Why the history of nursing ethics matters

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Abstract

Modern American nursing has an extensive ethical heritage literature that extends from the 1870s to 1965 when the American Nurses Association issued a policy paper that called for moving nursing education out of hospital diploma programs and into colleges and universities. One consequence of this move was the dispersion of nursing libraries and the loss of nursing ethics textbooks, as they were largely not brought over into the college libraries. In addition to approximately 100 nursing ethics textbooks, the nursing ethics heritage literature also includes hundreds of journal articles that are often made less accessible in modern databases that concentrate on the past 20 or 30 years. A second consequence of nursing’s movement into colleges and universities is that ethics was no longer taught by nursing faculty, but becomes separated and placed as a discrete ethics (later bioethics) course in departments of philosophy or theology. These courses were medically identified and rarely incorporated authentic nursing content. This shift in nursing education occurs contemporaneously with the rise of the field of bioethics. Bioethics is rapidly embraced by nursing, and as it develops within nursing, it fails to incorporate the rich ethical heritage, history, and literature of nursing prior to the development of the field of bioethics. This creates a radical disjunction in nursing’s ethics; a failure to more adequately explore the moral identity of nursing; the development of an ethics with a lack of fit with nursing’s ethical history, literature, and theory; a neglect of nursing’s ideal of service; a diminution of the scope and richness of nursing ethics as social ethics; and a loss of nursing ethical heritage of social justice activism and education. We must reclaim nursing’s rich and capacious ethics heritage literature; the history of nursing ethics matters profoundly.

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