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Respect for Human Vulnerability: The Emergence of a New Principle in Bioethics

Abstract

Vulnerability has become a popular though controversial topic in bioethics, notably since 2000. As a result, a common body of knowledge has emerged (1) distinguishing between different types of vulnerability, (2) criticizing the categorization of populations as vulnerable, and (3) questioning the practical implications. It is argued that two perspectives on vulnerability, i.e., the philosophical and political, pose challenges to contemporary bioethics discourse: they re-examine the significance of human agency, the primacy of the individual person, and the negativity of vulnerability. As a phenomenon of globalization, vulnerability can only be properly addressed in a global bioethics that takes the social dimension of human existence seriously.

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Notes

  1. See, for example: vulnerability versus susceptibility (Kottow 2003); intrinsic versus contingent (Silvers 2004); broad versus restrictive (Hurst 2008); primary versus secondary vulnerability (Schramm and Braz 2008); internal versus external (Schroeder and Gefenas 2009); being vulnerable versus making vulnerable (Luna 2009); alterable versus unalterable (Solbakk 2011); general versus special vulnerability (IBC 2011).

  2. In a later publication, Thomasma (2000) qualifies this point of view by distinguishing between the special vulnerability of the sick and the general vulnerability of all human beings. Human existence is finite and thus essentially vulnerable, but disease or old age can create additional vulnerabilities.

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ten Have, H. Respect for Human Vulnerability: The Emergence of a New Principle in Bioethics. Bioethical Inquiry 12, 395–408 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11673-015-9641-9

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Keywords

  • Global bioethics
  • Globalization
  • Vulnerability
  • Research ethics
  • Philosophy of medicine