By Gregory Pence, Ph.D.
Professor, UAB Department of Philosophy
The unknown makes issues fascinating in bioethics.
In early 1981, New York Times medical reporter Lawrence K. Altman admittedly made the worst prediction of his career when he claimed that all infectious diseases had been cured. That summer, HIV and AIDS broke into the American consciousness.
While we knew in 1978 about Louise Brown’s birth by in vitro fertilization, who could have anticipated surrogate mothers, egg donation from young to older women, and the cloning of the lamb Dolly? While we knew that Roe vs. Wade legalized abortion in 1973, we didn’t know that 36 years later, physicians would still be killed who performed abortions.
Dilemmas for Coming Decades
What about the future of bioethics? Will it exist? Be robust? Have new issues? Absolutely! Although the artificial womb has not yet been perfected, its development could change everything. Rather than being aborted at 24 weeks, a baby could be transferred to such a womb. But a successful artificial womb would raise even more ethical issues. For example, should courts transfer fetuses to such wombs from pregnant women unable to stop heavy drinking?
Turning to other areas, do we know whether SARS, bird flu, swine flu, and other viruses will become highly contagious—and how to contain them? How to pay for medical care for everyone and not go broke? Bioethics fascinates us all, with new issues springing up each year. Who knows what lies in its future? As Yeats wrote, “What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”