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"As our nation invests in science and innovation and pursues advances in biomedical research and health care, it's imperative that we do so in a responsible manner." - President Barack Obama

Nothing grabs our attention quite like a statement made by the President of the United States. And if the statement is in context of some ongoing issue, then the President's words only add to its importance. That's exactly what happened when President Barack Obama spoke of "responsibility" when he established the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues in 2009. It brought to the forefront a topic that was extremely important, but had never been given the attention it deserved.

Bioethics Definition

The term 'bioethics' refers to the branch of applied ethics which studies moral values in the field of medicine and biology, i.e., the morality of various medical and biological procedures, like assisted suicide, abortion, gene therapy, use of animals in research, etc. With so much being covered in that particular definition, it is difficult to draw the boundaries of this concept, which, in turn, makes it a little confusing. In such circumstances, going through some information on bioethical issues can make things simple and easy for people to understand.

Bioethical Issues: An Overview

Bioethical issues exist in plenty, ranging from the use of birth control pills and misuse of medical information to mercy killing and suicide. We have made a lot of progress in the field of life sciences, which has in turn helped improve the quality of life; there is absolutely no doubt about that. But then, we also need to understand that such progress comes at a cost. Every step that we take forward, calls for an evaluation of it implications on humans and the environment alike, and when we talk of implications, we don't just mean ethical implications, but also take into consideration the legal and social implications of the same.

The Dark Side of Organ Transplant
Organ transplant, for instance, has become one of the oft-highlighted bioethical issues in the field of medicine of late. The life-saving procedure has helped scores of people, but then, it also has a dark side in the form of illegal organ trade, that needs to be dealt with. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates, anywhere around 10,000 black market operations involving human organs are carried out every year. While that can be categorized as an illegal activity, the legal procedure of organ donation is by no means squeaky clean. Organs harvested from impoverished people for as little as $5000 are sold to the rich buyers for 5-10 times that price. How ethical is it that only rich people get to 'buy' new lives for themselves and that too, at the cost of some poor people who are in need of money?

The Textbook Case of Abortion
While illegal organ trade is only despicable, there are other issues wherein people find it difficult to take a moral stand. These include abortion, surrogacy, assisted suicide, and even suicide. In fact, abortion is one of the most debated bioethical issues in the world. The moment we say 'abortion', a barrage of questions follow -- Isn't abortion same as killing? How can we kill a life form which is growing inside the womb? Shouldn't we consider the fetus an individual? Should the mother be allowed to take the final call? Aren't we interfering with nature itself? Should abortion be allowed in certain circumstances? And so on ...

Every topic in the field of medicine and biology has questions pertaining to it. How ethical is to end ones own life? How long can a person be kept on the support system? How are we supposed to deal with medication that are likely to be abused? Can everybody, regardless of their financial status, avail the advanced medical facilities? Are poor destined to die without being subjected to proper medical care, while the rich buy their way to these facilities?

The Issue of Animal Rights
Not only in the case of humans, but even animal experimentation has been put under the scanner as one of the most serious issues prevailing in the field of biomedical sciences today. Right from rodents to non-human primates, the number of animals killed in the name of animal testing or research today goes well into millions. Do all these animals deserve to die such deaths? Shouldn't we call for a ban on animal testing, or any such procedure for that matter, which amounts to blatant violations of animal rights? The sad part is that questions like these, only spark debates which go on endlessly without coming to a logical solution.

A List of Bioethical Issues

Like we said earlier, bioethics is a broad concept, involving a wide range of medical and biological procedures that have been implemented in the field of medicine. While some issues, like abortion and suicide, are widely criticized, others, such as human cloning, gene therapy, and nanomedicine, seem to have left the world divided. (Note: This is a partial list intended to give you a rough idea of the concept and therefore, does not include all the issues that come under the umbrella topic.)

Animal rights
Acknowledging the fundamental rights of animals, like we acknowledge our own rights.

Artificial insemination
Deliberate introduction of semen into the vagina, or oviduct to achieve pregnancy.

Assisted suicide
Helping a terminally ill person to end his life.

Biopiracy
The illegal theft and patenting of indigenous plants by companies or individuals.

Body modification
Deliberate altering of the human body for non-medical reasons.

Brain-computer interface
A concept which facilitates direct interaction between brain and external device.

Cloning
Research involving creation of a copy of some biological entity.

Contraception
Birth control by using various contraceptive measures.

Cryonics
A process wherein the body of a seriously ill or a deceased individual is frozen to stop the decomposition of tissues.

Eugenics
Improving genetic qualities by means of selective breeding.

Euthanasia
Killing an individual (or animal) in order to relieve him of pain and suffering.

Gene theft
The illegal process of acquiring genetic material of some other human being.

Gene therapy
The process of replacing defective genes with normal or genetically-altered genes.

Genetically-modified food
Consumption of food derived from genetically modified organisms.

Genetically-modified organism
An organism which has undergone genetic modification by the means of genetic engineering.

Great Ape Project
Advocating the idea of conferring basic legal rights on non-human great apes.

Healthcare
Uniform healthcare for everybody, regardless of cast, creed, or social status.

Human cloning
Creating a genetically identical copy of a human.

Human enhancement
Overcoming the limitations of body by artificial means.

Human parthenogenesis
Conception of human beings without fertilization by a man.

Life extension
Attempts to either slow down, or reverse the processes of aging to maximize lifespan.

Life support
Resorting to medical equipment to keep an individual alive.

Medical malpractice
Professional negligence by a medical officer, which may or may not result in harm to the patient.

Medical research
Research carried out to aid and support the body in the field of medicine.

Nanomedicine
The application of nanotechnology in the field of medicine.

Organ transplant
Moving an organ from the body of the donor to the body of the recipient.

Pain management
The use of artificial measures to ease the suffering associated with pain.

Population control
Government efforts to regulate the growth of population.

Procreative beneficence
Moral obligation of people to have healthy children by resorting to either natural, or artificial means.

Recreational drug use
The use of psychoactive substances with the intention of getting a 'high'.

Reproductive rights
The legal rights and freedom pertaining to human reproduction and reproductive health.

Sex reassignment therapy
Medical procedures pertaining to sex reassignment of both transgender and intersexual individuals.

Sperm donation
A man donating his sperm to inseminate or impregnate a woman who is not his sexual partner.

Spiritual drug use
The use of psychoactive substances in religious, or spiritual context.

Suicide
The act of killing oneself intentionally.

Surrogacy
A woman agreeing to carry and deliver a child for contracted party, i.e., another couple.

Stem cell
The ethics of extracting embryonic stem cells, when the embryo in itself is considered human life.

Transhumanism
Enhancing the mental and physical capabilities of humans by using science and technology.

Vaccination
Administration of antigenic material to become immune to pathogens.

Xenotransplantation
Surgical procedure in which tissue or whole organ is transferred from one species to another.

While bioethicists argue that the fundamental values of humanity are at stake, there are others who feel that the issues enlisted here are a part of the development process in the field of science. When it comes to ethics or morality, arguments and counterarguments will never cease. As such, the need of the hour is to identify the severity of these issues and take steps to ensure that they don't affect the basic rights of various life forms on the planet.