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The field of bioethics arose and blossomed in the last quarter of the 20th century in response to major popular movements (human rights, civil rights, patients' rights), new biomedical technologies and scientific discoveries (respirators, in vitro fertilization, transplantation, the genome project, recombinant DNA research), and gross violations of human rights (Nazi medical experiments, Tuskegee syphilis study, human radiation experiments).

Bioethical deliberations consider the medical, scientific, societal, and political factors that result in troubling dilemmas for individuals and societies. For example, new but imperfect medical technologies?called "halfway technologies" ?typically solve one problem but create several others. A familiar example is the respirator, which may keep someone alive but not really living, leaving others with difficult life-and-death choices to make.

Patients, their family members and friends, health care professionals, and individuals outside the world of medicine all may have different reactions to a dilemma of this sort, but all perspectives are valuable and important for resolving the dilemma in the most favorable way. And, in high school classes across the curriculum, reflection on bioethics dilemmas presented as "case studies" can provide a stimulating bridge between a real-life quandary and "the facts" of science, law, medicine, health, technology, sociology, ethics, and other subjects.

In science classes, for example, students usually focus on mastering the steps for carrying out high-tech procedures. But, they may pay only cursory attention to the risks, benefits, strengths, and drawbacks of that technology. They may never get around to considering the question "ought we use this technology or carry out this procedure just because we can?" Yet the "ought" issues are the key issues, and finding the best answers affects the present and the future. Resolving dilemmas always takes time, attention, and energy; being facile and comfortable doing so serves individuals throughout their lives.

Through discussions of cases in bioethics, students can develop and then hone their analytical, critical-thinking skills. They see the value of an open mind, one that is nourished by a broad education. They come to understand that, although the school day is compartmentalized into discrete subjects, problems in life are not. As students practice strategies for identifying and analyzing ethical dilemmas, they gain experience expressing themselves civilly, and they become better listeners, even toward those who are expressing opposing viewpoints. They realize that, at times, reasonable people may agree to disagree.

Case studies are engaging, in part because they are true and in part because each is unique. Solutions are not formulaic. The earlier in life students learn strategies for solving problems, the more integral productive reflection will be to their thinking. Helping students become discerning and thoughtful individuals is a long-range goal of the High School Bioethics Curriculum Project.

Recurring Themes

For each case in these units, students are asked to consider a number of specific questions and issues. Each case is distinctive. But many themes recur. This list of recurring themes may be helpful to keep in mind during classroom discussions.

  • Quality of Life
  • Autonomy
  • Decision Making
  • Personhood
  • Dignity
  • Media Effects
  • Public Opinion
  • Family Dynamics
  • Economics of Care
  • Technology
  • Inter-generational Variations
  • Cultural Differences
  • Justice
  • Legal Issues
  • Historical Context
  • Resource Allocation


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