Medical ethics is one of the most controversial aspects in the field of medicine and health care. Hope (2004) describes medical ethics as one that appeals to a variety of personalities in all walks of life. Simply put, medical ethics addresses some of the biggest moral questions ever to hound medicine. For example, topics like mercy killing, abortion, etc., merit the necessity for debate. Furthermore, medical ethics also touches issues regarding political philosophy, such as the fair and equal distribution of health care. Likewise, medical ethics also addresses sensitive topics, such as the legality of practicing euthanasia or the treatment of a sick person, even if it is against his will.
Jonsen & Siegler (2010) write that medical ethics are parts and parcel of medical practice. In fact, each time a medical practitioner is in action, he is bound to observe and practice the highest forms of medical ethics. “Ethical issues are imbedded in every clinical encounter between patients and caregivers because the patient always involves both technical and moral considerations.” (Jonsen & Siegler, 2010). Thus, the heart of medical ethics lies on the therapeutic relationship between patient and physician.
But as physicians are bound to “help and do no harm,” as what Hippocrates said, they are however hounded by ethical questions, which in the words of Jonsen & Siegler (2010), is the doubt of what should be the right thing to do when the need to respond in an ethical manner comes to uncertainty or confusion. This, in return, could cause distress both to the physician and the patient.
As medical ethics aims to provide a structure and more concrete solution to ethical questions, medical ethics have eventually helped shaped human rights. In different parts of the world, different human rights agreements can provide a strong reinforcement on medical ethics that is acceptable across different cultures and boundaries. Nevertheless, medical practitioners are still challenged by violations of human rights, such as torture and human trafficking (World Medical Mission, 2009).
On the legal aspects, the World Medical Mission (2009) puts: “Often ethics prescribes higher standards of behavior than does the law, and occasionally ethics requires that physicians disobey laws that demand unethical behavior.”
The International Declaration of Human Rights guarantee the rights that are especially important for medical ethics. This include the right to life, to freedom from discrimination, torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, to freedom of opinion and expression, to equal access to public services in one’s country, and to medical care.
The Declaration of Helsinki, which saw its sixth revision in 2008, provides a set of ethical principles for physicians and medical experts, is considered one of the most significant enactments that help shape medical ethics. Indeed, physicians are morally-bound to adhere to the guidelines set forth by the Declaration. The Declaration itself is all-encompassing, meaning, any national or local laws or regulations regarding issues about medical ethics and human experimentation should adhere to it, especially if the Declaration guarantees top protection for life than any national or local regulation.
Jonsen, A., & Siegler M. (2010). Clinical Ethics: A Practical Approach to Ethical Decisions in Clinical Medicine, Seventh Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1-3.
Freeman, J.M. & McDonnell, K. (2001). Tough Decisions: Cases in Medical Ethics, Second edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, ix-x.
Hope, T. (2004). Medical Ethics: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1-2.
World Medical Association (2009). Medical Ethics Manual, 2nd Edition 2009. Ferney-Voltaire Cedex, France: World Medical Association, 9-11.