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How bioethics got its name.

Warren Reich participated in the origin of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics in the 1970s.

The name of this field was born in two places, in Madison, Wisconsin, and in Washington, D C. It was Van Rensselaer Potter, at the University of Wisconsin, who first coined the term bioethics, and it was Andre Hellegers at Georgetown University who, at the very least, first used it in an institutional way to designate the area of inquiry or field of learning whose origins we are celebrating today.

Van Rensselaer Potter, a research oncologist in Wisconsin, used the word in an evolutionary sense rather distant from the meaning it now has in our field, with the result that his use of the term was marginalized. As Potter explained his interest in the conflicts between order and disorder in the world affected by the biological sciences:

The goal of this discipline, as I see

it, would be to help humankind

toward a rational but cautious

participation in the processes of

biological and cultural evolution.

...I chose "bio-" to represent

biological knowledge, the science

of living systems, and I chose

"ethics" to represent knowledge

of human value systems.

But it was Andre Hellegers, the Dutch obstetrician/fetal physiologist/demographer who founded the Kennedy Institute at Georgetown University who used the term to apply to the ethics of medicine and the biological sciences in such a way that the name caught on in academic circles and in the mind of the public. He did this initially by seeing to it that the word bioethics appeared in the original name of the Kennedy Institute at its founding in 1971: The Joseph and Rose Kennedy Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction and Bioethics. It was Andre who, through complex means that we can't analyze today, latched onto the word bioethics, turned the plan for the Kennedy Institute toward bioethics, and became an international spokesman for the field.

Recently Dan Callahan told me that he never liked the word bioethics. He regrettably acknowledges that it is the name of the field, but never uses it in his own writings very much. This even though his article "Bioethics as a Discipline," which appeared in the first volume of the Hastings Center Studies, is cited on the authority card for the subject heading created by the Library of Congress in 1974.

Let me draw a conclusion. I think that the field of bioethics started with the word bioethics because the word is so suggestive and so powerful; it suggests a new focus, a new bringing together of disciplines in a new way with a new forum that tended to neutralize the ideologic slant that people associated with the word ethics.
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Author:Reich, Warren T.
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Date:Nov 1, 1993
Words:450
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