Ethical Implications of Biohacking as Activism: Democratized Health Care, Danger, or What?


Biohacking refers to optimizing one’s body through modifying biology. In the 20th century, do-it-yourself (DIY) biology emerged as a type of biohacking involving biotechnology. Current high-healthcare costs promote DIY biology insulin and EpiPens as ways to challenge norms in healthcare, thus serving as forms of activism. Biohacked insulin is part of the #WeAreNotWaiting movement to support improved treatment of Type 1 diabetes, whereas biohacked EpiPens allow people to make lifesaving autoinjectors at low costs. Social media acts as a catalyst and aids in the spread of insulin and EpiPen biohacking as activism. In 1979, Principles of Biomedical Ethics by Beauchamp and Childress proposed four principles that continue to guide decision-making in clinical medicine: beneficence, nonmaleficence, autonomy, and justice. This paper applies these principles to explore whether the benefits of performing DIY biology outweigh the potential health risks. Examining biohacking with a biomedical ethics frame, as outlined by Beauchamp and Childress, reveals that biohacking acts as a response to current issues but cannot serve as a solution in its current form. However, biohacking can grant patients more power in their relationship with the healthcare system, therefore lessening the dominance of formal institutions. Out of the four principles, autonomy applies most differently when regarding biohacking than traditional medicine. Accordingly, a model of ethics for biohacking, such as of Beauchamp and Childress’ with the autonomy altered to acknowledge the additional implications of biohacking, should be developed in the future.
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