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Bioethical Dilemnas


In biology classrooms, teachers repeatedly come up against topics in which the technology is rapidly advancing, and inevitably there are value-laden questions that arise. Today, we need to make students aware of the technological connections to biology concepts and give them a means to deal with the societal implications that may arise.

Students can be given group activities where they integrate concepts and technology and thus develop informed opinions on scientific issues. They will learn to seek out the knowledge required to make well- informed, critical decisions on such issues.

Following are some sample activities which can be used in the classroom to help students "make the STS connections" (Science, Technology, Society).

Jayni Caldwell
Foothills School
Division # 38
Okotoks, Alberta
(403) 938-6116 (B)
(403) 938-1878 (H)
(403) 938-7365 (F)


Kim Burley
Red Deer Public School
Red Deer, Alberta
(403) 347-1171 (B)
(403) 340-1308 (H)
(403) 340-1676 (F)


Why study bioethics in the classroom?? To prepare students/citizens to make responsible decisions based on the huge volume of "new" knowledge and technology which is rapidly becoming available to us.

In order to study bioethical issues, students must first be familiar with rules and principles of ethics (where ethics are ways of examining the moral life).

Bioethical Decision Making Model

  1. Identify problem. (Who?, Why?, What?)

  2. Assess info available to decision maker. Determine what is known, what is relevant and reliable.

  3. Identify stakeholders:

Risk Perception Model

(Modified from: Alberta Education, Distance Learning Branch, Physics 30-Module 8)

How the general public views new technologies is based on their perception of risk.
Some criteria that are used to form a perception of risk are as follows:

  1. Possibility of Disaster - could a large number of people be killed in a short time of could future generations be harmed?

  2. Amount of Control - does the public/individual have control and can exposure be voluntary? eg. a person can choose have X-rays taken

  3. Available Information - is awareness only via media sources (may be selective or sensationalized) or is technology new or untested scientifically?

    Continuum of Risk Perception

    Low Risk High Risk
    Potential for Catastrophe
    • affects only individuals
    • no effects on future generations

    • globally catastrophic
    • future generations affected
    Control over hazard

    • controllable
    • voluntary exposure

    • uncontrollable
    • involuntary exposure
    Knowledge of Hazard

    • hazard is known to science
    • immediate consequences
    • observable
    • positive media coverage

    • unknown to science
    • delayed consequences
    • unobservable
    • negative media coverage

  4. Identify values at stake: Rules (derivative obligations):
    • Veracity -an obligation to tell the truth
    • Fidelity -a promise
    • Confidentiality -hold as a secret
    • Privacy -secluded or removed from public view

    Principles(fundamental obligations)

    • Respect for autonomy -an individual's right to self
    • Determination or self rule
    • Nonmaleficence -not inflicting harm
    • Beneficence -active goodness
    • Justice -fairness

  5. Identify other options:
    • conflict
    • mediation
    • etc.

  6. Consider process and values of process:
    • authority
    • legitimacy
    • due process

  7. Choose a course of action.

  8. Reflect on the outcome of your decision


This activity should be done as a culminating activity once students have acquired a knowledge of the reproductive system and awareness of some reproductive technologies. Students are directed to use a point- counterpoint debate format. They may also use a risk perception model to guide them in argument development.

The teacher should choose the mediators as they have a great deal of responsibility in the evaluation procedure. Mediators need some direction from the teacher on how to mark the research and debate skills and should be given written guidelines with a marksheet to return to the teacher (attached). The "For" and "Against" groups are required to hand in their argument sets. The teacher uses a holistic guide to do a final assessment of the groups debate (student attached).

Teacher Holistic Grading Scheme: Checklist
Student on task with topic.

1 2 3 4 5
never seldom sometimes usually always

Works co-operatively on team.

1 2 3 4 5
never seldom sometimes usually always

Clear understanding of issue based on argument.

1 2 3 4 5
never seldom sometimes usually always

Effort made to create strong argument regardless of personal position.

1 2 3 4 5
never seldom sometimes usually always



Finn J. and E.L Marshall. 1990. Medical Ethics. Ed. D.C. Garell. The Encylopedia of Health: Medial Issues. Chelsea House Publishing. New York.

Reproductive Technologies

"The main force creating new reproductive technology today is the desire to help couples have children... Because the demand is so strong, physicians have been encouraged to experiment with the basic elements of life to create new methods of reproduction"(Finn and Marshall 1990). New technologies have given us more choices but also posed more medical,legal, and ethical questions.

Amniocentesis, CVS (chorionic villi sampling), ultrasound, andin vitro fertilization are just a few such technologies. You need to have a basic understanding of these procedures and why they might be used. Using
library and classroom resources you will prepare an argument for a debate.

  • Prenatal diagnosis of sex should be prohibited by law.
  • There should be a moratorium on IVF (and the fertility drugs involved).

Consider the bioethical reasoning model provided to you to help frame your argument. Structure your position into a point-counterpoint argument. You will be put into groups of about 5 in which there will be a mediator, 2 people "for" the statement, and 2 people "against" the statement. Your group will choose the statement for debate.


  • - oversees the debate
  • - judges to declare a winner
  • - marks each team on their research and debating skills
  • - must prepare by developing own point/counterpoint
  • arguments


  • - develops points in support of the statement
  • - points must illustrate understanding of scientific principles and limits of technology as well as addressing the social issues
  • develops points to refute the statement
  • points must illustrate understanding of scientific principles and limits of technology as well as addressing the social issue

Mediator Guidelines:

Research Skills

  • presents facts relevant to the topic
  • provide statistics to back-up generalizations
  • provides examples or case studies that set precedent
1 2 3 4 5
never seldom sometimes usually always

Debate Skills

  • issues presented cohesively and methodically
  • emotional content of argument is minimal
  • refutes the specific points of the opposition
  • is convincing
1 2 3 4 5
never seldom sometimes usually always



Many ethical questions inevitably arise when we look at the rapidly advancing field of genetics and related technologies. If students can be provided with a model for approaching these questions they will be better prepared to make an informed decision. We have used the model set forth by Linda Morris (1994) as one possible approach. Any number of scenarios can be used for students to apply the reasoning model. They can collect relevant current news articles and choose an issue which arises from the articles or they may be provided will the case studies.


Morris L.J. 1994. Bioethical Dilemmas. The Science Teacher. February Issue.


Choose one the attached case studies and outline and justify a course of action for one of the case studies provided in the form of a position paper. Remember to anticipate and deal with the opposing point of view. Use the aspect so the bioethical reasoning model provided to guide you in framing your answer.

Evaluation Criteria:

Does the writer clearly state their intended course of action?
1 2 3 4 5
never seldom sometimes usually always

Does the paper relate the course of action to the values at stake? (1-5)
1 2 3 4 5
never seldom sometimes usually always

Does the paper rebut the opposing points that can made that would
oppose their decision using supported arguments? (1-5)
1 2 3 4 5
never seldom sometimes usually always

Is the paper clearly written and easy to follow? (1-5)

1 2 3 4 5
never seldom sometimes usually always


Case Study Examples

John and Marie sought the advice of a genetic counsellor after their second child died due to Tays-Sachs disease. A Tays-Sachs child may develop normally for 6 months but quickly deteriorates as neurological and motor problems develop. The child eventually goes blind, develops seizures and is paralyzed. Usually they die before they are 3 years of age. Both parents and child suffer terribly.

The counsellor explained that the couple had a 25% chance of having a child with the disease. She recommended that amniocentesis be done in Marie's 4th month of pregnancy to determine if the child had the disease. The test is 83% accurate.

When Marie found out she was pregnant the couple decided to have the test. The fetus was diagnosed with the disease and the doctor recommended a therapeutic abortion.

Janet is 22 years old and has just been diagnosed whith multiple endocrine neoplasia and is referred to a genetic counsellor. This disease is an autosomal dominant adult-onset cancer syndrome with complete penetrance. Those who have the allele for the disease develop multi-organ tumours in their adult life. The frequency of spontaneous mutation is low so if an individual has the disease it is assumed that it was inherited from an afflicted parent.

The counsellor discovers that Janet's mother and maternal relatives are in good health. However, the family does not know where her natural father is nor his state of health. Furthermore, she informs the counsellor that her mother left her father when she was pregnant and he was unaware of this pregnancy.

Family medical records indicate to the counsellor that Janet inherited her condition from her father. Consequently, he is at-risk for malignant cancer as well as other possible offspring and relatives.

Adapted from in-service materials, original source unknown.

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