Bioethics is commonly considered to have its roots in the United States. Uncritical histories, such as Albert Jonsen’s The Birth of Bioethics, as well as critical histories, such as Renée Fox and Judith Swazey’s Observing Bioethics, tell the story of bioethics as a US-centric endeavour. Those writing histories of bioethics in other national contexts also agree with the premise that bioethics began in the United States and was subsequently adopted in other locations. Even scholars critical of the whole bioethical enterprise, such as Roger Cooter or Alan Petersen, leave untouched the idea that bioethics was birthed in the United States. For these latter scholars, this partly serves their critique that bioethics is an imperial and hegemonic force that has produced a global bioeconomy that serves the interests of US-based multi-national companies.
This paper questions the assumption that bioethics has a single-origin in the United States to which all other national manifestations can be traced. This is not merely a parochial exercise or naïve denial of US-influence on the field. Rather, I argue that greater appreciation of the historical contingencies and conditions through which bioethics emerged in different national contexts can shed light on way problems and corresponding solutions are framed differently and draw on different conceptual tools. Furthermore, being attentive to these historical differences can open up new ways of thinking about future challenges, especially in the face of a global bioeconomy.