A Case for Including a Bioethics Class in the High School Curriculum

Over the course of scientific history, many research experiments have been conducted, and amazing discoveries have been made that have improved countless lives. However, not all of the work has been ethical, and in fact, some of it has been cruel. In such cases, the ends do not justify the means. Because science depends on public dollars to fund research, public trust is essential.

If asked whether they know what bioethics is, many students will say “yes,” but can they explain what informed consent is or recognize potential problems that may arise from conducting medical or social science research involving humans?

As a high school freshmen, my classmates and I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for a biology class, then pondered whether the benefits of using Lack’s cancer cells without her knowledge or consent outweighed the physical and emotional pain that she had to endure before her death. For decades, the Lacks family didn’t even know that Henrietta’s cells had become global public property, and when they were finally told, they remembered the painful memories of her last moments, along with the knowledge the cancerous cells that took her life lived on.  My biology class analyzed and discussed ethical questions raised by the book, yet many of my peers forgot about the moral implications within a few months of finishing it. After one year had passed, I was curious to see whether any of my classmates remembered the book. After conducting a small investigation, I was astounded to realize that merely six out of twenty-eight students in that biology class could recall the book’s title. This article will define and discuss the role of bioethics in the STEM fields, with this writer’s recommendation that the subject of bioethics be included in the high school curriculum.

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In its introduction to “Bioethics in the Classroom,” Access Excellence, a national website for science teachers, says:

“The part of philosophy which focuses on the principles involved in making decisions about what is right and wrong is called ethics. Bioethicists study ethical decision making in the context of biological information and technology. Traditionally they dealt with difficult medical decisions, but with the explosion of knowledge in the fields of genetics and biotechnology, new societal challenges are requiring ethical decisions as well. Some timely examples are cloning, the use of fetal tissues and the genetic engineering of crops” [1].

Carolyn Csongradi, a lecturer at Santa Clara University, asserted that in order to make ethical decisions, students need to first understand the difference between fact, opinion, and values, and then develop an ability to make rational decisions while respecting the rights and well-being of others in the conduct of research projects [2].  Are students capable of applying the principle of “do no harm” to ensure that research is conducted in a manner that treats the participant with dignity, respect, and safety?

In order to examine the range of values and ideals that scientists need to keep in mind while conducting research on humans, this past summer I took an online course offered by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Extramural Research entitled “Protecting Human Research Participants”. The course contained many examples of scientific experiments that have exploited humans and caused them harm over the past 100 years and it is required of all investigators who apply and/or receive federal research grants that propose using humans.

The NIH presented three main principles investigators are legally obligated to address when considering conducting research on human participants: 1) Respect for Persons, 2) Beneficence, and 3) Justice [3]. Respect for Persons involves treating potential research subjects with consideration, care, and respect, giving them all of the information necessary in order for them to make an educated and informed decision about whether to participate in a research project or not. Beneficence is the concerted effort to protect all research participants, to do no harm if there are potential dangers and minimizing any negative consequences as much as possible. Justice is fairness in selecting participants to make sure that all persons can receive the benefits of research, regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity.

The applications of the principles above are important in the conduct of stem cell research (and other scientific fields) that run the risk of overstepping ethical boundaries. Stem cells, for example, are cells that are able to develop into a variety of different cell types in the body [4]. Because of this ability, stem cells can be implanted into disease-stricken patients who aren’t able to produce a particular cell-type, such as blood cells. In fact, doctors have been able to implant bone marrow stem cells for decades. The problem is, these stem cells taken from bone marrow are merely multipotent, which means they can only morph into a small number of cells, and can only give rise to blood cells. In 1998, it was discovered that embryonic stem cells were pluripotent, which are able to transfer into a much wider range of cells. However, because these stem cells were obtained from fetal embryos, a huge controversy erupted. In response, doctors managed to develop a method to create pluripotent cells by using human adult cells [5].

According to NIH’s Department of Bioethics, taking a biomedical ethics class will advance a student’s understanding of science in general, prepare students to make informed, educated choices, promote respectful dialogue among those with different points-of-view, and cultivate cross-cultural and critical-reasoning skills [6]. As one can see, these skills are not only limited to the fields of science, but are useful for anyone.  Keeping this in mind, I recommend that high schools offer bioethics as an elective so students who wish to get a deeper glimpse into the history, case studies, and controversial issues that have necessitated how science is conducted can appreciate the contributions that many have made to advance knowledge without causing unnecessary suffering.


[1] Taylor, Shaun N., “Bioethics in the Classroom.” Access Excellence. 2009. The National Health Museum, Technology in Education. Atlanta. Accessed September 7, 2014 from www.accessexcellence.org/LC/TE/BE/index.php

[2] Csongradi, Carolyn. “Why Teach Bioethics?” Actionbioscience. Jan. 2001, American Institute of Biological Sciences.  Accessed September 7, 2014 from www.actionbioscience.org/education/csongradi.html

[3] “Protecting Human Research Participants,” The National Institutes of Health, Office of Extramural Research. Bethesda, MD. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Accessed September 7, 2014 from https://phrp.nihtraining.com

[4] “What are the unique properties of all stem cells?” In Stem Cell Information Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2009. Accessed September 7, 2014 from http://stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics/pages/basics2.aspx

[5] Genetic Science Learning Center (2014, June 22). The Stem Cell Debate: Is It Over? Learn.Genetics. Accessed September 7, 2014 from http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/stemcells/scissues/

[6] “Exploring Bioethics.” National Institutes of Health Department of Bioethics. Education Development Center, Inc. Accessed September 7, 2014 from http://science.education.nih.gov/supplements/nih9/bioethics/guide/teaching.htm

Image Reference:

TMCC Biology students in the biology lab. Photo taken by Truckee Meadows Community College. Used under Creative Commons License.


Albert Li is currently a senior at Los Altos High School. Although he aspires to become an engineer, he maintains interests in a variety of topics, including bioethics. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.