Kerridge I, Lowe M, Stewart C.
Sydney: The Federation Press; 2013.
1232 pages

This book is an extraordinary undertaking that, against the odds, succeeds in providing a comprehensive, entertaining and readable introduction to the key issues in contemporary bioethical theory and law. It offers health professionals an impressive and valuable resource of almost breathtaking ambition and scope.

The first challenge the authors had to address in writing this work was how to define bioethics. This is a controversial issue because what constitutes the boundaries of the discipline is disputed, the possible list of topics and philosophical perspectives from which to consider them is very extensive and there are deep disagreements about the relationship between bioethics and law. In response to this uncertainty they have chosen the broadest possible approach, covering all the major extant philosophical theories, key concepts, areas of clinical practice and subjects raising ethical issues in research and public policy.

Familiar topics such as end-of-life issues, consent, competency, truth telling and confidentiality and privacy are well treated. Specific topics arising in relation to nursing, students, indigenous issues, children, the elderly and mental illness are usefully addressed, and there are extensive sections on ethical issues associated with new technologies, genetics and public and global health.

An especially welcome feature is the extension of the discussion to include contemporary debates about non-human animals and the environment. In all cases, the ethical and legal issues are discussed in a complementary manner, with clarity, precision and at times even humour. Indeed, the jargon-free style of presentation is one of the book's most striking attributes.

This is not to say that the book is without problems or limitations. The sheer size of the project makes it inevitable that many issues and philosophical theories are treated in a rudimentary, sometimes superficial, manner. This makes the discussion at times uneven, with some topics – such as consent and competency – being treated in authoritative detail in relation both to legal and ethical theory. Other topics – such as the presentation of some contemporary philosophical works – remain excessively brief and schematic.

It is possible that this may confuse and even frustrate some readers. However, it is always open to those who object to brief summaries of large and complex areas of thought to overcome the problem the hard way – by going back to the primary literature itself. Even here it can be argued that the mere provision of a summary and reading list will help facilitate access to unfamiliar, specialist areas of ethical and legal theory for many readers in the healthcare professions who would not otherwise come into contact with them.

Health workers new to bioethics will find this book a convenient and readable introduction, and those already familiar with the field will find it a useful, up-to-date guide to the rapidly expanding contemporary literature.

Paul Komesaroff is Chair of the Editorial Board of the Journal of Bioethical Inquiry