Curriculum for the Master of Arts in Bioethics

Curriculum for the Master of Arts in Bioethics

Core Courses

Students take three core courses (9 credits) focused on the philosophical foundation of the interdisciplinary field of bioethics: Philosophy of Medicine, Theoretical Foundations of Applied Ethics, and either Bioethics or Bioethics and Law.

Philosophy of Medicine

This seminar examines philosophical issues that arise in conceptualizing the aims and practices of medicine and medical science within broader cultural contexts. It integrates such fundamental concepts as health, illness, disease, pain, and care; examines relevant modes of reasoning and paradigms of knowledge; explores the role of narrativity, argument, and image systems in the internal and external understandings of medicine; and considers ways that medical knowledge and understanding relate to other domains of knowledge and culture. The seminar attempts to understand the tensions that arise when medicine is viewed as both a domain of patient care and a field of research, and when it is seen as implicating both individual and social responsibilities, and as ministering to both body and mind. There are common readings and short writing assignments for each class meeting, as well as a final paper.

Theoretical Foundations of Applied Ethics

This text-based, discussion-oriented course surveys major ethical theories and their relation to applied ethics, especially bioethics and health policy. Students examine ethical theories such as consequentialism, duty-based theories, rights-based theories, contractarianism, virtue ethics, and casuistry. Readings include selections by Mill, Kant, Rawls, Williams, Smart, Jonsen and Toulmin, Pellegrino and Thomasma, and Baier. This course addresses various questions about ethical theory and applied ethics, such as:

What are the major ethical theories?
What are the criteria for assessing competing ethical theories?
What is the relation between ethical theory and applied ethics?


This seminar introduces students to foundational topics, classic texts, key methods, and normative assumptions of the field of bioethics.  In addition to being exposed to these aspects of the field, students are asked to think critically about them.  The course proceeds topically and, in some respects, chronologically.  It begins with an examination of informed consent, which has become a cornerstone doctrine of bioethics, and proceeds by considering other topics in relation to this doctrine and the assumptions and values that ground it. 

Bioethics and Law

LAW 5464

This course introduces a variety of dilemmas in biomedical ethics brought about primarily by innovative techniques and technologies that the biomedical sciences have developed such as artificial reproductive technologies, genetic screening and engineering, and life support systems. Many of these dilemmas are not currently or clearly regulated by law. This course will consider the role of law and legal institutions in creating a framework to address the legal, ethical and social issues that arise as a result of these medical and technological advances. Topics covered include informed consent, the right to refuse medical treatment (including life-sustaining treatment), physician assisted suicide, advance directives, brain death, organ transplantation, sterilization, abortion, assisted reproduction, stem cell research, cloning, genetics, and regulation of research.

Clinical Practica

Clinical Practicum I

In this intensive course students observe and analyze ethical and health law issues as they arise in two clinical settings in University hospitals: an intensive care unit (ICU) and a medical unit. Students spend ~20 hours/week, allocated across two mornings and one full day per week, observing in the clinical setting. They accompany physicians and other healthcare professionals on clinical rounds, observe family meetings or ethics consultations, and attend one or more ethics committee meetings. Students participate in the seminar that accompanies the observational experience. It affords students the opportunity to analyze their experience and the issues they observe, to augment their experience by learning from the experience of others, and to gain support regarding aspects of the clinical setting that are emotionally challenging. The seminar usually requires a case presentation, a written case analysis, maintenance of a journal or field notes of the clinical experience, and submission of those field notes for review and comment.

Clinical Practicum II

This second practicum allows students to observe clinical practice in a healthcare context related to their thesis research and to have an intensive month-long experience in that setting. In recent years, students have chosen case management and social work, ethics committees and consultation, genetic counseling, geriatrics, HIV clinic, hospital legal counsel offices, the institutional review board (IRB), obstetrics, oncology, pain management, pediatrics, psychiatry (both intake or emergency departments and wards), or surgery. With guidance from the program director and their thesis advisor, students design their practicum experience to serve their interests and propose particular aims for their experience. They then meet regularly with Center or clinical faculty to discuss their observations and to relate their experience to relevant literature, course work, and their own research.

Restricted Electives

Students choose one elective from a list of “restricted elective” courses. Courses placed on this list examine ethical issues related to a particular area of healthcare or embodied experience in greater depth than the Bioethics core course, or employ a particular disciplinary perspective to explore issues in medicine and research. Recently offered restricted electives have included:

  • Bioethics and Health Law
  • Ethical Issues in Clinical and Public Health Genetics
  • Feminist Theory
  • Gender, Ethics, and the Body
  • Historical and Sociological Perspectives in Public Health
  • Medical Anthropology
  • Mental Health Law
  • Public Health Law
  • Queer Theory
  • Research Ethics


The remaining coursework is completed in electives approved by the program director. Students work with the program director and their thesis advisor to ensure that their particular needs are met. Students may take a Special Topics in Bioethics or Directed Reading in Bioethics course, or may identify relevant elective courses from various departments and schools of the University, including: 

In addition, through the Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education, full-time students may take courses at ten consortium-affiliated colleges and universities, including Carnegie Mellon University, Duquesne University, and the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

Thesis Research

The capstone experience of the MA Program in Bioethics is the MA Thesis Project. Students develop a research proposal under the guidance of a primary faculty advisor, defend that proposal before a committee of at least three faculty, and then proceed to research and write their thesis paper. They work closely with their committee members and defend the final product before their committee. Students have frequently published articles based on this research. Students sometimes pursue empirical research projects; however, most engage in nonempirical scholarly research. Students may enroll in up to 6 credits related to their MA Thesis Research (BIOETH 2095, 2096, 2097).