Should the federal government and the states pay disability benefits to pregnant women? Should physicians participate in "humane" executions? Should children be allowed to participate as subjects in medical research?
There are as many different answers to these important social questions as there are ethical perspectives of the persons answering them.And the process of formulating the answers falls within the relatively new field of bioethics.
Yesterday, six years and about $725,000 in federal foundation and Georgetown University funds after its conception, the world's first Encyclopedia of Bioethics was published.
The four-volume $200 set contains 313 articles written by 285 scholars from 15 countries. The focus is on information about the ethical foundation of problems and issues in medicine and the biological sciences.
The encyclopedia staff was headed by Warren Reich, associate professor of bioethics and a staff scholar at the Rose and Joseph P. Kennedy Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction and Bioethics at Georgetown.
The encyclopedia is published by The Free Press, a division of Macmillan Publishing Co.
Sargent Shriver, chairman of the Kennedy Institute's International Advisory Board, said yesterday that "most of the problems that come to a relatively high executive in the federal and in the local government have moral and ethical implications, and sometimes are exclusively moral or ethical questions.
"I've even presumed to believe that when a question really gets on the president of the United States' desk, it's more an ethical question than anything else," said Shriver, who ran for vice president on the Democratic ticket in 1972.
"Should you drop an atom bomb? Should you invent or use neutron weapons? Should you give more aid to South Africa? Should you, should you, should you? It's not can you, can you, can you?" said Shriver, "because of that level, youn can almost do whatever you decide you'd like to do."
Shriver spoke of being shocked when the late president John F. Kennedy said the U.S would put a man on the moon. "I'm not sure that the president or anybody else gave much thought to whether or not we should spend the money, devote the intelligence . . . to put a man on the moon."
Shriver said that while there are no answers to such questions in the encyclopedia, of which about 3,500 copies have already been sold, the volumes "make it possible for ordinary persons . . . to at least familiarize themselves with ethical traditions . . . which have laid the foundation for decision-making."