Bioethics in the Antipodes: A history of bioethics since 1980
Australia has a longstanding reputation for world-leading medical research and health care innovation. Since the 1980s bioethics became enmeshed in these developments. This project will trace the emergence of bioethics in Australia.
Writing in the early 1990s, the Australian moral philosopher Raimond Gaita asserted that ‘having a chair in practical ethics does not qualify anyone to sit on committees which decide who amongst us should be killed if the going gets tough’. Gaita’s refusal to recognise the authority of practical ethicists in matters of public and political concern occurred amidst the ascendance of bioethics in Australia. In 1988 the Australian Federal and States ministers of health established the National Bioethics Consultative Committee and bioethicists such as Peter Singer, Helga Kuhse and Max Charlesworth were publicly examining the merits of infanticide, euthanasia and the implications of newly developed reproductive technologies.
Debate over the ethics of medical research and practice is not new. However, since 1980 the concept of ‘bioethics’ and role of a ‘bioethicist’ have increasingly become embedded in committees advising on public policy, clinical practice and medical research. There are currently over 200 Health Research Ethics Committees in Australia. Most major universities offer courses in bioethics or have bioethics research centres. Medical degrees have compulsory ethics units, and bioethicists are continually asked by the media to offer expert opinion on matters of morality. While Gaita questioned the legitimacy of the expertise of bioethicists, this project asks “how did bioethics rise to prominence in key research, government and education institutions and provide a discourse that transformed public debate across Australia?”
To answer this question I will situate Australian bioethics in the broader international context and examine key events, debates and medical breakthroughs unique to Australia. Although the term ‘bio-ethik’ was coined by Fritz Jahr, a German theologian, in 1927, it is commonly understood as having its roots in American debates in the 1960s and 70s over abortion, human experimentation and equitable allocation scarce medical resources.[3, 4]. Yet, it was not until 1980s that ‘bioethics’ began to appear in Australia. A central event in contributing to the emergence of bioethics in Australia was the birth of the first child in Australia (3rd in the world) via the in vitro fertilization (IVF) technologies developed at Monash University (1980).
The advancement of reproductive medicine in 1980 was the first of several events that brought medical research and clinical practice out from under the control of the medical professions and into the broader public conversation. It raised deep questions about when life begins, what is the legal and moral status of an embryo and, importantly, who has the authority to answer these questions? These questions contributed to the establishment of bioethics as an interdisciplinary approach incorporating philosophers, lawyers, theologians and community representatives that critically examined the implications of medical research, clinical practice and public debate.
Aiming to analyse these developments through archival documents, oral testimony and published primary sources, ‘Bioethics in the Antipodes’ will pursue three interrelated objectives:
Account for the local and global forces that have given Australian bioethics its distinct character and the unique contribution it has made to international bioethics.
Map the influences that contributed to the institutionalisation of bioethics in universities, medical education and ethics committees as a solution to perceived problems with medical research and practice.
Identify the voices, ideas and concerns that have been marginalised during processes of institutionalisation of bioethics in Australia, and how these processes mirror or diverge from the development of bioethics elsewhere.
Building on my earlier research, ‘Bioethics in the Antipodes’ will be the first in-depth scholarship to examine the rise of bioethics in Australia and its influence in clinical practice, medical research, health law and public debate.
This project is funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DE170100550)
1. Gaita, R., Good and evil: An absolute conception. 1991, London: MacMillan.
2. Sass, H.-M., Fritz Jahr's 1927 concept of bioethics. Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, 2007. 17(4): p. 279-295.
3. Kuhse, H. and P. Singer, What is bioethics? A historical introduction, in A companion to bioethics, H. Kuhse and P. Singer, Editors. 1998, Blackwell Publishers: Oxford.
4. Ferber, S., Bioethics in Historical Perspective. 2013, New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
5. Mayes, C., The Biopolitics of Lifestyle: Foucault, Ethics and Healthy Choices. 2016, London: Routledge.