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
REASONS FOR INCLUDING BIOETHICS IN YOUR CURRICULUM:
- 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.
- The ambiguities of moral and ethical viewpoints challenge
critical thinking abilities and promote the development of problem
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
PROBLEMS TO CONSIDER:
- 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
- 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.
- 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 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.
SUGGESTED STEPS TO FACILITATE CLASSROOM DISCUSSION:
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:
- Identify the context. What is the decision? Who must make this
decision? What information is available to the decision maker?
- 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.
- Explore alternatives. What are some of the possible actions
that could resolve the situation? How would each stakeholder be
affected by each alternative?
- Recommend a solution. Create a presentation of a solution that
would be persuasive to each of the stakeholders and the decision
- 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
- Another excellent guide is the Hastings Center, New Choices New
Responsibilities - Curriculum guide with bioethical case studies.