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Book Review: Bioethics - All That Matters

26 November 2012
Appeared in BioNews 683

Bioethics: All That Matters

By Professor Donna Dickenson

Published by Hodder Education

ISBN-10: 1444155806, ISBN-13: 978-1444155808

Buy this book from Amazon UK

'Bioethics: All That Matters' by Professor Donna Dickenson

Over recent decades medical technology has advanced with extraordinary rapidity. We have arrived at a time where gametes, organs and stem cells are detached and exchanged between individuals, and where machines replicate the functions of human organs. In Bioethics: All That Matters, Donna Dickenson ambitiously attempts to address the many ethical and legal quandaries presented by these new biotechnologies. The text is part of the Hodder Education collection that provides short books on topical issues, and Dickenson manages to combine a wealth of fact and opinion alike into one bite-sized digest.

New biotechnologies are quoted at the outset as housing 'both our greatest hopes and some of our greatest fears'. This bold statement, captured in capitals on a dramatic red backdrop inside the front cover, forms the bedrock of the book, and Dickenson pays particular attention to the latter part, namely the fears associated with medical advancement, which take centre stage throughout.

In the opening chapter, the question: 'should we do whatever science lets us do?', in other words 'should we do it because we can?', illustrates the ambition and angle of this compact text. Dickenson borrows from sources as diverse as Plato, Frankenstein and the Lord of the Flies in order to establish a broad ethical base that helps the reader place the ideas in the following chapters, which focus on specific areas of biotechnology. Here, Dickenson also illustrates how evasive general principles of ethics are in these areas. The constant march of medical technologies has outpaced laws and morals, the implications of which are considered in an almost dystopian manner at times.

There is generous discussion of the highly emotive situations concerning the sale, exchange and patenting of the reproductive products of the human body in particular, and the author's main fears are palpable. Those who are familiar with Dickenson's work should be aware of her strong views on the ramifications of biotechnological advancement; namely the spectres of commodification and exploitation of one's body parts and dignity - these themes recur throughout the book.

Indeed, biotechnologies at times are portrayed in the text as genuinely frightening and dangerous, such as the plight of the executed Chinese prisoners whose organs were harvested for wealthy Westerners, which was mentioned in the first 50 words. Though relevant considerations, the portrayal of such incidents sometimes feel a little extreme, and this somewhat counters the blurb stating that the author 'equips readers to make up their own minds' - a stance of neutrality that at times is notably absent.

However, the text also poses some interesting questions that transcend medical, legal and philosophical boundaries. Such is the prowess of science that the reader is asked what its limits should be, and how these could be imposed. New biotechnology has infringed upon the meaning of what is 'natural', for example, and the author poses the important question of whether our ambitions should be limitless, or whether we must voluntarily impose restrictions. Dickenson certainly argues for the latter, and the aforementioned cases of bodily exploitation do provide an important backdrop for these questions.

The intrinsically personal nature of 'baby selling' and life-saving drugs being withheld from dying Africans discussed in the book often provokes knee-jerk reactions that can cloud readers' judgment. Dickenson does well to step beyond these tricky issues and impart pragmatic bioethical knowledge, particularly through the short text boxes that summarise the content discussed. Specific terminology used in the chapter is also clarified, so that terms such as 'surrogate motherhood' and 'reproductive tourism' are fully understood and can be used confidently.

Bioethics: All That Matters covers some of the biggest modern day questions relating to biotechnologies, including questions of rights, autonomy, decision making and the responsibilities of parties involved, ranging from the patient to the pharmaceutical companies. Many medical, philosophical and legal questions are raised, and the variety of sources used also demonstrates to the reader just how divergent ethical views are in biotechnology (though perhaps Dickenson's are a little too palpable at times).

This is a thought-provoking book that stimulates much further consideration after reading. The final pages are dedicated to various sources that provide a wealth of further study for the discerning student or interested layman. This literary archive comprises around a quarter of the text; including some twenty suggestions for related reading, notable court decisions, and all manner of channels related to the bioethical issues delved into in the preceding text.

This book provides both an accessible and concise route into the many controversial areas of biotechnology and its implications, and has a diverse readership in being readily digestible. Nevertheless, Dickenson has a tendency to place a little too much emphasis on commodification and exploitation, particularly regarding women, and as such doesn't quite manage to divorce herself from the 'scaremongering', 'luddite' accusations that she is often associated with. Still, a wealth of information is crammed into this small text, and provides for an interesting and often illuminating read. Just try to tread carefully between the fact and the polemic.

Buy Bioethics: All That Matters from Amazon UK.

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