The Inaugural Conference on Health and Ethics sponsored by the Harvard University Program in Health and Ethics was held this past Thursday and Friday with a powerful sense of mission. “This conference maps a new departure for bioethics and initiates its exploration” promised the Call for Participation. A host of the conference, Dan Brock, announced to Thursday morning attendees that the conference heralded the birth of a new bioethics, one that was not dedicated to moral issues arising between doctors and patients, for example, end-of-life issues and informed consent for treatment, but rather to a “broader group of ethical issues that come from a population level.” This new bioethics is to be called “Population Bioethics” and will require the collaborative effort of people working in epidemiology, public health, rational decision theory, economics, bioethics, and others. Harvard is advertising for two new positions in bioethics this fall with the development of scholarship in Population Bioethics in mind.
Population Bioethics not only reorganizes bioethics but it also creates new questions for bioethics, said Dan Wikler, in his presentation on what is distinct about Population Bioethics. He, and his colleague Norman Daniels, are leaders in the field of international health and ethics. The audience learned that the new questions for bioethics that emerge from Population Bioethics include: Who has a moral right to health care? How should scarce healthcare resources be distributed? How can and should health care policy at home and abroad be reformed according to the value of justice? What are the ethical and rational justifications of health care measurements, that is, according to which principles may we justify a summary judgment of the health of a population (like women’s health or a nation’s health)? How do we rationally and ethically justify health priorities? What are ethical justifications of government intervention in potential health crises (like Hurricane Katrina and potential epidemics like avian flu)?