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Theor Med Bioeth. 2009;30(4):311-21. doi: 10.1007/s11017-009-9103-7. Epub 2009 May 8.

On the biomedicalization of alcoholism.

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  • 1Department of Health, Ethics and Society/Metamedica, CAPHRI, Maastricht University, The Netherlands.


The shift in the prevailing view of alcoholism from a moral paradigm towards a biomedical paradigm is often characterized as a form of biomedicalization. We will examine and critique three reasons offered for the claim that viewing alcoholism as a disease is morally problematic. The first is that the new conceptualization of alcoholism as a chronic brain disease will lead to individualization, e.g., a too narrow focus on the individual person, excluding cultural and social dimensions of alcoholism. The second claim is that biomedicalization will lead to stigmatization and discrimination for both alcoholics and people who are at risk of becoming alcoholics. The third claim is that as a result of the biomedical point of view, the autonomy and responsibility of alcoholics and possibly even persons at risk may be unjustly restricted. Our conclusion is that the claims against the biomedical conceptualization of alcoholism as a chronic brain disease are neither specific nor convincing. Not only do some of these concerns also apply to the traditional moral model; above that they are not strong enough to justify the rejection of the new biomedical model altogether. The focus in the scientific and public debate should not be on some massive "biomedicalization objection" but on the various concerns underlying what is framed in terms of the biomedicalization of alcoholism.

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