The Word "Bioethics": The Struggle Over Its Earliest Meanings


An article by Warren Reich in the December 1994 issue of this journal concludes that the word "bioethics" and the field of study it names experienced a "bilocated birth" in 1970/1971 under Van Rensselaer Potter, at the University of Wisconsin, and André Hellegers, at Georgetown University. Further historical inquiry confirms (1) that there were, from the start, some major differences—even clashes—between the Potter and the Hellegers/Georgetown understandings of bioethics; and (2) that the Hellegers/Georgetown approach came to be the more widely accepted meaning of the term, while Potter's idea of bioethics remained largely marginalized. However, this inquiry also results in a third, unanticipated, conclusion: that Hellegers (in contrast to the dominant model offered by the Georgetown scholars) actually proposed a global approach to bioethics, bringing his vision much closer to Potter's evolving view than previously has been acknowledged.