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It was in the climate of such new ethical issues and choices that the field of inquiry now known as ‘bioethics’ was born. Van Rensselaer Potter originally proposed the term for a ‘science of survival’ in the ecological sense – that is, an interdisciplinary study aimed at ensuring the preservation of the biosphere (Potter, 1970).
Around 500 BC many different schools of medical practice coexisted, each of them reflecting somewhat different medical, philosophical and religious beliefs.One of these medical schools, on the island of Cos, was headed by the physician Hippocrates.The Hippocratic School produced a large body of writings on medicine, science and ethics.Third, it embraces issues of public policy and the direction and control of science.In all these senses, bioethics is a novel and distinct field of inquiry.It has become patently obvious during the past three or four decades that, to give just one example, someone has to decide whether to continue life-support for patients who will never regain consciousness.
This is not a technical decision that only doctors are capable of making, but an ethical decision, on which patients and others may have views no less defensible than those of doctors.While it is often thought that it had its beginning in the days of Hippocrates, in ancient Greece, it is in fact much older.Even tribal societies, without a written language, already had more or less well articulated values that directed the provision of health care by shamans, exorcists, witches, sorcerers and priests, as well as by midwives, bonesetters and herbalists.In affirming that ‘I will use dietetic measures to the use and profit of the sick according to my capacity and understanding.If any danger and hurt threatens, I will endeavour to avert it.’ the oath establishes the principles of beneficence and non-maleficence, that is, that doctors must act so as to benefit their patients and seek to prevent harm.The date of the oath, however, is unknown, with estimates ranging from the sixth century BC to the beginning of the Christian era (Edelstein, 1967).