Mars Exploration Bioethics 101

All Star Trek fans will be familiar with ethical dilemmas in deep space. However, they might not be aware that bioethicists have opened serious discussions as projects for the exploration of Mars advance. An American group called Inspiration Mars plans to launch a married couple to fly around Mars in 2018 and return to Earth. A Dutch group called Mars One is seeking two men and two women to establish a settlement on Mars in 2024. It will be a one-way trip.

In Slate, Patrick Lin and Keith Abney of the Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group discuss some of the ethical challenges which such expeditions will probably encounter – “a sort of Astronaut Bioethics 101”.

Lifeboat ethics. What happens if an accident reduces the amount of air or other resources for a four-man flight to two or three? Should the astronauts draw straws to decide… click here to read whole article and make comments


What does the public really think about the dead donor rule?

A new study in the Journal of Medical Ethics claims that the US public is in favour of waiving the dead donor rule in certain circumstances. The study, produced by researchers from Florida State University College of Medicine, examined the opinions of 1056 US citizens – a sample intended to provide a rough cross-section of US society. 

The researchers asked participants to complete an online survey, presenting them with a vignette of a man in a vegetative state, and asking whether it should be legal for him to donate his organs even if it causes his death. Participants were also asked more general questions, such as whether it should be legal for doctors to remove organs from consenting vegetative patients despite it causing their death, and whether they themselves would donate their organs if they were in a vegetative state.  

The study found that 71% believed the patient… click here to read whole article and make comments


New infertility treatment results in successful birth

A woman in Sweden has become the first person to give birth after a womb transplant. The 36-year-old woman, a subject in a novel study into womb transplantation, received a transplant from a unrelated 61-year-old donor last year. The woman conceived via IVF and gave birth to a healthy baby boy earlier this year. 

The doctors conducting the procedure said that strong immuno-suppression drugs are vital to prevent wombs being rejected. The womb has to be removed after birth, due to the danger posed by long-term use of the powerful suppression medication. 

Prof Mats Brannstrom, who led the transplant team, described the birth in Sweden as a joyous moment.

“That was a fantastic happiness for me and the whole team, but it was an unreal sensation also because we really could not believe we had reached this moment.”

In an anonymous interview with the AP news… click here to read whole article and make comments


Humanising end-of-life care

A new book published by best-selling author Atul Gawande presents a strident criticism of aged and palliative care in the US. In Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters Most in the End, Gawande argues that US healthcare system is failing to provide ‘quality of life’ to patients receiving end-of life-care. The author, a Rhodes Scholar and one time public health advisor to the Clinton administration, argues that general medicine overlooks serious psycho-social issues facing elderly patients, prioritizing the provision of  “treatments that addle [their] brains and sap [their] bodies for a sliver’s chance of benefit.”

There needs to be a paradigm shift, Gawande writes.

People with serious illnesses have priorities besides simply prolonging their lives. Surveys find that their top concerns include avoiding suffering, strengthening relationships with family and friends, being mentally aware, not being a burden on others and achieving a sense that their life is complete. Our system of technological medical… click here to read whole article and make comments


A youthful voice enters the assisted suicide debate

A young terminally ill woman in the US has reignited assisted suicide debate by publishing a video online describing her plans to take her own life.

29-year-old Brittany Maynard, who has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and given a prognosis of six months to live, describes her dire situation in an emotive You-Tube video that has already received six million hits. Maynard says she will take her own life on November 1st, using barbiturates that she has legally obtained in the US state of Oregon.

In the video she describes in minute detail how she plans to take her life (in her bedroom, surrounded by her family, with her favourite music playing). “I do not want to die”, Maynard says. “But I am dying. And I want to take my life on my own terms”. Maynard has partnered with the pro-assisted suicide group Compassion and Choices to campaign for the legalisation of AS in… click here to read whole article and make comments


Mexico, the new surrogacy hotspot

Surrogate mothers photographed last year at Planet Hospital, a surrogacy agency which has been forced into involuntary bankruptcy. 

With India and Thailand, the destination of choice for people seeking surrogate mothers, closing their doors to foreigners, where has the market gone?

To Tabasco, in the far south of Mexico, one of its poorest states, according to a feature in The Guardian. Tabasco's legislation has permitted altruistic surrogacy since 1998, so surrogacy agencies are moving in to take advantage of the shift in demand. They advertise on the internet, mainly to the gay market, offering wombs for less than half the price charged in the United States.

“This is going to take off,” said Carlos Rosillo, who runs an agency called Mexico Surrogacy. “At the moment there are maybe 10 to 15 surrogate babies being born a month, but when… click here to read whole article and make comments


Genetic testing backfires

You cannot possibly improve on this headline: “With genetic testing, I gave my parents the gift of divorce”. But it is strictly accurate, unlike most sensational headlines. The online magazine Vox earlier this month featured a first-person essay by George Doe, a pseudonym for an American biologist who used the results of tests from the company 23andMe as part of an undergraduate genetics curriculum.

One day he gave the test to his mother and father as a gift. The results turned out to be devastating for his family. They linked George to a hitherto unknown half-brother, sired by his father. When the family found out, there was an eruption of repressed emotions. His parents divorced and no one is talking to his father. “We're not anywhere close to being healed yet and I don't know how long it will take to put the pieces back together,”… click here to read whole article and make comments


When doctors suffer from VIP syndrome

The unexpected death of American comedienne Joan Rivers after a routine procedure in a Manhattan endoscopy clinic may have been an example of the baneful effects of the “VIP syndrome”, according to the New York Times. The phrase was coined in 1964 by a psychiatrist, Dr Walter Weintraub. “The treatment of an influential man can be extremely hazardous for both patient and doctor,” he wrote.

For physicians, “The VIP, cursed with the touch of Midas, arouses only resentment and fear.” They regard these patients as demanding and manipulative and to resent them for it, which can diminish the quality of their care. But for hospital administrators, “The VIP is more than just a patient. He is also an object to be bartered for future favors.”

The most famous victim of the VIP syndrome may have been entertainer Michael Jackson, who died after his personal physician gave… click here to read whole article and make comments


US doctors update gamete donation guidelines

After five years the American Society for Reproductive Medicine has updated its guidelines for gamete donation in the light of the growing recognition that offspring may have a right to know their genetic parents.

The thread running through all sections of the lengthy “opinion” is uncertainty. Until now almost all gamete donation was anonymous. However, offspring who want to find their parents and donors who want to become involved in the lives of their children are becoming more and more common.

In some countries, such as the United Kingdom, children can access donor information once they turn 18. This is not the case in the US, but laws could change. “Programs should make it clear to donors that they cannot give guarantees regarding immunity from future contact by offspring,” the ASRM says. Perhaps as a consequence, it offers no firm recommendations which are binding on its… click here to read whole article and make comments


Debate over history of US Christian bioethics

One of the puzzling features of the history of bioethics – which is now nearly 50 years old – is that its “founders” were nearly all Christians, but Christian bioethics has become a marginal interest, at least in the US. How did this happen?

The conventional account is that initially Christian bioethicists like Joseph Fletcher and Paul Ramsey (both Protestants) or Richard McCormick (a Catholic) were quite influential in shaping bioethics debates in the 1960s, serving on national committees and helping to draft government reports. However, as society became more secular, they were shouldered aside and their contributions were ignored.

In a provocative article in the journal Christian Bioethics, Tristram Engelhardt, Jr offers a very different interpretation. Engelhardt is a heavyweight in American bioethics – one of the few Christians with clout. He originally delivered this article on the occasion of receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award… click here to read whole article and make comments


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