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Bioethics in the Classroom


The part of philosophy which focuses on the principles involved in making decisions about what is right and wrong is called ethics. Bioethicists study ethical decision making in the context of biological information and technology. Traditionally they dealt with difficult medical decisions. With the explosion of knowledge in the fields of genetics and biotechnology new societal challenges are requiring ethical decisions as well. Some timely examples are cloning, the use of fetal tissues and the genetic engineering of crops. The Education Science Standards and Project 2061 call for reforms in science teaching aimed at deeper treatment of fewer topics, and an emphasis on general process skills such as problem solving and critical thinking. Discussion and analysis of bioethical issues are excellent tools to integrate science process skills and content.


  1. Bioethics is an excellent vehicle to generate interest and establish the relevancy of science content. It provides an interesting entry point for students, by engaging them in a discussion which involves personal values, rights, and responsibilities with topics traditionally found in biology. Some examples are new reproductive techniques, acid rain and utilization of limited natural resources.

  2. The ambiguities of moral and ethical viewpoints challenge critical thinking abilities and promote the development of problem solving strategies.

  3. After students are interested in the problem at an emotional level, they are more motivated to discover the facts, better understand the problem and come up with a reasonable solution. The search for these relevant facts can be done utilizing library, CDROM, laserdisc and online resources.

  4. Science topics are not void of personal or societal values and are open to subjective interpretation. With the complex issues currently confronting biology, purely empirical value-free or value-neutral science is difficult. Perceptions are colored by values. One example is the identification and protection of endangered species.

  5. Bioethical decisions often come down to a question of values or determining priorities in competing values. Students need to understand the difference between fact, opinion, and values; and develop an ability to make rational decisions, while recognizing the role of subjective interpretation. A bioethics discussion is not about having students make up their minds on an issue, rather it is about exploring other points of view and perspectives. A bioethics discussion can begin with any current event from the newspaper. There is no shortage of news stories about astounding advances in medical or genetic technology. It's the personal element, however, that makes a bioethics analysis truly gripping. A bioethical discussion can last a single period or stretch over several weeks. Students can research the science behind the story and relate it to the current unit of study. Many different information sources can be used such as interviews, literature searches, Internet research, or even laboratory and hands-on experiments. Students must gather information, analyze and classify complex viewpoints, develop realistic alternatives, and then express their findings in cogent, organized fashion. You are asking them to demonstrate critical thinking skills in an authentic situation.


  1. Value clarification and ethical decision making should not be confused. Ethical decision making sets up a dilemma where students are asked to explore the pros and cons of a situation from a variety of perspectives. There is no "right" or "wrong" answer. The emphasis is on the process of arriving at an acceptable solution in which all stakeholders had an opportunity to have input.

  2. The teacher functions best as a facilitator. The role of the teacher is to provide case histories, materials, and access to information from which students may arrive at a decision. The final choices remain with the students.

  3. The use of case histories helps to integrate the ideas of bioethics and course content only if students are given the necessary time to make the connection. If the ethical materials are used for only a day, the issues raised may be negated or diminished in impact.

  4. In addition to presenting a challenging and difficult decision, the teacher should be prepared to suggest materials which can be used by students to acquire the necessary facts.


These are suggested steps to begin a bioethical discussion in your classroom. You may want to print out the Bioethical worksheet which parallels the process described below:

  1. Identify the context. What is the decision? Who must make this decision? What information is available to the decision maker?

  2. Identify stakeholders. Who will be affected by this decision? What values do each of these stakeholders have? What are their immediate priorities? You may want to assign individuals or groups a single stakeholder to analyze.

  3. Explore alternatives. What are some of the possible actions that could resolve the situation? How would each stakeholder be affected by each alternative?

  4. Recommend a solution. Create a presentation of a solution that would be persuasive to each of the stakeholders and the decision maker.


  • Bioethical discussions can be enhanced by using multimedia resources to explain the situation, learn about the viewpoints of the stakeholders, and provide further documentation. CDROM and laserdiscs offer random access video, audio, stills, and text. An example that you can directly preview is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, with accompanying worksheet one of the 12 episodes from the Videodiscovery Bioethics Forum laserdisc program. This abridged online version was created to give teachers a chance to explore this approach as a technique to develop a bioethical issue.
  • You can examine the Woodrow Wilson Foundation Biology Institute, 1992 Curriculum Module Bioethics. This module has a discussion of ethical systems and process followed by several challenging topics in the areas of Biotech, Legal Issues, and Environmental Concerns. There is a Teacher's Guide with worksheets, lesson plans and references.
  • Another excellent guide is the Hastings Center, New Choices New Responsibilities - Curriculum guide with bioethical case studies.

About the Author

Bioethics Bibliography and additional Resources

Bioethics Web Sources

Bioethics Worksheet

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Discussion Questions

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