The 21st Century Trolley

By Gali Katznelson

Here’s a 21st century twist on the classic ethics trolley dilemma: The trolley is a car, you are the passenger, and the car is driving itself. Should the autonomous car remain on its course, killing five people? Should the car swerve, taking down a different bystander while sparing the original five? Should the car drive off the road, and kill you, the passenger, instead? What if you’re pregnant? What if the bystander is pregnant? Or a child? Or holds the recipe to a cure for cancer?

The MIT Media Lab took this thought experiment out of the philosophy classroom by allowing users to test their moral judgements in a simulation. In this exercise, participants can decide which unavoidable harm an autonomous car must commit in difficult ethical scenarios such as those outlined above. The project is a poignant perversion of Philippa Foot’s famous 1967 trolley dilemma, not because it allows participants to evaluate their own judgements in comparison with other participants, but because it indicates that the thought experiment actually demands a solution. And fast.

Several companies including Google, Lyft, TeslaUber, and Mercedes-Benz are actively developing autonomous vehicles. Just last week the U.S. House of Representatives passed the SELF DRIVE (Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment And Research In Vehicle Evolution) Act unanimously. Among several provisions, the act allows the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to regulate a car’s design and construction, and designates states to regulate insurance, liability and licensing. It also paves the way for the testing by car manufacturers of 25 000 autonomous cars in the first year, and up to 100 000 cars within three years. Continue reading

Medicine and Ethics: Religious or Secular?

By Yusuf Lenfest

There is no lack of controversy when talking about religion and medicine in America today. Medicine is studied, practiced, and firmly rooted in the corporal world while religion draws inspiration from texts, traditions, and the incorporeal. Yet from an historical perspective, religious pasts do shape the present, particularly in the realm of ethics and moral reasoning. Indeed, whatever one’s spiritual or philosophical predilections, religion continues to play a major role in the dialogue on medicine and health care in Western society.

Bioethics in particular has become a topic of growing interest in America, but there has been little critical discussion about its contextual underpinnings, which stem largely from a Western Christian perspective. This is not to say that another religion would arrive at radically different system of morals. While differences do exist amongst religious traditions, across both space and time, experience and common sense tell us that diverse religious traditions do in fact share in much of the same moral principles and foundations. So what might other religious traditions say about, or contribute to, the discourse on bioethics? Should religion even be included in the conversation, especially given that health care and healing belong to the sphere of medicine?

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Perspectives on Cancer Drug Development Costs in JAMA

By James Love

Vinay Prasad and Sham Mailankody’s JAMA Internal Medicine study on the costs of research and development (R&D) when bringing a single cancer drug to market has sparked renewed discussion about how to measure R&D costs as well as the relationship between R&D costs and prices. What follows is my perspective on the Prasad/Mailankody (PM) paper, how it compares to DiMasi’s widely quoted 2016 study, and on the debate in general.  Continue reading

IRBs Advise Physician Involvement in Informed Consent

By Nadia N. Sawicki

Much has been written about the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania’s recent decision in Shinal v. Toms, in which the court held that a physician’s duty to obtain informed consent, as codified in Pennsylvania’s MCARE Act, is non-delegable. According to the court, a physician faced with an informed consent suit cannot defend himself on the grounds that the patient was adequately informed of the risks and benefits of treatment by a physician assistant, nurse, or other intermediary acting under the physician’s direction. Pennsylvania is not the first state to adopt this view – courts in other jurisdictions (Connecticut, Louisiana, South Dakota, Texas, New Mexico) have similarly held that the duty to secure informed consent rests with the treating physician alone.

The MCARE (Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Error) Act was passed in 2002 to reform Pennsylvania’s medical malpractice laws, and refers to the duties and rights of “physicians” and “patients.” Shinal, likewise, addressed the issue of informed consent in the context of medical treatment. Thus, I was very surprised to learn that some commercial institutional review boards (IRBs), in reliance on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision, have been advising clinical trial investigators to revise their consent forms and processes to ensure that physician-investigators – and not recruitment coordinators, nurses, or other study staff – secure the consent of research participants.

Schulman, one of the most well-known commercial IRBs, recently posted about the Shinal case on its website; while noting that the case focused on medical malpractice “and does not address consent in the research context,” it advised investigators to “discuss with their legal counsel the impact of this decision on their consent process.” Sterling IRB had a similar post, advising investigators to “consider drafting consent form updates to clearly require that only physician members of the research team may obtain informed consent from a research subject.” In an e-mail that went directly to investigators and study staff, Sterling also suggested that they submit updated consent forms that “make clear that the only person who can obtain consent is the PI/physician.” A recent article in the Journal of Clinical Research Best Practice, titled “What Impact will the Shinal Case have on Informed Consent in Clinical Research?,” offered a more detailed analysis of the case, and concluded that “there is little to suggest that courts would not uniformly apply the same informed consent standards used in the medical practice to clinical research.” Continue reading

Book Launch: Law, Religion, and Health in the United States

Book Launch: Law, Religion, and Health in the United States
September 27, 2017 12:00 PM
Wasserstein Hall, Milstein West A (2019)
Harvard Law School, 1585 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA

In July 2017, Cambridge University Press will publish Law, Religion, and Health in the United States, co-edited by outgoing Petrie-Flom Center Executive Director Holly Fernandez Lynch, Faculty Director I. Glenn Cohen, and Elizabeth Sepper, Professor of Law at Washington University School of Law. This edited volume stems from the Center’s 2015 annual conference, which brought together leading experts to identify the various ways in which law intersects with religion and health care in the United States, examine the role of law in creating or mediating conflict between religion and health care, and explore potential legal solutions to allow religion and health care to simultaneously flourish in a culturally diverse nation.

About the book: While the law can create conflict between religion and health, it can also facilitate religious accommodation and protection of conscience. Finding this balance is critical to addressing the most pressing questions at the intersection of law, religion, and health in the United States: should physicians be required to disclose their religious beliefs to patients? How should we think about institutional conscience in the health care setting? How should health care providers deal with families with religious objections to withdrawing treatment? In this timely book, experts from a variety of perspectives and disciplines offer insight on these and other pressing questions, describing what the public discourse gets right and wrong, how policymakers might respond, and what potential conflicts may arise in the future. It should be read by academics, policymakers, and anyone else – patient or physician, secular or devout – interested in how US law interacts with health care and religion.

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