The steady advances in the field of biotechnology have opened a new frontier of ethical and political questions. Without doubt, gratitude is the most appropriate response for the many developments in biotechnology that have done much to alleviate human suffering. At the same time, however, we find ourselves on the threshold of an unprecedented power to shape the character of human life itself—a “brave new world” that brings with it a number of fundamental questions that warrant serious and sustained examination. Indeed, many have argued that the explicit and implicit questions of value raised by the biotechnology revolution constitute the most far-reaching set of challenges for our time, currently at the center of American politics.

In this seminar, students will examine classic texts in the history of political thought that bear on biotechnology and politics. They will also read contemporary authors who address the underlying ethical issues imbedded in the biotechnological revolution. They will grapple with questions about what it means to be human, as well as the relationship among the competing authorities of science, politics and religion in the modern world.

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Diana Schaub on bioethics and the Constitution


Diana Schaub

Diana J. Schaub is Professor of Political Science at Loyola University Maryland and a member of the Hoover Institution’s task force on The Virtues of a Free Society. From 2004 to 2009 she was a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics.

Carter Snead

Carter Snead is internationally recognized as a leading expert in public bioethics. His research explores issues relating to neuroethics, enhancement, stem cell research, abortion, and end-of-life decision-making. He is also the editor of two book series for the University of Notre Dame Press – “Catholic Ideas for a Secular World,” and “Notre Dame Studies in Medical Ethics.”

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session



Discussion Questions:

  1. The premises and methods of modern science contrast starkly with those that normally animate ethical and political reasoning. What challenges might these tensions pose for the governance of the practice of medicine, scientific research, and the uses of biotechnology? How should citizens and public officials respond to these tensions?


Scientific Dimensions

Normative Dimensions

Legal Dimensions


Discussion Questions:

  1. Is it necessary first to identify the boundaries of the moral and legal community (i.e., to designate who is and is not entitled to moral care and legal protection) before one can think about the appropriate law and policy for abortion? If so, who should decide this question of membership, and according to what criteria?



Discussion Questions:

  1. The dominant public question in this debate has been about whether or not federal funding should be provided for research involving the use and destruction of living human embryos. How does this issue differ (if at all) from question of whether embryonic stem cell research should be pursued in the first instance?



Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you own your body? What does “ownership” or “property” mean in this context?
  2. What do you make of the concern that organ markets would lead to a uniquely pernicious form of exploitation of the poor?


General Reflections

Decisions Regarding Life-Sustaining Measures

Physician-Assisted Suicide


Discussion Questions:

  1. How do the interests of incompetent patients differ (if at all) from those who are competent, in the context of end-of-life decision-making?
  2. Should it matter, morally or legally, why a person declines or withdraws life-sustaining measures?
  3. Is it possible to distinguish the administration of a lethal drug (in the context of assisted suicide or euthanasia) and withdrawing life sustaining measures? Is there a moral difference? Should the law treat these differently?

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