Child Rights and Clinical Bioethics: Historical Reflections on Modern Medicine and Ethics

Perspect Biol Med. 2016;58(3):356-64. doi: 10.1353/pbm.2016.0003.


Why might pediatric bioethicists in the United States reject the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) as a framework for resolving ethical issues? The essays in this issue present arguments and counterarguments regarding the usefulness of the CRC in various clinical and research cases. But underlying this debate are two historical factors that help explain the seeming paradox of pediatric bioethicists' arguing against child's rights. First, the profession of clinical bioethics emerged in the 1970s as one component of modern medicine's focus on improving health through the application of technologically sophisticated treatments. The everyday work of U.S. bioethicists thus usually involves emerging technologies or practices in clinical or laboratory settings; the articles of the CRC, in contrast, seem better suited to addressing broad policy issues that affect the social determinants of health. Second, U.S. child health policy veered away from a more communitarian approach in the early 20th century for reasons of demography that were reinforced by ideology and concerns about immigration. The divide between clinical medicine and public health in the United States, as well as the relatively meager social safety net, are not based on a failure to recognize the rights of children. Indeed, there is some historical evidence to suggest that "rights language" has hindered progress on child health and well-being in the United States. In today's political climate, efforts to ensure that governments pledge to treat children in accordance with their status as human beings (a child right's perspective) are less likely to improve child health than robust advocacy on behalf of children's unique needs, especially as novel models of health-care financing emerge.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Bioethical Issues / history
  • Bioethics / history*
  • Child
  • Child Health Services / ethics
  • Child Health Services / history*
  • Child Health Services / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Child Welfare / history
  • Delivery of Health Care / ethics
  • Delivery of Health Care / history*
  • Health Policy / history*
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • Human Rights
  • Humans
  • Social Determinants of Health
  • United Nations
  • United States