Bioethics in the Antipodes: A historical perspective from Australia and New Zealand

Christopher Mayes1

1 Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine, 92-94 Parramatta Rd, University of Sydney, NSW, 2006.

Australian and New Zealand bioethics is often assumed to share a similar history to American or British bioethics. Yet the emergence of bioethical debates over reproduction, euthanasia, the nature of moral authority in secular liberal democracy, and the role of advocacy had a distinctly “antipodean” character. As a relatively young field of inquiry, bioethics emerged in the 1980s at the intersection of the university, medical industry, medical profession, scientific research, religious organizations, feminist movement, legal profession and government. Some of the most prominent philosophers and public intellectuals participated in public debate and government inquiries over reproductive technologies, abortion, euthanasia and stem cell research. To date, the history of these developments has not been extensively examined. A comprehensive history is clearly beyond the scope of a single paper. Rather the aim is to plot pivotal developments of bioethics in Australia and New Zealand and ask what problems, concepts, theories and approaches have been institutionalised and what have been marginalized. This paper aims to advance understanding of the distinctive contribution of Australian and New Zealand bioethics and its unique history that is tied to the advancement of biotechnology industries, growth of the neoliberal university and debates about secularism and the role for academic-activism.


Christopher Mayes is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine, University of Sydney. Christopher’s research interests are in continental philosophy, bioethics, public health and food studies.

His latest book ‘The Biopolitics of Lifestyle: Foucault, Ethics and Health Choices’ (Routledge, 2015) investigates the use of ‘lifestyle’ as a device through which choices and behaviours are governed in response to the purported obesity epidemic.

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