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The ASBH code of ethics and the limits of professional healthcare ethics consultations
  1. Abraham Schwab
  1. Correspondence to Professor Abraham Schwab, IPFW, 2101 E Coliseum Blvd, Fort Wayne IN 46805, USA; schwaba{at}

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From the beginning, a code of ethics for bioethicists has been conceived of as part of a movement to professionalise the field. In advocating for such a code, Baker repeatedly identifies ‘having a code of ethics’ with ‘professionalization’. The American Society of Bioethics and Humanities (ASBH) echoes this view in their code of ethics for healthcare ethics consultants (HCECs)1 and the subsequent publication in the American Journal of Bioethics.2

Taking for granted that a code of ethics could be a valuable asset for HCECs, this essay has two aims. First, there are good reasons to doubt that the label ‘profession’ has significant meaning for HCECs. Attempts to accurately conceive of a profession fall into two broad camps: substantive and formal. Substantive conceptions should be rejected. Specifically, substantive conceptions beg the question about what it means to be a profession, which produces devastating problems for practical application. Formal conceptions of profession (eg, Davis’ conception3) avoid begging the question, but do so at the cost of identifying the responsibilities of a profession.

Using the term ‘professional responsibilities’, then, requires additional explication and classifying HCECs as professionals requires the identification of their role-specific responsibilities.i

Second, this essay will critique the ASBH code of ethics for HCECs as a first articulation of these responsibilities. As written, this code of ethics has limited value for HCECs because most of the responsibilities identified in this code do not identify HCEC-specific responsibilities. In closing, some important strategies to improve upon this initial attempt to define the responsibilities of HCECs are identified.

The limits of professionalising HCECs

For at least the last decade, Baker has encouraged bioethicists to adopt a code of ethics. Throughout this effort, Baker intertwines having a code of ethics with becoming a profession: ‘Is it time for bioethics to assert its integrity by developing …

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