Astrobioethics is a branch of philosophy which considers the ethical ramifications of life beyond the confines of the Earth, and what sort of responsibilities and rights humans have in respect to extraterrestrial life. With advances in the sciences and technology proceeding at an incredibly rapid rate, astrobioethics became a valid field of inquiry in the early 21st century.
Bioethics was already a well-established branch of philosophy at the time that researchers started thinking about astrobioethics. Bioethics involves the contemplation of the ethical implications of advances in technology and science. For example, advances in medicine have allowed people to live much longer, and to pass down deleterious genes to future generations, two issues which have been topics of debate and discussion in the bioethics community. The advancement of knowledge often comes with complex ethical issues, which are sometimes only realized after the fact.
The study of astrobioethics accepts the possibility that there is life beyond the Earth, and that our interactions with such life could have profound ethical implications. As humans explore space, they may have an obligation to protect other forms of life, and to respect them, especially if complex intelligent life forms are ever discovered. The moral and ethical relationship between humans and extraterrestrial life is also important to consider as the possibility of studying life science in space becomes more probable.
Many humans today recognize the value of life on Earth, appreciating natural diversity both for aesthetic and practical reasons. In some areas, protective measures have been undertaken by the scientific community to protect vulnerable forms of life, such as endangered animals. Astrobioethicists believe that such measures may also be needed to protect extraterrestrial life; for example, probes sent from Earth into deep space should perhaps be constructed in a way which will avoid contamination of other life forms and societies.
Researchers in this field can approach astrobioethics from a number of perspectives. One is purely philosophical, integrating abstract philosophical concepts into the larger discussion of the issues involved. Another is more scientific in nature, with a focus on determining whether or not there is life somewhere in space, and what sort of form that life might take, with an eye to discussing the results of interacting with extraterrestrial life forms. Astrobioethics incorporates many concepts from Earth-bound bioethics, acknowledging the fact that many of the ethical issues remain the same, no matter where the life form comes from.