Share Course Ware
Social Studies > Women's and Gender Studies > Dilemmas in Bio-Medical Ethics: Playing God or Doi
 Dilemmas in Bio-Medical Ethics: Playing God or Doi  posted by  member150_php   on 2/19/2009  Add Courseware to favorites Add To Favorites  
Further Reading
More Options

James, Erica, 21A.216J Dilemmas in Bio-Medical Ethics: Playing God or Doing Good?, Spring 2005. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare), (Accessed 09 Jul, 2010). License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Dilemmas in Bio-Medical Ethics: Playing God or Doing Good?

Spring 2005

Human blastocyst showing inner cell mass and trophectoderm.

Human blastocyst showing inner cell mass and trophectoderm used in human embryonic stem cell research. (Photo Credit: Mr. J. Conaghan. Image courtesy of the National Institutes of Health.)

Course Highlights

This course features extensive lecture notes.

Course Description

This course is an introduction to the cross-cultural study of bio-medical ethics. It examines moral foundations of the science and practice of western bio-medicine through case studies of abortion, contraception, cloning, organ transplantation, and other issues. It also evaluates challenges that new medical technologies pose to the practice and availability of medical services around the globe, and to cross-cultural ideas of kinship and personhood. It discusses critiques of the bio-medical tradition from anthropological, feminist, legal, religious, and cross-cultural theorists.


"CI-H subjects provide a foundation in general expository writing and speaking. These subjects require at least 20 pages of writing divided among three to five assignments. Of these written assignments, at least one is revised and resubmitted. CI-H subjects also offer students substantial opportunity for oral expression through presentations, student-led discussion, or class participation. In order to guarantee both sufficient attention to student writing and substantial opportunity for oral expression, the maximum number of students per section in a CI-H subject is 18, except when a subject is taught without sections (where the faculty member in charge is the only instructor). In this case, enrollment can rise to 25 if a writing fellow is attached to the subject."

Course Description

Bio-medical researchers, physicians and other health practitioners across the globe are constantly faced with the ethical challenges that new medical technologies provide to promote the health of individuals and to protect and extend life. These technologies force us to reconsider our notions of relatedness and the "naturalness" of the body as many of these techniques raise questions about notions of life, personhood and embodiment; sexuality, morality and ethics; race and ethnicity; kinship and gender; and the cross-cultural variability of these conceptions in the post-modern era. Yet these technologies are received, interpreted and incorporated into existing sets of historical, political and economic relations of power between nations, institutions, families, and individuals. At the same time, limited resources, worldwide disparities in access to care, and other moral constraints force researchers, doctors and patients to make choices about the care that is sought and provided. This course will explore the way in which culture, religion, politics, and economics are among some of the factors at the heart of highly contested questions of abortion, contraception, organ transplantation, cloning, the availability of pharmaceuticals, end of life care, and others that reveal the day-to-day ethical dilemmas in medical research and healing practices.

Course Structure and Requirements

The course will be run primarily as a seminar, with approximately 20 minutes of lecture to introduce each new section followed by presentations and discussion of the subject or ethnographic context under review. Students must come to class prepared, as discussion will often take the form of a formal debate of the issues read for that class session. Generally readings will be limited to 100 pages per week, depending on whether the readings are theoretical or are case-based. In the readings section, readings marked with an * are required for that day. Other readings are highly recommended, but not required.

Reflection papers

Over the course of the semester students will submit five 2-page (double-spaced) reflection papers on the required reading that will be due at the start of class. A prompting question will be provided ahead of time to guide the student through that week's readings and to help structure the reflection paper. These five reflection papers will be graded and are considered a component of the writing requirement. Coupled with class attendance and participation they will contribute 40% of the final grade. Through these reflection papers and the responses to them, students will build and refine their arguments for the two longer papers required in the course.


Students will be required to write two 6 to 7-page papers that build upon the themes discussed in section and in the reflection papers. Papers will be returned no more than one week after submission. The first paper will be revised in light of the comments received upon them. Rewriting the second paper is optional. The final draft of each paper is the version that will be graded and is due one week after the papers have been returned with comments. A crucial aspect to how these papers will be evaluated is the articulation of a strong thesis statement that is supported by a cogent argument. Arguments cannot be solely polemical, but must derive from a clear, well-supported evaluation of the texts, lecture materials, videos or films. These two papers are weighted equally and will contribute 50% of the grade.


Through the course of the semester each student will make at least one presentation of the main arguments contained within one of that week's readings in order to guide class discussion (in the case of books, the chapters will be divided among more than one student). The presentations can be based on the reflection paper and is intended to give the class questions to be debated in the discussion period and should last no longer than ten minutes. The presentations are evaluated and will contribute 10% of the final grade. There is no final exam.


Course schedule.

Lec #


key dates

Part One: Foundations of Bio-Medical Ethics and Modern "Bio-Politics"


Section One: Introduction: Bio-Medical Ethics and Bio-Politics: From Clinical Practice and Medical Research to Crisis of Medical Humanitarianism in the Field



Section Two: Principles of Ethical Medical Practice and Research: Autonomy, Justice, Beneficence, and Nonmaleficience
What is Bio-Medical Ethics?



Section Three: Competing Discourses on Bioethics and Bio-Medical Practice - Anthropology, Feminism, Theology, and Law



Section Four: The Creation of Doctors and the Clinical Gaze or "Whose Body Is It, Anyway?"

Reflection paper 1 (Lecture 7)


Section Five: Ethical Issues in the Practice of Medicine: Confidentiality and Disclosure; Patient Autonomy and Informed Consent



Section Six: Dilemmas of Public Health Practice: The Limits of Resources and its Allocation

Reflection paper 2 (Lecture 10)

Part Two: Medical Technologies, the Body and the State


Section Seven: Medical Research and Ethical Medical Experimentation - from Eugenics to Anti-Retroviral Drug Trials

Draft of first paper due (Lecture 12)


Section Eight: Race, Contraception, and Family Planning: Contemporary Eugenics?

First paper drafts returned with comments (Lecture 14)
Reflection paper 3 (Lecture 15)

Part Three: Globalizing Bioethics - The Politics of Reproduction


Section Nine: The Politics of Gender, Reproductive Technologies, and Family Planning across Cultures

Revised version of paper 1 due (Lecture 17)


Section Ten: Infertility, Assisted Reproduction, Kinship, and Citizenship across Cultures

Reflection paper 4 (Lecture 18)


Section Eleven: State Politics of Human Genetic Engineering, Stem Cell Research, Cloning, and "Surplus Embryos"
Lecture 20
Guest Speaker: Dr. James Sherley, MIT Assoc. Professor of Biological Engineering

Reflection paper 5 (Lecture 20)

Part Four: Playing God? Life, Death, Bodies, and Spirits


Section Twelve: Organ Transplantation, End of Life Issues, and Death across Cultures

Draft of second paper due 1 day after lecture 24

Part Five: Human Rights, Infectious Disease, and the Global Medical Commons


Section Thirteen: Clinical Dilemmas, Public Health, and Global Pharmaceuticals

Papers returned with preliminary grades (Lecture 25)
Final version of second paper due (for those who revise) 2 days after lecture 26   Tell A Friend