Rethinking medical ethics: a view from below

Dev World Bioeth. 2004 May;4(1):17-41. doi: 10.1111/j.1471-8731.2004.00065.x.


In this paper, we argue that lack of access to the fruits of modern medicine and the science that informs it is an important and neglected topic within bioethics and medical ethics. This is especially clear to those working in what are now termed 'resource-poor settings'- to those working, in plain language, among populations living in dire poverty. We draw on our experience with infectious diseases in some of the poorest communities in the world to interrogate the central imperatives of bioethics and medical ethics. AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria are the three leading infectious killers of adults in the world today. Because each disease is treatable with already available therapies, the lack of access to medical care is widely perceived in heavily disease-burdened areas as constituting an ethical and moral dilemma. In settings in which research on these diseases are conducted but there is little in the way of therapy, there is much talk of first world diagnostics and third world therapeutics. Here we call for the 'resocialising' of ethics. To resocialise medical ethics will involve using the socialising disciplines to contextualise fully ethical dilemmas in settings of poverty and, a related gambit, the systematic participation of the destitute sick. Clinical research across steep gradients also needs to be linked with the interventions that are demanded by the poor and otherwise marginalised. We conclude that medical ethics must grapple more persistently with the growing problem posed by the yawning 'outcome gap' between rich and poor.

MeSH terms

  • Bioethics*
  • Biomedical Research
  • Clinical Trials as Topic / ethics
  • Developing Countries*
  • HIV Infections
  • Health Services Accessibility / economics*
  • Health Services Accessibility / ethics*
  • Humans
  • Malaria / drug therapy
  • Poverty*
  • Prisons
  • Resource Allocation / ethics*
  • Siberia
  • Social Justice
  • Tuberculosis / drug therapy