Ethical Evaluation of New Biomedical Technologies Using Past Case Studies in Pharmaceutical Medicine

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Biomedical enhancements have the potential to extend human capacities and significantly improve human life. Consequently, their widespread use may yield greater benefits than current interventions in biopharmaceutical medicine. Ethical assessment of novel biomedical technologies prior to widespread adoption is therefore important.

This essay describes a methodology for an ethical evaluation of biomedical enhancement technologies in the light of ethical findings from cases of past pharmaceutical medicine, looking specifically at the oral contraceptive pill (OCP) and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants. OCPs and SSRIs are enhancements in that they can be used to provide additional capacities (prevention of pregnancy and altered behavioural characteristics respectively) in people who are otherwise well—and experience has shown that these medicines have provided many benefits to human society, despite Christian ethical concerns about their use, largely on natural law grounds.

I describe how the development and use of OCPs and SSRIs, as scientific case studies, can be analysed using ethical criteria for the assessment of biotechnological projects proposed by Neil Messer and Elaine Graham. This analysis shows that three other ethical concepts—autonomy, embodiment, and the imago Dei—are important in the ethical evaluation of biomedical technologies, in addition to natural law. Therefore, based on previous experience, a fourfold assessment of future biomedical enhancement technologies—examining their implications for nature, autonomy, embodiment and the imago Dei—is likely to provide a more comprehensive and reliable ethical framework for their evaluation than one which relies on natural law alone.

Keywords: enhancements, case studies, therapeutics, bioethics, contraceptive pill, SSRI antidepressants, autonomy, nature, embodiment, imago Dei.

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Cite as: Stephen Goundrey-Smith, “Ethical Evaluation of New Biomedical Technologies Using Past Case Studies in Pharmaceutical Medicine,” Ethics & Medicine 37, no. 1 (2021): 28–44.

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About the Author

Stephen Goundrey-Smith, PhD, MRPharmS, FFCI
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Stephen Goundrey-Smith, PhD, MRPharmS, FFCI, is a UK-based scientific theologian and specialist in ethics of medicine and technology. After studying theology at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, he gained his PhD at the University of Exeter, for his work on transhumanism and medical ethics. He is Associate Tutor in Christian Ethics at Cuddesdon Gloucester & Hereford, training candidates for Church of England ministry.

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