Bush reiterated his stand to conservatives opposing his decision on stem cell research. He said today he believes life begins at conception and ends at execution.” ~ Jay Leno

On March 26-27, 2010, more than 300 college students from across the country attended the National Undergraduate Bioethics Conference, hosted this year at the University of Puget Sound, and titled “Bioethics in Obama’s America.”

The advent of new technologies makes bioethical discourse a critical contributor to our global moral dialogue. Bioethicists are professionals who inform the debate on scientific issues related to life: genomics, euthanasia, stem cell research, and health care access are just a few of the topics bioethicists study.

Bioethics is an interdisciplinary profession, spanning across the academic disciplines of law, sociology, biology, theology, history, psychology, and philosophy. Specialized knowledge across two or more of these disciplines is generally required to become a credible professional. In a nod to its growing importance, graduate programs focusing on bioethics are also increasingly available. Samples of some of the topics tackled by participants at this year’s National Undergraduate Bioethics Conference include:

  • Fertility treatment: Is it a human right to have children? If so, should health insurance cover those who find it difficult to reproduce?
  • Human cloning: Should we consider cloning as another reproductive technology? Is this the future for gay couples?
  • Health care insurance: Should we provide care for everyone? Who should pay and who should benefit?
  • Assisted suicide: Do we want doctors to be involved in the ending of a life? What if the law is abused?

Bioethical issues are pervasive in the media. National Public Radio reported a recent federal ruling that found that companies do not have a legal right to patent human genes. The genes in question, BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 are responsible for about 10% of breast and ovarian cancer cases when mutated. Utah-based Myriad Genetics, along with the University of Utah, developed a $3,000 test to detect the presence of the mutated genes and held seven patents on the genes and the test. Judge Robert Sweet agreed with the plaintiffs, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Public Patent Foundation, when he ruled that the genes are a “product of nature” and “Supreme Court precedent has established that products of nature do not constitute patentable subject matter.” Myriad Genetics plans to appeal the ruling, which will keep the topic of genetic patents on the front Bunsen burner for years to come. The New York Times reports: “The case could have far-reaching implications. About 20 percent of human genes have been patented, and multibillion-dollar industries have been built atop the intellectual property rights that the patents grant.”

Bioethical issues like genomic patents frequently cross legal, medical, academic, and ethical boundaries. Career bioethicists typically focus on one of three main areas: health care, law, or academics. A bioethicist working in health care may focus on genetic counseling, hospital chaplaincy, health care administration, research practices, or policy analysis for an association like the American Medical Association (AMA) or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). A legal focus could include consulting, a bioethics law practice, teaching law and bioethics, or medical law and policy analysis. Finally, an academic focus could include research and teaching.

The location of this year’s National Undergraduate Bioethics Conference seems fitting, given that a Puget Sound education is a great starting point for a career in bioethics. The liberal arts allow you to explore several disciplines and to refine your areas of interest. Career and Employment Services, located in Howarth 101, offers many resources to help you get started. Check out a few of these great resources below (these resources were also the source of much of the information contained in this post!)

Career Cruising on Cascade provides profiles for many different careers related to the academic programs that contribute to bioethics.

The Alumni Sharing Knowledge (ASK) Network lists alumni across several academic disciplines who you could contact for more information.

Web Resources

What is a Bioethicist?

Career Paths in Bioethics

Building a Career in Bioethics

University of Pennsylvania Master of Bioethics Program

American Society for Bioethics and Humanities

© 2010 Career and Employment Services, University of Puget Sound
Photo: RambergMediaImages