21A.302J | Fall 2013 | Undergraduate

Dilemmas in Bio-Medical Ethics: Playing God or Doing Good?


Course Meeting Times

Seminar: 1 session / week, 3 hours / session


There are no prerequisites for this course.

Course Description

Bio-medical researchers, physicians, and other health practitioners across the globe are constantly faced with the ethical challenges that new medical technologies provide. These technologies promote the health of individuals, and can protect and extend life. New biotechnologies force us to reconsider our notions of relatedness and the “naturalness” of the body. Many of these techniques raise questions about how we conceptualize life, personhood, and embodiment; sexuality, morality, and ethics; race and ethnicity; and kinship and gender in cross-cultural contexts. As these technologies travel across borders, they are interpreted and incorporated into existing sets of historical, political, and economic relations of power between nations, institutions, families, and individuals. At the same time, limited resources, worldwide disparities in access to care, and other moral constraints force researchers, doctors, and patients to make choices about the care that is sought and provided. This course will explore the way in which culture, religion, politics, and economics are among some of the factors affecting the politics of abortion, contraception, reproductive technologies, the availability of pharmaceuticals, end of life care, and others. These cases reveal the day-to-day ethical dilemmas in medical research and healing practices.

Course Structure and Requirements

The course will be run primarily as a seminar, with approximately 20 minutes of lecture to introduce each new section followed by presentations and discussion of the subject or ethnographic context under review.

Grading Policy

Class participation and reading preparation 15%
Presentations 10%
Papers (3) 75%

For more information on the class activities, please see the Assignments section.

Statement on Academic Integrity

In this class you are to present your own original ideas, and oral and written work that has been completed without collaboration with others. Be sure to cite ideas that are derived from other sources accurately. If you have questions about how to cite sources properly, please consult Academic Integrity at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: A Handbook for Students (PDF - 1.4MB) or the instructor.

Required Texts

Bridges, Khiara M. Reproducing Race: An Ethnography of Pregnancy as a Site of Racialization. University of California Press, 2011. ISBN: 9780520268951. [Preview with Google Books]

Livingston, Julie. Improvising Medicine: An African Oncology Ward in an Emerging Cancer Epidemic. Duke University Press, 2012. ISBN: 9780822353423. [Preview with Google Books]

Redfield, Peter. Life in Crisis: The Ethical Journey of Doctors without Borders. University of California Press, 2013. ISBN: 9780520274853. [Preview with Google Books]

Roberts, Dorothy. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. Vintage Books, 1998. ISBN: 9780679758693.

Roberts, Elizabeth F. S. God’s Laboratory: Assisted Reproduction in the Andes. University of California Press, 2012. ISBN: 9780520270831. [Preview with Google Books]

Wendland, Claire L. A Heart for the Work: Journeys through an African Medical School. University Of Chicago Press, 2010. ISBN: 9780226893273. [Preview with Google Books]

For additional readings, please see the table in the Readings section.

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2013
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments
Presentation Assignments