“It is one of the most powerful tools our species has created. It helps doctors fight disease. It can predict global weather patterns. It improves education for children everywhere. And now, we unleash it…on your taxes.”
Super Bowl 2017 was an absolute cracker. My passport is not American and my accent is not Bostonian, but somewhere amidst the drama and the crowd and the cheesy nachos, I was drawn in and hooked. I roared and gasped and choked on cheap beer all the way to that nail-biting finish. Go Pats.
But, as it was my very first Super Bowl, I was told to keep an eye on the ads. Sure enough, they were hilarious, inspiring, maddening and perplexing by turn. One of them, however, hit me harder than Keanu Neal.
This ad, from H&R Block, announced that they will be using IBM’s Watson to deliver their services. Watson is, perhaps, the most impressive artificial intelligence that our species has yet produced. H&R Block is a consumer tax services provider.
In January of this year, Cell published a study modestly titled, Interspecies Chimerism with Mammalian Pluripotent Stem Cells. It reports success bioengineering a mostly-pig partly-human embryo. One day before, Nature published a report that scientists had grown (for lack of a better word) a functioning genetically-mouse pancreas within the body of a genetically-modified rat. The latest study raises the likelihood that before long, it will also be scientifically possible to grow human organs within bioengineered pigs.
The implications for transplantation are tremendous. But hold the applause for now. Imagine a chimera with a brain made up of human neurons which expressed human genes. Would organ procurement without consent be okay? That troubling possibility raises questions about whether manufacturing chimeras with human-like properties for organs is even appropriate in the first place. Here’s what University of Montreal bioethicist Vardit Ravitsky told the Washington Post:
“I think the point of these papers is sort of a proof of principle, showing that what researchers intend to achieve with human-non-human chimeras might be possible … The more you can show that it stands to produce something that will actually save lives … the more we can demonstrate that the benefit is real, tangible and probable — overall it shifts the scale of risk-benefit assessment, potentially in favor of pursuing research and away from those concerns that are more philosophical and conceptual.”
I respectfully disagree. Saving more lives, of course, is good. Basic science is also valuable – even more so if it might translate to the bedside. This line of research, though, is positioned to upend our entire system of transplantation, and so its implications go beyond organ supply. In this post I will argue that to assess this technology’s implications for organ procurement in particular, there is good reason to focus on harms, not benefits. Continue reading →
On Sunday, HBO’s Westworld finished its run. Though I thought some of the early episodes were arguably a bit of a failure as television (and my partner almost jumped off the bandwagon of making this one of “our shows”) IMHO the show finished very strong.
But whatever you thought of it as television, the show is wildly successful at raising a series of bioethics issues. There have been a bunch of other very good treatments of some of these issues in the last couple of decades – A.I., Ex Machina, Humans, Battlestar Galactica all come to mind – that touch on some of these issues. But, what I loved about Westworld is its lack of direct moralizing on these subjects, and how it leaves the viewer puzzling through them in a much more naturalistic way: I have been thrust in this unfamiliar world, and now I am trying to use my ethical compass to get my bearings.
Once upon a time I discussed Bioethics and the Martian, and my aim is to do the same here. I thought one way to share why I think the show is so successful as a text for bioethics exploration was to develop a “mock exam question” on the subject. This is really written more like an oral exam, with follow-up questions. The goal is not entirely fanciful since I do teach a course that uses films as texts to explore bioethics and the law.
This past week week I attended the International Neuroethics Society’s (INS) annual conference in San Diego, California. Neuroethics is multidisciplinary field that grapples with the implications of neuroscience for—and from—medicine, law, philosophy, and the social sciences. One of the many excellent panels brought together scholars from each of these four disciplines to discuss the diverse approaches to the field. The panel featured; Paul Appelbaum, a Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University; Tom Buller, Chair of philosophy at Illinois State University; Jennifer Chandler, Professor of law at the University of Ottawa, and; Ilina Singh, Professor of Neuroscience & Society at the University of Oxford.
The panel started by considering the importance of the “competing identities” present in the field of neuroethics. As moderator Eric Racine explained, right from the start, even the term ‘neuroethics’ suggests a tension. Consider the variety of research methodologies employed in the field. For instance, a scholar trained in philosophy might approach neuroscience from a conceptual and purely analytical basis, and yet a social scientist might research the same question by collecting empirical interview data. The interplay between empirical and theoretical work was a theme that defined the discussion.
A psychiatrist by training, Dr. Applebaum spoke on the medical approach to the field. He argued that a focus on ethical issues in clinical psychiatry and neurology should be viewed as a part (but only a part) of neuroethics. Furthermore, medicine’s empirical approach to neuroethics is one (but not the only) way to advance thinking on neuroethical issues. Continue reading →
Neuroscientist John Cacioppo, who has spent much of his career working on loneliness, defines “loneliness” as “perceived social isolation.” Similarly, Masi, et al. (following Russell, et al. 1980) define “loneliness” as “the discrepancy between a person’s desired and actual social relationships.” As Masi, et al., point out, there is a distinction to be made between loneliness, on the one hand, and social isolation, on the other, although the two phenomena may indeed often go together. Whereas social isolation “reflects an objective measure of social interactions and relationships,” loneliness “reflects perceived social isolation or outcast.” Following Peplau & Perlman 1982 and Wheeler, et al. 1983, they go on to point out that “loneliness is more closely associated with the quality than the number of relationships.” (It’s important and timely to note that the 2016 Nobel Laureate in Literature, Bob Dylan, brought out one application of this conceptual distinction in his song, “Marchin’ to the City,” when he sang: “Loneliness got a mind of its own / The more people around the more you feel alone.”)
The health risks posed by loneliness are several and can be severe. Loneliness can contribute to increased risk of coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. In a 2016 systematic review and meta-analysis in Heart, Valtorta, et al., reported that “poor social relationships were associated with a 29% increase in risk of incident CHD [coronary heart disease] and a 32% increase in risk of stroke.” And in a March 2015 meta-analysis in Perspectives on Psychological Science, Holt-Lunstad, et al., reported that a substantial body of evidence supports the following two claims:
Loneliness puts one at greater risk for premature mortality. In particular, “the increased likelihood of death was 26% for reported loneliness, 29% for social isolation, and 32% for living alone.”
The heightened risk for mortality due to “a lack of social relationships” (whether reported loneliness, social isolation, or living alone) is greater than the risk due to obesity.
This is the first time this particular technique has been used to produce a live, but I am not sure from an ethical standpoint the arguments are all that different. That said, for those deeply interested in the more philosophical question of harm to children and the propriety of best interests argument in light of Parfit’s Non-Identity Problem (my take here and here) it may matter whether mitochondrial replacement is done through Pronuclear Transfer or Maternal Spindle Transfer as argued quite well here.
The fact that the doctors are from New York, the Patients are from Jordan, and the procedure took place in Mexico is not insignificant. This is a form of medical tourism, a topic I wrote a book on, most similar to cases of fertility and stem cell therapy tourism I cover in the latter half of the book. Absent making domestic prohibitions extraterritorial, something that I argue is permitted by international law and justified in some instances, there is very little that a home country can do about this. The going abroad is likely in part at least a function of some U.S. laws on the subject Eli Adashi and I wrote about for JAMA prohibiting FDA from considering approval of the technology.
As I wrote on this blog in February in relation to the IOM report “whatever the US policy in a world where medical tourism is possible and other countries adopt their own systems, so long as not everyone adopts the approach of the US some of these problems will manifest no matter what. So this is about harm reduction not harm avoidance.” This was a bit quicker than even I thought, but is not surprising. More generally if your concern about MRT is harm to offspring and transmission to future generations, people born elsewhere through the technology will inevitably enter the United States and/or marry, and procreate with U.S. citizens who themselves become U.S. citizens. To sound a bit X-Files about it “THEY WILL BE AMONG US!” This is a great example of the limits of unilateral regulation in a world of globalized health care.
Interesting that it was a male birth. This may be coincidence or in keeping with the IOM recommendation that only male embryos be transferred (to get rid of germ line transmission). Eli Adashi and I raised some ethical questions in Nature about whether that was an ethically problematic form of sex selection or not but in the reporting I have seen so far it has not been clear that they used only male embryos on purpose.
I wish we could stop calling it in the media “Three Parent IVF” or “Three Parent Reproduction.” That assumes the answer to what I think of as a subtle and interesting set of questions — is the mitochondrial donor a “parent” and what sense of the word do we mean.
The Oxford Union Debating Society at Oxford University has published full video of its DNA Manipulation Debate, filmed on May 26. The Motion under debate was, “This House Believes the Manipulation of Human DNA is an Ethical Necessity.” Oxford billed its DNA Manipulation Debate as “historic” in a year when rapid advances in gene editing and genome synthesis suddenly confront humans with the possibility of being able to write, edit, re-write, and ultimately control their own genetic destinies.
The team supporting the Motion was led by Sir Ian Wilmut, famous for cloning Dolly the Sheep and now Chair of the Scottish Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, and included Oxford’s noted moral philosopher Julian Savulescu and Oxford student debater Lynda Troung, a fast-rising star in RNA research.
The team opposing the Motion included Dr. Norman Fost, professor emeritus of pediatrics and director of the medical ethics program at the University of Wisconsin; Professor Barbara Evans, Director of the Center for Biotechnology & Law at the University of Houston Law Center and a frequent participant in Petrie-Flom conferences; and Oxford student debater Dr. Rahul Gandhi, a young medical doctor and monk focusing on rural healthcare, who is pursuing an MBA at Oxford this year as a prelude to seeking an MPH at Harvard next year.
Mass incarceration’s invisible casualties are women and children. Too often, they are the forgotten in a tragic American tale that distinguishes the United States from all peer nations. Simply put, the U.S. incarcerates more of its population than anywhere else in the world–and by staggering contrast. While the U.S. locks away over 700 men and women for every 100,000, here are comparable figures from our peer nations: England (153 in 100,000), France (96 in 100,000), Germany (85 in 100,000), Italy (111 in 100,000), and Spain (159, in 100,000). The U.S. accounts for less than 5% of the globes population, yet locks away nearly 25%. Sadly, this has grave social, medical, psychological, and economic consequences.
In a recent essay, published in the Texas Law Review, I explained that, the population of women in prison grew by 832% in the period between 1977-2007—nearly twice the rate as men during that same period. More conservative estimates suggest that the rate of incarceration of women grew by over 750% during the past three decades. This staggering increase now results in more than one million incarcerated in prison, jail, or tethered to the criminal justice system as a parolee or probationer in the U.S. The Bureau of Justice Statistics underscores the problem, explaining in a “Special Report” that “[s]ince 1991, the number of children with a mother in prison has more than doubled, up 131%,” while “[t]he number of children with a father in prison has grown [only] by 77%.” Continue reading →
My last post was a summary of the NAM’s Recommendations on Mitochondrial Replacement Therapy (MRT). Now here is my take on the report. But keep in mind the report was just released and all I could give it was a quick read, so these are really more like initial impressions: Continue reading →
The right to health has played a significant role in global health fora since the World Health Organization first identified the “enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health” as a “fundamental right of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition” in 1946. Twenty years later, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) would set out the right to health in a binding international instrument. Subsequent guidance in 2000 from the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, referred to as General Comment 14, clarified the content of the right to health, as well as articulated four elements—availability, accessibility, acceptability, and quality—that constitute the right.
Despite widespread support in the international community, the U.S. has not ratified the ICESCR. Many have argued that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is doubtless a significant step toward realization of the right to health in the U.S. Indeed, its design speaks directly, to varying degrees, to each of the four elements of the right to health. While I acknowledge the significance of the ACA in advancing the right to health in the U.S., there are at least three reasons to doubt its ability to fully advance the right. Continue reading →
Imagine you had 10 million dollars to spend to save the life of one person whose name you knew or 10,000 whose name you didn’t? How would you spend it? What would you think of a government policy that chose to save the 1 person rather than the 10,000? I would think pretty badly of such a government, but that’s exactly what happens in some popular new movies. And the expectation of the filmmakers (and my own take on audience reaction) is that the audience cheers.
First, The Martian (spoiler alert) where America spends tens of millions and diverts the entirety of the space program to bring back one man left behind on Mars. Second, the new movie 33, which I have not seen yet but is based on a true story involving the successful attempt to save 33 Chilean miners trapped in a mine collapse at a huge financial cost. Continue reading →
Dutee Chand is an Indian athlete that has been in the focus of a recent drama in elite sport. Chand, a gifted athlete and champion, was suspended from participating in competitions by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), after she was found to have high levels of testosterone. A biological condition called “hyperandrogenism” caused Chand to have three times more testosterone than an average woman athlete, similar to that of men. Chand was given the unappealing alternative of undergoing surgery and hormonal treatments meant to “normalize” her so she could race again, or turning to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), she chose the latter.
One would think that in a world in which men and women’s sports are so profoundly separated, distinguishing between male and female athletes would be a no-brainer. Well, it’s not like that at all. Chand’s case can be traced along a history of similar episodes in which female athletes (like South African runner Caster Semanya and others) were suspected for not being “true females,” having to undergo medical scrutiny in order to conclude on the matter. This ambiguity is not special to athletes. It even has a name – “intersex,” an umbrella term describing a range of conditions in which the person’s sex cannot be conclusively determined. To read more on intersex variations click here.
My last post presented the debate over force feeding hunger striking prisoners in Israel. This post will discuss another group subjected to the dramatic means of force feeding in extreme circumstances, Anorexia Nervosa patients (AN).
Although ethical justifications for force-feeding are similar for both Anorexics and Hunger strikers (save life), the legal framework is completely different in each context. Whereas hunger striking prisoners were dealt with via ad-hoc legislation meant to answer national security threats, AN patients are handled within the framework of mental health law. In the U.S., compulsory hospitalization of mental patients occurs through the state’s Civil Commitment Laws, which require dangerousness resulting from a mental illness to be evaluated by a psychiatrist.
Is the different legal attitude justified? How is it that the same act performed by prisoners is viewed as a political assertion but when done predominantly by adolescent middle-upper class girls, it is considered mental illness?
The Rubio-Huckabee claim that actual and legal personhood start at conception has drawn trenchant responses from Art Caplan on the medical uncertainty of such a claim and David Orentlicher, drawing on Judith Thomson’s famous article, that even if a fetus is a person, woman would not necessarily have a duty to keep it in her body.
Their debate claim that the fetus is already a legal person under the constitution also deserves a response, for it has no basis in positive law. In Roe v. Wade all nine justices agreed that the use of “person” in the Constitution always assumed a born person, and therefore that the 14th Amendment’s mention of person did not confer constitutional rights until after a live birth. In the years since Roe, when the make-up of the court has changed, no justice has ever disagreed with that conclusion, including those who would overturn Roe and Casey. Continue reading →
By Frank Pasquale, Professor of Law, University of Maryland Carey School of Law
Many thanks to Amanda for the opportunity to post as a guest in this symposium. I was thinking more about neuroethics half a decade ago, and my scholarly agenda has, since then, focused mainly on algorithms, automation, and health IT. But there is an important common thread: The unintended consequences of technology. With that in mind, I want to discuss a context where the measurement of pain (algometry?) might be further algorithmatized or systematized, and if so, who will be helped, who will be harmed, and what individual and social phenomena we may miss as we focus on new and compelling pictures.
Some hope that better pain measurement will make legal disability or damages determinations more scientific. Identifying a brain-based correlate for pain that otherwise lacks a clearly medically-determinable cause might help deserving claimants win recognition for their suffering as disabling. But the history of “rationalizing” disability and welfare determinations is not encouraging. Such steps have often been used to exclude individuals from entitlements, on flimsy grounds of widespread shirking. In other words, a push toward measurement is more often a cover for putting a suspect class through additional hurdles than it is toward finding and helping those viewed as deserving.
Of Disability, Malingering, and Interpersonal Comparisons of Disutility (read on for more)
A new opinion piece by contributor Art Caplan along with Stephen Wall and Carolyn Plunkett, in JAMA:
In the United States, the majority of deaths occur unexpectedly, outside hospitals or in emergency departments. Rarely do these deaths provide opportunities for organ donation. In Europe, unexpected deaths provide substantial numbers of transplantable organs through uncontrolled donation after circulatory determination of death (UDCDD). UDCDD considers decedents candidates for donation even when death is unexpected, regardless of location, as long as preservation begins after all life-sustaining efforts have been exhausted.
More than 124 000 patients are wait-listed for organs in the United States, a number that increases annually despite attrition from 10 500 who die or become too sick for transplantation.1 United States policy currently promotes organ recovery from 3 sources; neurologic deaths, controlled circulatory deaths, and live donors for kidneys and partial livers.
However, these approaches are incapable of meeting increasing US demand for transplants. During controlled donation after circulatory determination of death (CDCDD), the time from cessation of life support to circulatory arrest often exceeds 60 minutes. Prolonged hypotension leads to irreparable organ damage, thus limiting the effect of CDCDD on organ supply. Live donation primarily affects kidney supply; it is unlikely that altruistic donation will ever meet demand. Although many changes in public policy regarding cadaveric donation are debated (markets and presumed consent), none is likely to become law or make substantial differences in organ supply. […]
This paper is likely to piss off people both on the Left and the Right of the abortion issue, which I think of as a feature not a bug ;), but in any event I hope will prompt a good conversation. Here is the abstract:
There was a moment in the 2012 campaign, when Mitt Romney attempted to “pivot” to the center and get away from the statements of those like Todd Akin who made comments about how in cases of “legitimate rape,” the victims’ bodies “have ways to try and shut that whole thing down.” The way Romney did his pivot was to make clear that while he was against abortion, he would, of course, make an exception for women who had been raped or whose pregnancy was the result of incest. This has become something of a moderate orthodoxy among those who oppose abortion. Continue reading →
I am deeply saddened to report that bioethicist John D. Arras died on March 9, 2015. John was the Porterfield Professor of Bioethics and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Virginia, where he directed the undergraduate bioethics program, held an additional appointment at the School of Medicine’s Center for Biomedical Ethics and Humanities, and over the years co-taught multiple courses at the Law School. He was a leading figure in the field of bioethics, and held several prestigious appointments beyond UVa including, at the time of his death, as a Fellow of The Hastings Center and a commissioner of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (whose recent report on Ebola he spoke to a journalist about just days ago). He also consulted regularly at the National Institutes of Health and was a founding member of the ethics advisory board of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
John’s scholarly focus in bioethics was two-fold. First, like most bioethicists, John tackled concrete practical ethical problems involving medicine, public health, and the biosciences. His interests in this regard were fairly broad, but he focused on physician-assisted suicide, public health, human subjects research, and what justice requires in the way of access to health care. Continue reading →
A new piece by Art Caplan on why he believes a minor can’t say no to chemotherapy, on NBC News:
A 17-year-old girl, listed in court papers only as Cassandra C., is in protective custody at a Connecticut hospital where she is being forced to undergo chemotherapy treatment that she says she does not want. Americans strongly value the right to refuse medical care.
We are all familiar with situations in which Jehovah’s Witnesses say no to life-saving blood transfusions, patients refuse any more surgery or artificial ventilation, and ill people forgo proven medical interventions to follow alternative care.
But those cases involve competent adults.
Cassandra is 17 — still a minor. Should she have the right to say no? I don’t think so.