The British Defence Force may introduce mandatory pregnancy testing for female soldiers before tours of service, after it was revealed that over 200 women returned from combat between 2003 and 2013 because they were pregnant. One woman, lance bombardier Lynette Pierce, gave birth at a base in Afghanistan in 2013. She claims she was unaware of her pregnancy.
Currently the British defence force does not enforce pregnancy tests for female soldiers, believing that it would be an ‘invasion of privacy’. However, the prospect of a woman having to be suddenly evacuated from the front line, putting the lives of other soldiers at risk, may prompt a change in policy. According to the Ministry of Defence most of the babies would have been conceived before the mother left the UK.
After 2,500 years, one of the most hotly debated issues in philosophy is whether we have free will. We may feel that we are free, but it is very difficult to demonstrate. It’s a bit like love: you know it when you experience it and it's hard to convince others.
And it still has many opponents. A novel argument against it from experimental philosophy is that a naïve belief in free will is founded upon a desire to blame and punish others. A number of researchers from the US recently collaborated to study just how our beliefs about free will vary in response to different moral scenarios.
In a paper entitled ‘A Motivated Account of Free Will Belief’, (reported in Oxford University’s bioethics blog, Practical Ethics) five researchers completed a series of studies designed to test the influence of the misconduct of others on our belief in free-will. The researchers concluded:
“Taken together, our results provide a potential explanation for the strength and prevalence of belief in free will: it is functional for holding others morally responsible and facilitates justifiably punishing harmful members of society.”
In one of the studies conducted, university students were informed of their classmates using cheat sheets, and then asked to complete a survey on free will and the moral responsibility of the offenders. The results were that as students were informed of other students using cheat sheets, their belief in moral responsibility increased. Students who were informed of the specific case of cheating gave more positive scores on the Free Will and Determinism (FAD) test, and advocated for harsher penalties for the offenders.
Another study showed that countries with higher murder rates and crime rates have higher levels of belief in free will. “These findings are consistent with our contention that belief in free will is stimulated in part by exposure to others’ harmful behaviours and the associated impulse to punish”, the researchers wrote.
Under the right conditions, full informed consent is not ethically required for some types of health research, according to leading bioethics experts. In the February 20 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine Ruth R. Faden and Tom L. Beauchamp, and Nancy E. Kass, argue that in some cases a time-consuming consent process is not only unnecessary from the standpoint of protecting patients, but also potentially harmful to patients when it functions as an obstacle to gaining new knowledge that can improve the quality of the care patients receive.
The position is a considerable break from ethics principles that have guided research ethics and regulation for decades.
The commentary addresses two concepts generating debate in the healthcare and bioethics fields: the idea of learning healthcare systems, as articulated by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), in which “continuous learning” from clinical practice feeds directly into improving future patient care; and randomized comparative effectiveness research (CER), in which patients are randomly assigned to different, widely used treatments for their condition – all of which are thought to be effective and safe – to determine which treatments work best for which patients.
“In a mature learning healthcare system with ethically robust oversight policies and practices, some randomized CER studies may justifiably proceed with a streamlined consent process and others may not require patient consent at all,” the commentary states.
However, the authors note that no such system exists today with fully developed ethical safeguards, including patient engagement, to allow a study impacting patient care to be ethically acceptable.
The sequencing of DNA from a 2-year-old boy who was buried 12,600 years ago in Montana has been accompanied by great attempts to deal ethically with the remains.
A paper in Nature demonstrated that most Native Americans of North and South America are probably descended from a single population which crossed an ancient land bridge across the Bering Strait. The remains of the “Clovis boy” also suggests that the Clovis people diverged from a second group, which survived in Canada and Greenland.
This came as stunning news for many Native Americans, but behind the publication were complicated negotiations with tribes about how to deal with the relics. In the 1990s, the discovery of a 9,000-year-old human skeleton, so-called Kennewick Man, in Washington state, ended up in years of litigation with tribes who said that the remains belonged to them.
The Umatilla tribe, in whose area the skeleton was found, contended that the skeleton belong to their people and that denying that Kennewick Man was not Native American offended their religious beliefs. The courts, however, determined that they were not genetically related and consequently could be studied by anthropologists.
The authors of the paper in Nature did not want to engage in another bruising battle, so they contacted several tribes in Montana to seek their approval.
“That place is very special to me, that’s my ancestral homeland,” Sean Doyle, a member of the Crow tribe who was a consultant to the project. His advice to the scientists was that they boys should be reburied where he had been found. “I think you need to put the little boy back where his parents left him,” he said. The reinterral will probably take place later this year.
More adventures in artificial reproduction. A British woman has given birth to her third triplet five years after twin boys arrived in 2008. Nicola Brightey and her husband Kevin turned to IVF after they were unable to conceive naturally. An illness in her teen years had blocked her fallopian tubes.
During the treatment, Mrs Brightey produced 14 eggs from which eight embryos were created. Two were placed successfully in her womb in 2008, resulting in twin boys, Daniel and James. The remaining six were cryopreserved.
After a few years, they wanted another child. One embryo failed to develop, but a second did, resulting in the birth of Elizabeth. Mrs Brightey told the Daily Mail: “For years I never thought that we would ever be parents, and it has been such a long battle to have our triplets. It has taken 15 years and nearly £20,000 but it has been worth every penny. I feel like the luckiest mum in the world.”
Presumably another four embryos remain in the freezer.
A brain-dead woman in British Columbia has delivered a baby, more than six weeks after she suffered a devastating brain haemorrhage. Robyn Benson, 32, collapsed on December 28 when she was 5 months pregnant. Her husband Dylan asked that she be kept alive on a ventilator long enough so that her son Iver could be safely delivered.
This contrasts with a parallel case in Texas in which a 33-year-old pregnant woman was declared brain-dead in November. However, the family of Marlise Muñoz sued to have her taken off life support. They alleged that it was against her wishes to survive on life support and that the foetus was not viable.
On February 8, Iver was delivered by Caesarean section 12 weeks prematurely. Robyn was taken off life support and her heart stopped functioning the next day.
Mr Benson kept the world posted on the state of his wife and son in a series of emotional blog posts. He also asked friends and readers for donations to cover the enormous cost of medical care. His goal was C$36,000, but he has raised at least $160,000.
According to media reports, there have been about 30 cases of “posthumous motherhood”. Caring for a brain-dead patient on a ventilator is not easy, a specialist told the New York Times. A complex mix of drugs and hormones is needed to maintain blood pressure and keep the heart beating.
After the high tide of enthusiasm comes the ebb tide of scepticism. The new STAP cells discovered by a team of researchers from Japan and Boston are being questioned by stem cell scientists.
In a paper published in Nature in January, the authors claimed that subjecting ordinary cells to stress will make them revert to a state in which they can make any cell in the body. “It’s a startling result that makes you stand up and go, ‘Wow!’” said George Q. Daley, a leading stem cell researcher at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.
The STAP method and results are illogical and too good to be true.
in 2001 “the STAP team previously reported ‘spore’ stem cells, which to my knowledge have not been independently replicated.”
In 2011, “The team also previously reported adult pluripotent stem cells.”
“Evolution should have selected against a hair trigger for conversion to pluriopotency or totipotency”
“Why the delay to make human STAP cells?” The team succeeded in producing mouse STAP cells in 2011.
However, the debate about the experiment should be settled quickly. As Knoepfler notes, “we’ll know if STAP cells are the real deal within as short as two months because quite a few labs are now trying the technique.
Nobel laureate Shinya Yamanaka also stepped into the debate, swatting away reports that STAP cell were a safer alternative to the stem cell he developed in 2007, induced pluripotent stem cells.
“What hurt us were a lot of reports that concluded STAP cells are safer than iPS cells. The iPS cells announced in 2006 using mice and the iPS cells created now use totally different techniques. I find it quite regrettable that the reports made comparisons with the old technique.”
On February 25 and 26 the US Food and Drug Administration will discuss the possibility of legalising three-parent embryos – or, in scientific lingo, “oocyte modification in assisted reproduction for the prevention of transmission of mitochondrial disease or treatment of infertility”.
This procedure, which involves removing the nucleus from one human egg whose cytoplasm contains defective mitochondria and placing it in an enucleated egg with healthy DNA for subsequent fertilisation, is also being debated in the UK.
The measure is strongly opposed by the Center for Genetics and Society, which is promoting an open letter to the FDA. It claims that mitochondrial transfer is unsafe, is effectively experimentation on unconsenting human subjects, and would only help a handful of women. Most importantly, it constitutes germline modification, a form of eugenics. This is a bright line which no country has ever stepped across.
We strongly believe that clinical trials … should not be permitted because of the profound safety, efficacy, policy and social problems they would pose. We question the ethics of bringing children into existence by experimental techniques that have had developmentally poor outcomes in studies using both animal and human oocytes. We are also concerned about the contravention of widespread prohibitions against human germline genetic modification that approval of clinical trials would represent, and about the possible precedent such approval could set for additional human germline modifications.
A bill permitting euthanasia for children has passed the lower house of the Belgian Parliament by a vote of 86 to 44, with 12 abstentions. The parties gave their members a free vote on the controversial issue.
It will become law when King Philippe gives royal assent. This will make Belgium the only country in the world which allows euthanasia without an age limit. This has come only 12 years after it was first legalised.
Neighbouring Netherlands also allows euthanasia for children, but only up to the age of 12.
Supporters of the bill insist that it is safe and that there will only be a handful of cases each year. The child must be suffering from a terminal illness, with “constant and unbearable suffering”. He or she must demonstrate a “capacity of discernment”.
Can an eight-year-old give informed consent to a lethal injection? Yes, they say, because youngsters in this situation often display a maturity beyond their years.
“This is an act of humanity that allows the doctor to make the most humane course of action for his patient,” said Philippe Mahoux, a doctor and Socialist Party senator who sponsored the legislation. “What is scandalous is the suffering of sick children when they are going to die.”
Opponents are not convinced that children are capable of making a mature decision on such a momentous matter. British barrister Charles Foster commented late last year: “children could easily think, or be actively or unconsciously persuaded, that they should opt for death because their illness causes trouble for their parents.”
The UK government has reaffirmed its commitment to decreasing the use of animals in research but has refused to cap the number of animals used. “Britain is a world leader in science and it has also got a great tradition of concern about the welfare of animals," the minister for universities and science, David Willetts said at a press conference releasing his policy. "What we do in this document is bring these two great traditions together in our delivery plan.”
Recent figures show that in 2012, scientists conducted more than 4.11 million experiments on animals—a rise of 8% over 2011. The rapid growth is due mostly to the massive use of genetically modified animals, so births of animals are counted as “procedures”. But the number of animals in experiments as conventionally understood has remained stable at 2 million for the past 10 years.
The minister refused to set a firm target for the reduction in research. “The commitment is to 'work to reduce the use of animals.' Ultimately the final figure will depend on patterns of scientific advance,” he said.
The report reaffirms the government’s commitment to the 3Rs of animal research: “in every research proposal, animals are replaced with non-animal alternatives wherever possible; that the number of animals used is reduced to the minimum needed to achieve the results sought; and that, for those animals which must be used, procedures are refined as much as possible to minimise their suffering.”
Animal welfare groups were highly critical of the report. The CEO of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection said: "This is a whitewash and shows that the Government has in reality given up on what it promised to do and that is to reduce the number of animal experiments. This broken promise is a missed opportunity for the Government to make meaningful and lasting change for the millions of animals that are suffering in UK laboratories."