History of Medicine


An Open Access Journal

The origins of the Russian National Committee on Bioethics: historical, sociocultural and political contexts

Vitaly V. Tikhonov1, 2
1The Institute of Russian History of the Russian Academy of Sciences
19 Dmitry Ulyanov St., Moscow 117292, Russia
2Privolzhsky Research Medical University of the Ministry of Health of Russia
10/1 Minin and Pozharsky Sq., Nizhny Novgorod 603005, Russia

This article identifies and analyses the historical, sociocultural and political background to the establishment of the Russian National Committee on Bioethics. Soviet society was dominated by “scientific optimism”. While bioethics in the West was institutionalized as a distinct area of research as the downsides of progress in science and technology were recognised, in the USSR this was impeded by ideological constraints. Nevertheless, Ivan Frolov and Boris Yudin worked on problems of the impact of science and technology on society from the perspective of bioethics. In the years of perestroika, against the backdrop of a change in the ideological and intellectual atmosphere, problems including environmental issues and those directly related to bioethics were discussed in public more and more. At the same time, bioethics was being institutionalised. For example, the International Association of Bioethics was established in 1990, and Soviet scientists were invited to join it. This required establishing a Soviet national committee, which Frolov set about organising. On the basis of archive material, this article provides a detailed analysis of a meeting of the Presidium of the Soviet Academy of Sciences on 29 October 1991, which proved to be a landmark event in the history of bioethics in Russia. This meeting revealed two things: that the Presidium’s scientists were poorly informed about bioethical issues, and that public interest in such issues was growing. As such, general trends in the development of science, and an understanding of the social and humanitarian challenges went hand in hand with the emergence of a more questioning society and political liberalisation in the wake of perestroika. In terms of the social history of science, the crisis of consciousness in Soviet society in the late 1980s, when it became possible to speak of its backwardness in many areas of life, including those directly related to bioethics, also played a certain role. In addition, the development of the field of bioethics in Russia was due in no small part to the initiative shown by Academician Frolov.

Keywords: bioethics, Russian National Committee on Bioethics, I.T. Frolov, history of science, history of medicine


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