Irving Response to "Bioethics under attack in new book"

Dianne N. Irving
copyright September 15, 2012
Reproduced with Permission

Canadian physician and bioethicist Dr. Koch's new book on "bioethics" is yet another welcome attempt to educate the public about the damage that has been done for far too long by "bioethics" -- not just in the field of medicine, but across the board. It is long-past time for "bioethics" to be understood and acknowledged as the fraud that it is. I know. I was there. Few people even today realize that there was no such thing as "bioethics" until 1978. I walked through the doors of the new Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University one year later, in 1979 -- one of 36 forming the first formal bioethics graduate student group. By the third year of graduate studies by far the majority of us realized that "bioethics" was a fake field -- i.e., it could not be successfully defended academically. Only a handful of us ever finished with a doctoral degree. Please read my subsequent extensively referenced article in which I analyzed and evaluated this new field of "bioethics": "What is 'bioethics'?" (June 3, 2000), UFL Proceedings of the Conference 2000, in Joseph W. Koterski (ed.), Life and Learning X: Proceedings of the Tenth University Faculty For Life Conference (Washington, D.C.: University Faculty For Life, 2002), pp. 1-84, at:; also, short summary version in "The bioethics mess", Crisis Magazine, Vol. 19, No. 5, May 2001, at:

"Bioethics", or "principlism", was created out of thin air by a U.S. Congressional mandate of the 1974 National Research Act that required the then-Secretary of DHEW -- Casper Weinberger -- to appoint a commission (National Commission) to determine what "ethics" the U.S. government should use in dealing with issues involving the use of human subjects in research. Given that "ethics" is a subfield of philosophy, it was odd that only two those 11 politically appointed members of the National Commission had any academic degrees in philosophy; the others came from various other academic and political realms. The Commission's mandated response -- the 1978 Belmont Report -- constituted the formal "birth" of "bioethics", a very utilitarian category of ethics that ultimately reduced "bioethics" to three utilitarian ethical "principles". Each "principle" was oddly defined. "Autonomy" referred only to competent human beings (and only they were "persons"); "Justice" was defined pace John Rawls as "fairness", i.e., fairness in the distribution of risks and benefits in participating in research; and, "Beneficence" was defined as the "bene" -- or "good" -- of the greatest number of people in society (rather than as the traditional Hippocratic "good" of the individual patient only). In fact, all members of society, whether competent or not -- had a "strong moral duty" to volunteer for even high risk research experiments (both experimental and therapeutic) "for the greater good of society". Subsequently, again fulfilling the Congressional mandate, these brand new "bioethics" principles was used as the explicit basis of the 1981 OPRR (now OHPR) federal regulations for the use of human subjects in research.

How to push this new "bioethics" in our "democratic, pluralistic, multicultural" society? Although the field of bioethics claimed to embrace "other ethical voices" in addition to its own "principlism", the only "other voices" allowed were those who were dissidents in their own traditions, and whose own "ethics" would arrive at the very same "ethical" conclusions as those of "principlism" -- they just used a different pathway to get there. They were thus allowed "a seat at the bioethics table" and were thus appointed to the various "bioethics" commissions, committees and Institutional Review Boards. We graduate bioethics students referred to these as "good cops / bad cops" -- both cops (i.e., both bioethicists, who embraced the same "ethical" conclusions). It is thus gratifying to see Dr. Koch's own testimony of his surely exasperating experience in "bioethics" in his new book.

Prof. Dr. Dianne N. Irving, M.A., Ph.D.

by Michael Cook | 15 Sep 2012 |

Bioethics under attack in new book

The latest book in the Basic Bioethics Series published by The MIT Press is a scathing attack on the whole discipline of bioethics. Tom Koch, a Canadian gerontologist and bioethicist, is unsparing in his criticism. In a promotional article in the Huffington Post for the publication of Thieves of Virtue: When Bioethics Stole Medicine, he writes:

"The foundation myth of bioethics, the 'demi-discipline's' self-professed raison d'etre is at best inadequate if not demonstrably false. Its grounding lies not, as bioethicists insist, in a robust ethic of care necessitated by new science and a failed Hippocratic sense of duty and care. Instead its origins and purpose demonstrably rest upon its service to the neoliberal, postmodernist economics that made health a commodity rather than a service."

To tell the truth, the unexpectedly harsh critique is not altogether coherent, so we'll have to wait for the book. But the "Basic Bioethics" series, edited by leading bioethicists Art Caplan and Glen McGee, is quite reputable, so perhaps the preview does not do the book justice.

At least it immediately provoked some controversy over the foundational principles of bioethics - which is a positive development. A furious Paul Root Wolfe, of Emory University, the co-editor of the American Journal of Bioethics, gave it a big raspberry: "a rant by someone who really has no idea what he is talking about". Less convincingly, in view of the lurid stories in the column to the right of the article, another reader sniffs that "A respectable venue such as the Huffington Post compromises its credibility by printing this trash".

However, another reader says that "His claims are interesting and not very easy to refute." Stay tuned for further developments.