Medical ethics is the field of study concerned with moral problems created by the practice of modern medicine. Medical ethics can be divided into three branches: (1) public policy medical ethics, (2) biomedical ethics, and (3) clinical ethics.
Public policy medical ethics deals with issues related to the regulation of medical practice by governments and by the governing boards of such institutions as hospitals and nursing homes. For example, federal and state governments establish spending limits for public health care. These limits raise ethical questions about the type and extent of medical services available to people who depend on public funds to pay medical bills. Other problems involving public policy include the control of medical research, the question of whether all citizens have a right to health care, and the international availability of drugs for epidemic illnesses, such as AIDS.
Biomedical ethics addresses moral questions that arise from the use of medical technology to begin or maintain a life. These include the cloning (duplication) of human beings, the use of human embryo cells called embryonic stem cells in medical research, and abortion. Another important issue is the use of life-support technologies for people with severe brain injuries or people who are terminally ill.
Clinical ethics evaluates the morality of decisions about medical care made by physicians, patients, and their families. Problems of clinical ethics include deciding whether or not to remove life-sustaining treatment, making medical decisions for young children and others who cannot make decisions for themselves, and negotiating disagreements among physicians, patients, and families.
All three branches of medical ethics relate to one another. For example, patients with incurable illnesses are concerned about the public funding of medical research (public policy medical ethics), participate in debates about whether it is moral to use cells obtained from human embryos to develop new treatments (biomedical ethics), and make decisions about their care and death with loved ones and physicians (clinical ethics).
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