About the Centre for Human Bioethics

The growth of scientific knowledge and technical ability in medicine and the biological sciences has led to a number of ethical dilemmas which perplex all of us, but especially those in the health care field. Does the fact that we can prolong the life of a patient in a permanent vegetative state mean that we should do so? Is embryonic stem cell research justified by the prospect it offers of alleviating serious diseases? Should more medical resources go into intensive care for extremely premature infants, given the cost of such treatment and its mixed outcome? Should scientists proceed with research trying to clone human beings? At the Centre for Human Bioethics we believe that our ethical thinking can catch up and keep pace with advances in biomedical technology if we have the necessary resources to do so. We can also anticipate future developments and assess what we might do if and when those developments become a reality.

The Centre for Human Bioethics was established by Professor Peter Singer in 1980 as Australia’s first research center devoted to bioethics, and it has developed into one of the world’s leading Centres of its kind. It is based at Monash University’s Clayton Campus, and is part of the Faculty of Arts. The Centre pursues vigorous research into many aspects of bioethics, and teaches a strong graduate program to a range of health professionals seeking to develop their skills in this area. The Centre has become known for its practical and non-sectarian approach to ethical issues, and has produced ground-breaking work in several areas of bioethics and ethical theory, particularly reproductive ethics, end-of-life decision-making, and the development of utilitarian and virtue-based approaches to ethics. The Centre has also pioneered graduate study in bioethics, with its popular Master of Bioethics program taken by students from around the world.

The Centre has three primary aims:

  • To carry out research on issues in human bioethics and to promote study of the ethical, social and legal problems arising out of medical, biological and genetic research.
  • To provide an advisory and resource centre for government, professional, educational, and community groups.
  • To stimulate the development of educational programs in human bioethics for professionals and the public.

The Centre has conducted a number of highly successful research projects, with several particularly worthy of note. Peter Singer led a series of studies during the 1980s into the ethics of various new reproductive technologies like in vitro fertilization (technologies which Professor Carl Wood and other Monash reproductive scientists helped to pioneer). These studies resulted in some of the earliest published work on the ethics of IVF, such as The Reproduction Revolution (1984) – published in the US as Making Babies – which Singer co-authored with Deane Wells. Helga Kuhse joined the Centre in 1981, and worked with Singer on an innovative study into the ethics of withholding treatment from infants born with severe disabilities, culminating in the jointly authored book,Should the Baby Live? (1985). These projects drew on the Centre’s extensive empirical research into the attitudes of health professionals and the community toward the practices in question. Notable publications emerging from the Centre’s empirical research during the 1990s include a study of physicians’ and nurses’ views on voluntary euthanasia and other end-of-life decisions, and a study of partialist and impartialist approaches to ethical reasoning by health professionals. During his time at the Centre for Human Bioethics, Singer also produced some of the most widely-used textbooks and anthologies in applied ethics and ethical theory, including Practical Ethics (2nd ed. 1993), Applied Ethics (1986), A Companion to Ethics (1991), Ethics (Oxford Readers Series, 1994),A Companion to Bioethics (1998, co-edited with Helga Kuhse), and Bioethics: An Anthology (1999, co-edited with Helga Kuhse). Many of these and other works from the Centre have been translated into a number of foreign languages. Singer and Kuhse also created the well-respected quarterly journal Bioethics, in 1987, and founded the International Association of Bioethics, whose governing body includes many representatives from developing as well as developed countries.  Helga Kuhse has also worked on notions of partiality and impartiality in nursing and medical ethics, developing and extending themes from her book, Caring: Nurses, Women, and Ethics (1997).

Justin Oakley has been involved in ongoing research aimed at developing a rigorous form of virtue ethics and applying it to issues of concern to the health care professions, such as voluntary euthanasia, family caregiving, and notions of professional integrity. This research has resulted in a number of journal articles, and a monograph (co-authored with Dean Cocking), Virtue Ethics and Professional Roles (2001). Justin Oakley was also involved in National Health and Medical Research Council funded project investigating the ethics of integrating report cards on surgeons’ clinical performance into the informed consent process. Another study examined the ethical basis of the idea, invoked in several influential court decisions, that procreative decisions have an intimacy that warrants special protection by the state.  Current Centre research projects are investigating ethical implications of pharmaceutical advertising; ethics and security aspects of infectious disease control; dual use life science research; and ultrasound foetal imaging and selective abortion.

Members of the Centre have carried out much consultancy work for various government bodies, and have played an influential role in public debate and law reform in many areas, including legislation governing assisted reproduction, surrogate motherhood, and end-of-life decision-making. This engagement with public policy and issues of community concern in Australia has helped the Centre gain strong support both within and outside the academy.

The Centre’s activities are also publicised through its quarterly journal, Monash Bioethics Review, Australia’s oldest peer-reviewed bioethics journal. Monash Bioethics Review is the successor to the Bioethics News, begun by Helga Kuhse in 1981.

The Centre developed one of the first Master of Bioethics programs, in 1989, and pioneered distance education study in bioethics. A variety of bioethics degree courses are offered by the Centre, both for on-campus and distance education students. Learn more about our Postgraduate programmes here. The Centre’s teaching programs focus primarily on health professionals returning to university to do graduate study, more than on medical students (medicine in Australia is usually an undergraduate course), although there has been considerable involvement with the latter also. The interaction with several hundred experienced health professionals over the years has enriched the Centre’s research, and has highlighted the ethical issues of significant concern to members of the health professions. The Centre’s students and members of its steering committee played a leading role in the establishment of the Australian Bioethics Association, which holds an annual conference. Each year since the mid-1980s, the Centre has run a week-long Intensive Bioethics Course, dealing with ethical issues in human research and clinical practice of direct concern to health professionals.

On the 13th of October, 2005, the Centre celebrated its 25th anniversary. Please see some interesting documents and photographs from the Monash archives.

Please see our contact details if you’d like to be in touch for further information about our work.