Technologies, all by-products of science, have redefined how we live, work, fight, relax and communicate with one another. These technologies have provided a previously unimaginable standard of living, but also unprecedented destructive powers. Paradoxically, it is not science but the use or abuse of science that challenges us to react responsibly. When scientific discovery in any discipline is applied its focus shifts, incorporating functions that require value judgements, interactions with belief systems and political forces. Thus, complex modern science creates educational, ethical, legal and social challenges which need to be consistently considered at local, national and international levels. Because modern science and its applications empowers ethics to play a greater and greater role in legal, medical, scientific and policy agendas worldwide, there is a wide-ranging need to find new ways of ‘knowing’ which can effectively create a scientifically informed and ethically involved community. But how to promote an in-depth understanding of complicated biological information so that ethically responsible positions can be developed?
In order to revise closely held traditional values in the search for a bioethics in tune with present-day reality, we have to appreciate that science and technology is a major force driving contemporary social change. As a concerned scientist, however, I became increasingly aware of the persistence of restrictive subject boundaries that curtailed full and clear information transfer across relevant disciplines. Yet, without such free and accurate access to scientific, medical and technological expertise, enduring social reform would be impeded. So I planned to develop an unencumbered secular forum for discussing practical matters of individual and collective concern. The operating term, coined bioscience ethics (Pollard & Gilbert 1997), which involves understanding of the biological systems impinging on our lives, has worked well as the accepted interface between applied science and applied bioethics. Life, Love and Children: a Practical Introduction to Bioscience Ethics and Bioethics (Pollard 2002a) is a guide to the essentials of bioscience-bioethics. Bioscience-bioethics’ major elements are increased understanding of biological systems, responsible use of technology, and reassessment of ethnocentric debate in tune with new scientific insights.
Bioscience ethics readily gained transdisciplinary status as it adapted to different fields including – to my delight – embracing the demands of business bioscience ethics (Eaton 2004). Like the childrens’ game cat’s cradle, bioscience ethics has fixed posts (stated above) but its configuration within is infinitely malleable. In science, new data can at any time overturn established theory, law or dogma. This is how scientific research provides a self-corrective mechanism free from out-of-date constraints. Thus, new understanding gained from science and technology generates ethical maturity more powerfully than mindlessly following the ‘right’ dictates of the time. In this context it seems appropriate to quote Darryl Macer: ‘A mature society is one which has developed some of the social and behavioral tools to balance bioethical principles, and apply them to new situations raised by technology’ (Macer 1998, p 84). Bioscience-bioethics involves not only respect for rights and responsibilities, but also includes abstract qualities such as truth, gratitude, guilt, love, communication, consensus and compromise – effective mechanisms for dealing with ethical pluralism. Fundamental to this process, if the bioethical discussion is to be relevant to our knowledge-based lives, is the search for high biological understanding.
Commitment to transform society will not come through some fixed ideology but through general education with a scientific basis (Pollard 2004). The increasing flood of new information produced by modern science and technology changes prevailing ethico-social mores that, in turn, power new ideas as to how best manage changing conditions – and this is where bioscience ethics can assist.
The following contextualizes bioscience-bioethics for the readership of this journal specializing in reproduction.