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What Is Bioethics?

Bioethics is the interdisciplinary study of ethical issues arising in the life sciences, health care, and health and science policy.

Ethics aims to figure out what the right thing is to do or what the best course of action is.  It helps people decide how to behave and how to treat one another and what values should prevail. Bioethics literally is life (bio) ethics.

Though it has roots tracing back decades or generations earlier, modern bioethics is widely held to have arisen in the late 1960s. Since then, it has helped transform the practice of medicine and inform policy-making about myriad issues concerning the life sciences, from public health and delivery of medical care to agricultural biotechnology.

Focus Areas for Bioethics

Bioethicists have been at the center of many elements of the COVID-19 pandemic. These issues include vaccine hesitancy and how to respond to a health emergency ethically and morally.

The Hastings Center is an ethics pioneer, engaging multiple disciplines, including philosophy, law, political science, and education.

Issues explored at the Center include the questions that arise in the relationships among Health Policy & EquityOrgan TransplantationMental Health, and Disability Bioethics.


In Search of the Good: A Life in Bioethics, Hastings co-founder Daniel Callahan questions the idea of endless medical “progress.” It is the role of the field, he argues, to be a loyal dissenter.

Callahan wrote in Bioethics and Policy — A History, that prior to the 1960s, medical ethics was primarily in the hands of physicians. It had scarcely changed from the ancient Hippocratic tradition. And it focused almost exclusively on the welfare of patients and medical professionalism.

By the 1960s, however, a wide range of new ethical problems came rushing into view, all of them driven by spectacular advances in medicine and biology.

The old medical ethics could not contain their scope and variety: new genetic knowledge, safe abortion, organ transplantation, a new definition of death, sophisticated ways to keep people alive (often too long), anxiety about health care costs, and a more educated public. The issues were moving well beyond the boundaries of medical ethics.


Hastings Center Bioethics Briefings contain overviews of numerous issues of high public interest. These briefs cover abortion, organ transplantation, medical aid-in-dying, and more. The chapters are written by leading ethicists representing a broad range of perspectives.

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