Global health ethics: critical reflections on the contours of an emerging field, 1977–2015

BMC Medical Ethics 20 (1):53 (2019)
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Abstract

The field of bioethics has evolved over the past half-century, incorporating new domains of inquiry that signal developments in health research, clinical practice, public health in its broadest sense and more recently sensitivity to the interdependence of global health and the environment. These extensions of the reach of bioethics are a welcome response to the growth of global health as a field of vital interest and activity. This paper provides a critical interpretive review of how the term “global health ethics” has been used and defined in the literature to date to identify ethical issues that arise and need to be addressed when deliberating on and working to improve the discourse on ethical issues in health globally. Selected publications were analyzed by year of publication and geographical distribution, journal and field, level of engagement, and ethical framework. Of the literature selected, 151 articles were written by authors in high-income countries, as defined by the World Bank country classifications, 8 articles were written by authors in low- or middle-income countries, and 13 articles were collaborations between authors in HIC and LMIC. All of the articles selected except one from 1977 were published after 1998. Literature on global health ethics spiked considerably from the early 2000s, with the highest number in 2011. One hundred twenty-seven articles identified were published in academic journals, 1 document was an official training document, and 44 were chapters in published books. The dominant journals were the American Journal of Bioethics, Developing World Bioethics, and Bioethics. We coded the articles by level of engagement within the ethical domain at different levels: interpersonal, institutional, international, and structural. The ethical frameworks at use corresponded to four functional categories: those examining practical or narrowly applied ethical questions; those concerned with normative ethics; those examining an issue through a single philosophical tradition; and those comparing and contrasting insights from multiple ethical frameworks. This critical interpretive review is intended to delineate the current contours and revitalize the conversation around the future charge of global health ethics scholarship.

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