In the Introduction to the 1995 revised edition of the Encyclopedia of Bioethics, Warren Thomas Reich, Editor in Chief, defined bioethics as " the systematic study of the moral dimensions—including moral vision, decisions, conduct, and policies—of the life sciences and health care, employing a variety of ethical methodologies in an interdisciplinary setting." This definition shapes the third edition, which continues the broad topical range of earlier editions.

The word bioethics was coined in the early 1970s by biologists in order to encourage public and professional reflection on two topics of urgency: (1) the responsibility to maintain the generative ecology of the planet, upon which life and human life depends; and (2) the future implications of rapid advances in the life sciences with regard to potential modifications of a malleable human nature. In his book entitled Bioethics: Bridge to the Future, published in 1971, Van Rensselaer Potter focused on evolutionary biology, a growing human ability to alter nature and human nature, and the implications of this power for our global future. Other life scientists at that time, such as Bentley Glass, Paul Berg, and Paul Ehrlich were among many similarly interested in spurring thought on the biological revolution with regard to eugenics, the engineering of new life forms, and population ethics. Bioethics, then, emerged from biologists who felt obliged to address the moral meaning of the biosphere, and to reflect on the remarkable implications of their discoveries and technological innovations.

Alongside of bioethics as an intellectual movement among life scientists there emerged the field of medical ethics, which was both old and new. It was old in the sense that physicians had reflected perennially on their professional duties from within the narrow confines of the guild. It was new in that now this reflection was occurring in open dialogue with theologians and philosophers, and attentive to widening public concerns in a time of civil rights and "the twilight of authority." The emerging discussion quickly included all the significant healthcare professions. Physicians focusing on medical ethics were in conversation with the accumulated wisdom of Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant reflection on medical ethics, as well as with moral philosophy. Many philosophers in this early period engaged in fruitful and mutually enriching dialogue with religious thinkers. Such dialogue not only contributed to the vitality of the field, but also reflected the dynamics of a liberal democracy in which citizens of all backgrounds and persuasions were, by the early 1970s, becoming awakened to the important moral questions surrounding developments in healthcare, medicine, research, and the professional—patient relationship.

Bioethics, as the tradition of the Encyclopedia defines it, developed then from these two central lineages, and includes both. The Encyclopedia integrates all aspects of healthcare and medical ethics, without losing sight of the wider context provided by the life scientists of the early 1970s, including their environmental and public health concerns.

The earlier editions of the Encyclopedia remain the key historical documents defining the field in its initial stages. Many elegantly written and authoritative articles included in these editions represent the thought of a generation of remarkable thinkers whose intellectual creativity, scholarly breadth, and openness to dialogue across traditions may never be surpassed. These thinkers were relatively free of any conventional literature of the field of "bioethics" as we would now be able to describe it; they were generally free from the internal status hierarchies and concerns with legitimization in academic medical centers that can sometimes limit creativity; they were almost entirely free from conflicts of interest, a serious concern in current bioethics, in response to which this third edition has required full disclosure from all authors.

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