property rights, which are controversial for a variety of reasons: They provide people protection for products developed through expensive research and development, but they also prevent people from replanting their own crops,” Wolf said. “There are also global bioethics issues involved in the effect of United States farm subsidies on developing countries. We need to consider, for example, whether U.S. farm subsidies effectively export poverty to poor farmers in the developing world.”

President Barack Obama created a new bioethics advisory board in November 2009, whose job it is to inform the president on bioethical issues that arise with developing technology and science. The commission also makes recommendations on what legal actions and policy actions should be taken by the government.

“Recent court cases have called into question about gene patents,” Wolf said. “Patents that covered breast cancer gene testing were overturned in federal court. This case, which is presently under appeal, will determine who has access to life-saving medical procedures. The outcome will determine who will live and who will die.”

From food to medicine and technology, there is most likely bioethical consideration behind each.

“Bioethics is an incredibly broad field,” Wolf said. “Ideally, the study of bioethics should make us be more thoughtful and how we organize our lives, laws and global systems.”

At Iowa State, there are two general programs of study: bioethics and public policy, and bioethics and veterinary medicine. These two programs include classes in philosophy and political science, among others.

“People who specialize in bioethics typically have a background in philosophy or law,” Wolf said. “The bioethics program serves students best by providing the opportunity to pursue important issues, and understand how bioethics is involved in their major field of study.”

Students interested in studies of bioethics are encouraged to contact Wolf or look at the ISU bioethics webpage.

Wolf said the most important point to consider is that “we need to think about who pays the price and who is going to gain the benefits.”