Redefining Death in the Law

By: Gali Katznelson

Jahi McMath was issued a death certificate four years ago in California. Today, at the age of 16, she remains connected to a ventilator in an apartment in New Jersey. Jahi was declared brain dead by her clinicians at Oakland’s Children’s Hospital following a cardiac arrest after a tonsillectomy. A legal battle between Jahi’s mother and the hospital ensued, with the mother requesting that Jahi remain on life support. The hospital refused, and after the hospital released Jahi to a coroner who issued her death certificate, Jahi’s family transported her to a paediatric ICU in a New Jersey hospital. New Jersey is the only state with a law requiring hospitals to accommodate patients whose families do not accept a determination of brain death on religious grounds.

Religious objections to brain death come from some members of the Orthodox Jewish, Japanese Shinto, Native American and Muslim communities. New York, California and Illinois also mandate accommodations for religious objections to brain death but these states leave the nature of the accommodation to the discretion of individual hospitals. This is unlike New Jersey, which allows an exception to brain death criteria and imposes a duty to accommodate patients who reject brain death state-wide. Should all states enact some form of a religious accommodation to brain death? To consider the same person to be alive in one part of the country but dead in another seems illogical. But rather than adapting current laws to accommodate objections based on religion, a more coherent approach might be to redefine the nature of the law itself.

As it stands in the US, the determination of brain death by neurological criteria is equated to a legal definition of death. This history dates back fifty years, to a report by the Harvard Ad Hoc Committee on Brain Death that defined irreversible coma as a new criterion for death. Neurologic criteria for death eventually made its way into law through the 1981 Uniform Declaration of Death Act (UDDA). This model statute states that death could be determined for an individual who has sustained either irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem, made in accordance with acceptable medical standards. Every state has adopted some version of this statute.

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Rethinking Organ Donation: When Altruism Isn’t Enough

By: Gali Katznelson

The demand for donated organs greatly outweighs the supply. In the United States alone, there are roughly 115,000 people waiting for an organ transplant. Every ten minutes, a new person is added to the recipient list, and every day, 20 people on the list die waiting. To be an organ donor in most states, residents can choose to add their names to the donor registry through a simple online or in-person process. But this “opt-in” system is failing to entice enough people to become organ donors. Currently, 54% of Americans are on the donor registry, but very few registrants are available to donate at a given time, in large part because the vast majority of registered donors have opted to do so posthumously. Better policies are needed to encourage more people to donate, both as living donors and as registered posthumous donors. It’s time to consider a non-monetary incentive system that prioritizes those who have signed up as organ donors.

Before jumping into an incentive-based system, let’s consider other options: namely “opt-out” and “mandated choice.” Following in the footsteps of 25 countries, including Spain and Wales, states such as Connecticut and Texas have made attempts to implement “opt-out” policies. In an “opt-out” system, each person is presumed to be an organ donor unless they explicitly choose not to be. Countries with opt-out policies have donor registration rates averaging 90%. But attempts to pass such legislation in the US have been met with fierce opposition. Likely, this is due to Americans’ unique emphasis on individual rights and skepticism of government control. Moreover, in such a system, family members may question the wishes of the deceased if they are unsure that the person was aware of the policy. In such cases, the family’s wishes will likely override the seemingly ambiguous wish of the deceased.

Alternatively, a “mandated choice” system is one in which people are faced with a compulsory choice regarding organ donation. In the US, Texas first tried this in the 1990s, where checking “yes” or “no” to organ donation became a condition for obtaining a driver’s license. Without adequate public education, 80% of people chose not to donate and the law was eventually repealed. More recently, Illinois experienced success with a mandated choice system. There, anyone receiving or renewing a driver’s license or an identification card is faced with the choice of becoming an organ donor. As a result, 60% of adults have now agreed to donate. This is a good start, but we can do better.

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Gun Violence and Public Health: The Need for Federal Research Funding

By: Gali Katznelson

In the wake of yet another school massacre, ‘thoughts and prayers’ are not enough. But if we don’t get more laws and regulations soon, we should at least get more facts and figures.

Though approximately 30,000 people die of gun related violence each year in America, a 2017 study found that gun violence is the least studied of the top 30 causes of death in America. To put this into perspective, gun violence kills as many people in America as sepsis, yet gun violence research has just 0.7% of the funding that sepsis does, and only 4% of its publication volume.

Bioethicists have been criticized for staying out of the gun violence debate. So here’s my bioethical opinion: withholding government funding for lifesaving research as children are massacred across the country is unethical.

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Extending the Right to Die to Mature Minors in Canada

By Gali Katznelson

Until February 2016, medical assistance in dying (MAID) in Canada, which encompasses both euthanasia and physician assisted suicide, was prohibited under the criminal code as a form of homicide. This ruling was challenged in Carter v Canada in the Supreme Court and overturned on the grounds that the ruling opposed the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In June 2016, MAID became legal in Canada under Bill C-14.

Under this law, a person may receive medical assistance in dying if they meet all of the following criteria:

  • They are eligible for health services funded by a government in Canada
  • They have a grievous and irremediable medical condition. This includes an irreversible state of decline that causes intolerable suffering that cannot be relieved, with a reasonably foreseeable natural death
  • They have made a voluntary request for medical assistance in dying that was not made as a result of external pressure
  • They give informed consent to receive medical assistance in dying after having been informed of other means that are available to relieve their suffering, including palliative care
  • They are at least 18 years of age and capable of making decisions with respect to their health

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Solitary Confinement: Torture, Pure and Simple

Cross-posted from the Psychology Today blog, where it originally appeared on January 15, 2018. 

By Gali Katznelson and J. Wesley Boyd

Let’s call it for what it is: Placing prisoners in solitary confinement is tantamount to torture and it needs to stop.

The practice of placing incarcerated individuals in solitary confinement dates back to the 1820s in America when it was thought that isolating individuals in prison would help with their rehabilitation. Yet, over the past two centuries, it has become clear that locking people away for 22 to 24 hours a day is anything but rehabilitative. Solitary confinement is so egregious a punishment that in 2011, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment condemned its use, except in exceptional circumstances and for as short a time as possible, and banned the practice completely for people with mental illnesses and for juveniles.

Despite its barbarity, the United States continues to place thousands of people, including individuals with mental illnesses and children, in solitary confinement, sometimes for decades. Thirty years ago, Dr. Stuart Grassian, who recently spoke at Harvard Medical School’s “Behind Bars: Ethics and Human Rights in U.S. Prisons” conference, evaluated 14 individuals placed in solitary confinement and found the same symptoms in many of them: hypersensitivity to external stimuli; perceptual disturbances, hallucinations, and derealisation experiences; affective disturbances, such as anxiety and panic attacks; difficulties with thinking, memory and concentration; the emergence of fantasies such as of revenge and torture of the guards; paranoia; problems with impulse control; and a rapid decrease in symptoms immediately following release from isolation. Taken together, Dr. Grassian proposed that these symptoms amount to a pathopsychological syndrome.

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Considering Direct-to-Consumer Genetic Testing? Spit with Caution

By Gali Katznelson

A friend and I had been vaguely entertaining the idea of ordering genetic testing kits for some time. Then, Black Friday happened. My friend called me to share that 23andMe was on sale, 50% off, for 1 more hour! Typing our credit card information into Amazon, we tossed around some half-reasoned arguments in favor of our impulsive purchases: “this’ll be a fun science experiment”, “what if we catch something preventable in time to make lifestyle changes?” and, “we really should be contributing our data to research for the public good.” Within minutes, two kits were ordered and thanks to the magic powers of Amazon Prime, these boxes appeared on our doorsteps within days. Few things in life are as exciting as receiving a mail delivery, but as we unwrapped our packages, finding the words “Welcome to You” plastered on our shiny white Pandora’s boxes, somehow our excitement began to dwindle. One month later, our boxes remain unopened.

Genetic testing is clearly something we should have given more thought before the marketing geniuses got the best of us. Here are some questions anyone considering taking a direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic test should answer (ideally before buying the test):

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Reflecting on Behind Bars: Ethics and Human Rights in U.S. Prisons

By Gali Katznelson

Is it justifiable to chain women as they give birth? How about confining people in a way that is proven to be psychologically devastating and torturous? These are just two of the questions raised last week during the conference, Behind Bars: Ethics and Human Rights in U.S. Prisons, a conference sponsored by the Center for Bioethics at Harvard Medical School.

To kick off the two day event, Dr. Danielle Allen delivered a moving keynote in which she urged us to question two key issues: the ethics of the treatment of those behind bars, as well as the ethics of using bars. In addressing this second point, Dr. Allen tasked everyone attending the conference with a ‘homework assignment’: to read Sentencing and Prison Practice in Germany and the Netherlands: Implications for the United States, in order to encourage us to “think the unthinkable,” namely a more humane way to treat people who have committed crimes.

From this report, I learned that in Germany and the Netherlands, incarceration is seen as a last resort for individuals convicted of crimes. Alternative non-custodial sanctioning and diversion systems such as fines and task-penalties exist – and are effective. In 2010, 6% of sanctioning resulted in incarceration in Germany and in 2004, 92% of sentences were for two years or less. These incarceration systems are organized around the principles of resocialization and rehabilitation. Time spent in prison is meant to be as similar as possible to community life, and incarcerated people are encouraged to cultivate relationships within and outside of prison. In prison, individuals can wear their own clothes, structure their own days, work for pay, study, parent their children in mother-child units, vote, and return home occasionally. In these systems, respect for persons, privacy, and autonomy are strongly held values. Solitary confinement is rarely used, and cannot exceed four weeks a year in Germany, and two weeks a year in the Netherlands.

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Reflecting on Dementia and Democracy: America’s Aging Judges and Politicians

By Gali Katznelson

This month, the Petrie-Flom Center collaborated with the Center for Law, Brain & Behavior  to host a panel entitled Dementia and Democracy: America’s Aging Judges and Politicians.” The panelists, Bruce Price, MD, Francis X. Shen, JD, PhD, and Rebecca Brendel, JD, MD, elucidated the problems, as well as potential solutions, to the challenges of America’s judiciary and elected politicians getting older. Reconciling dementia with democracy is a pressing matter. As Dr. Price explained, age is the single largest risk factor for dementia, a risk that doubles every five years after the age of 65, and America is a country with five of the nine Supreme Court Justices over the age of 67, a 71-year-old president, a 75-year-old Senate Majority Leader, and a 77-year-old House Minority Leader.

In his talk “Dementia in Judges and Elected Officials: Challenges and Solutions,” Dr. Shen defined the complex problem. While most other jobs are not retaining workers into old age, many judges and elected officials continue to serve well into their 80s. To complicate matters further, without widespread regulations or metrics to identify how dementia impedes one’s work, the media assumes the position of speculating the cognitive statuses and fates of judges and elected officials. Dr. Shen’s key point was, “Surely we can do better than speculation.”

Dr. Shen proposed several solutions to address dementia in elected officials and judges. Currently, we leave the open market and colleagues to regulate individuals, which remains a valid approach as we consider other options. Another default position is to diagnose based on publicly available data, a solution that introduces the specific ethical concerns that Dr. Brendel addressed in her talk (discussed below). There are, however, novel solutions. We could consider requiring cognitive testing and disclosure (which could be overseen by an internal review board), or we could simply impose an age limit for service. For judges, if such an age limit were imposed, we could create a rebuttable presumption in which a judge can continue to serve by completing an evaluation. Alternatively, perhaps judges can be limited to adjudicating specific cases based on their cognitive status.

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AI Citizen Sophia and Legal Status

By Gali Katznelson

Two weeks ago, Sophia, a robot built by Hanson Robotics, was ostensibly granted citizenship in Saudi Arabia. Sophia, an artificially intelligent (AI) robot modelled after Audrey Hepburn, appeared on stage at the Future Investment Initiative Conference in Riyadh to speak to CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin, thanking the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for naming her the first robot citizen of any country. Details of this citizenship have yet to be disclosed, raising suspicions that this announcement was a publicity stunt. Stunt or not, this event raises a question about the future of robots within ethical and legal frameworks: as robots come to acquire more and more of the qualities of human personhood, should their rights be recognized and protected?

Looking at a 2016 report passed by the European Parliament’s Committee on Legal Affairs can provide some insight. The report questions whether robots “should be regarded as natural persons, legal persons, animals or objects – or whether a new category should be created.” I will discuss each of these categories in turn, in an attempt to position Sophia’s current and future capabilities within a legal framework of personhood.

If Sophia’s natural personhood were recognized in the United States, she would be entitled to, among others, freedom of expression, freedom to worship, the right to a prompt, fair trial by jury, and the natural rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” If she were granted citizenship, as is any person born in the United States or who becomes a citizen through the naturalization process, Sophia would have additional rights such as the right to vote in elections for public officials, the right to apply for federal employment requiring U.S. citizenship, and the right to run for office. With these rights would come responsibilities: to support and defend the constitution, to stay informed of issues affecting one’s community, to participate in the democratic process, to respect and obey the laws, to respect the rights, beliefs and opinions of others, to participate in the community, to pay income and other taxes, to serve on jury when called, and to defend the country should the need arise. In other words, if recognized as a person, or, more specifically, as a person capable of obtaining American citizenship, Sophia could have the same rights as any other American, lining up at the polls to vote, or even potentially becoming president. Continue reading

“Siri, Should Robots Give Care?”

By Gali Katznelson

Having finally watched the movie Her, I may very well be committing the “Hollywood Scenarios” deadly sin by embarking on this post. This is one of the seven deadly sins of people who sensationalize artificial intelligence (AI), proposed by Rodney Brooks, former director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT. Alas, without spoiling the movie Her (you should watch it), it’s easy for me to conceptualize a world in which machines can be trained to mimic a caring relationship and provide emotional support. This is because, in some ways, it’s already happening.

There are the familiar voice assistants, such as Apple’s Siri, to which people may be turning for health support. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2016 found that that the responses of smartphone assistants such as Apple’s Siri or Samsung’s S Voice to mental and physical health concerns were often inadequate. Telling Siri about sexual abuse elicited the response, “I don’t know what you mean by ‘I was raped.’” Telling Samsung’s S Voice you wanted to commit suicide led to the perhaps not-so-sensitive response, “Don’t you dare hurt yourself.” This technology proved far from perfect in providing salient guidance. However, since this study came out over a year ago, programmers behind Siri and S Voice have remedied these issues by providing more appropriate responses, such as counseling hotline information.

An AI specifically trained to provide helpful responses to mental health issues is Tess, “a psychological AI that administers highly personalized psychotherapy, psycho-education, and health-related reminders, on-demand, when and where the mental health professional isn’t.” X2AI, the company behind Tess, is in the process of finalizing an official Board of Ethics, and for good reason. The ethical considerations of an artificially intelligent therapist are rampant, from privacy and security issues to the potential for delivering misguided information that could cost lives. Continue reading

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