What are the moral bounds of the field of bioethics?

By Emily Butler, content coordinator
Are bioethicists moral experts that can be called upon to shape policies and political agendas? Or, would such input constitute paternalism and moral policing? According to Sally Satel, a resident scholar of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) for Public Policy Research, the answer is clear: The field of bioethics has overstepped its moral bounds.
In The Limits of Bioethics, an AEI commentary published on February 2, Dr. Satel critiques the expansion of the field of bioethics. She says bioethicists might offer valuable expertise in guiding the formulation of a moral decision, but offering concrete opinions on matters of right and wrong—on matters of life and death—implies an unsanctioned moral authority.
Dr. Satel argues that bioethicists are innately biased by their own moral philosophy; they might be skilled in framing the facets of a dilemma, but have no greater claim in deciding what is right or wrong than the rest of us. In Dr. Satel’s words, the role of bioethicists “should be to illuminate debates, not to settle them.”
Dr. Satel also critiques the institutionalization of bioethics in the name of human subject protections. While she concedes that “nobody denies the need for research oversight,” she argues that bureaucratic policies, unnecessary consent processes, and overzealous privacy protections waste money and impede medical progress.
The commentary offers no specific recommendations for how to resolve bioethical dilemmas in human subjects research.
The role of bioethical analysis in human subjects protections is up for debate. What are your thoughts on this article and these controversial questions?