From Westworld to U.S. Prisons: Reframing the Debate on the Right to Health

Is there a “Right to Health?” For many countries in the world, including Latin American countries like Brazil, the answer is easily in the affirmative. Similarly, in the hit HBO show Westworld, the “hosts” (androids on the verge of discovering consciousness) also possess a right to health. How so? Despite atrocious cruelty the human “guests” constantly inflict upon them, the company that runs Westworld maintains a highly extensive, functional “universal health care system” that employs the latest medical technologies for androids to take care of any health problems of all damaged hosts. The efficiency of the system is breathtaking: a cowboy host with 20 bullet wounds and a broken arm could be fully restored overnight; when the sun rises the next morning, the host returns to the simulated reality as if nothing happened.

Of course, the right to health in Westworld is not a result of democratic deliberations or judicial activism that invokes the UDHR or related treaty obligations. Instead, it originates in the sheer necessity of running a seamless alternate reality that requires good maintenance of the hosts, whom the Board depend on to please the guests and maximize the company’s profits. In other words, the physical wellbeing of the hosts is intrinsically tied to the functioning of the entire Westworld machinery and its profitability. Fixing them quickly and adequately allows them to return to their respective, pre-determined roles in a complex narrative with countless plots and subplot twists meticulously designed by their human masters. Continue reading

Ireland’s Abortion Referendum and Medical Care in Pregnancy

By Clíodhna Ní Chéileachair

This week, Ireland made international headlines as the governing political party announced a date-range for a referendum on the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution, the provision which recognizes a fetal right to life, and places it on an equal footing to the right to life of the woman carrying the fetus. The move wasn’t a surprise to Irish voters – the referendum had been promised by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar since his election last June, and comes after decades of protest and organization by a multitude of activist groups, protesting what they view as an archaic, unworkable and agency-destroying constitutional provision that has led to the exporting of abortion care for Irish woman to the UK and Netherlands, and the deaths of women in Ireland. The implications of the Eighth Amendment for access to abortion care are obvious enough – it is illegal in almost all cases. Less prominent has been the pronounced effect that this constitutional ban on abortion has had for medical treatment and care in pregnancy, where the doctor involved is, constitutionally speaking, treating two patients with equal rights to life.

The only scenario in which an abortion in Ireland is legally permissible is in cases where the woman’s life is at risk from the continuance of the pregnancy. In all other cases, including cases where the fetus is non-viable, where the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, or where the fetus will risk the health of the woman, but not her life, abortion is illegal. Criminal punishment for illegally procuring an abortion runs to a prison term of 14 years, which includes doctors who provide illegal treatment. Women who can afford it travel to the United Kingdom to avail of abortion services there, but doctors in Ireland cannot legally refer their patients to clinics in the UK, even in cases where continuing the pregnancy risks the health of the woman. It is unknown how many women have ended a pregnancy with illegal, imported abortion pills.

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Book Review: “Into the Gray Zone” by Adrian Owen

By Leslie C. Griffin

I recommend neuroscientist Adrian Owen’s new book, Into the Gray Zone. The “gray zone” refers to patients who undergo such traumatic brain injury that they are diagnosed as vegetative, minimally conscious, comatose, or in other medical states where they aren’t fully present. Owen’s career has been devoted to getting full access to their brains through various forms of brain testing.

The author nimbly combines scientific, philosophical and personal approaches to brain injury. He repeatedly details the scientific means that allowed him to start and extend his career. We learn about his use of PET (positron-emission tomography) and then his move to fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging).

Kate was the first patient whose consciousness he recognized through PET scans. Kate—surprisingly—recovered, and later wrote to Owen, asking him to use her case to show others that they too could be discovered despite their illness. Owen “felt an enduring, close connection with Kate, something that had a profound influence on me and my work; she was always Patient #1, always the person I’d refer to when I gave lectures about how this journey began” (p. 37).  Continue reading