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Bioethics is the study of moral and social responses to issues raised by advances in biology and medicine. There are a number of frameworks you can use to analyse an ethical issue.

Modern biotechnology raises ethical issues that need to be carefully considered because they can affect human health, wellbeing, society and our environment. Examples of ethical issues include:

Analysing ethical issues

We can analyse ethical issues to determine whether a particular course of action is morally right or wrong.

Analysis usually draws on one or more ethical frameworks:

  • Consequences – weighing the benefits and harms. Who and/or what benefits? Who and/or what is harmed?
  • Rights and responsibilities – are there rights that need to be protected? Who is responsible for protecting those rights?
  • Autonomy – should individuals have the right to choose for themselves, or does one decision count for everyone?
  • Virtue ethics – what is the ‘good’ thing to do?

These ethical frameworks offer different ways of thinking about a particular issue.

For more information see the article Frameworks for ethical analysis.

Ethics committees

All New Zealand universities and research institutes that carry out research involving people, animals or parts of animals, like tissues, must get ethical approval. The ethics committee at each institution assesses each research project and decides whether it can go ahead.

For example, a group of researchers at University of Auckland use zebrafish to study human diseases that can be inherited. Like any research involving animals, this work is subject to strict ethical scrutiny.

For more information see the article The ethics of zebrafish in research.

Public opinion

It is obviously important for the general public to have input into decisions about how science and technology are used in society.

Toi te Taiao: the Bioethics Council was established by the New Zealand Government to promote public dialogue on cultural, ethical and spiritual aspects of biotechnology. The Council has sought public opinion on issues such as using human genes in other organisms, xenotransplantation, pre-birth genetic testing and using human embryos in research. The Council was disestablished in March 2009, but you can still access their reports on the National Library website which has an archive of the Bioethics site, http://ndhadeliver.natlib.govt.nz/delivery/DeliveryManagerServlet?dps_pid=IE586117

The Australian and New Zealand Council for the Care of Animals in Research and Teaching (ANZCCZART) is an independent body that provides guidance and information to animal ethics committees, scientists, educators, regulatory authorities, granting agencies, government, animal welfare organisations, the media and the general public.

Get started

The Hub has multiple pathways for introducing bioethics to students. 

One suggested pathway is ethics and research animals. This case study provides an example of introducing ethical thinking into the classroom to explore a controversial issue in science. Follow it up with examples of research animals: pathogen-free pigs housed in special facilities and transgenic cows that make modified milk. Use the activities Ethics, mice and toxins, Ethics and pig cell transplants or Ethics of transgenic cows.

A second pathway is nutrigenomics. Who owns a patient's genetic information once it is identified? Should it be shared with others, including insurance companies? The articles and videos in studying genetic diseases: Finding out about the genes and Finding out about the person are a starting point.

A third option is to use one of the Hub's ready-made unit plans: Ethics in sheep breeding or Ethics of transgenic cows.

Prior to beginning classroom work, read the articles Teaching ethics and Managing classroom discussions, then use the Ethics thinking toolkit.

    Published 23 October 2007, Updated 5 April 2017 Referencing Hub articles