If there is one request by patients which is universally spurned by doctors, without fear of being labelled paternalistic, it for steroids as performance-enhancing drugs. Extensive research confirms that anabolic steroids damage the liver and the heart, among other problems.
If widespread steroid use is discouraged for men, why haven’t the neurological effects of the steroid-based contraceptive pill on women been studied as thoroughly? In a challenging article in the open source journal Frontiers in Neuroscience, three Austrian researchers argue that 50 years after its introduction, it is time to study what the pill does to the brain.
“Changes in brain structure and chemistry cause changes in cognition, emotion and personality and consequently in observable behaviors. If a majority of women use hormonal contraception, such behavioral changes could cause a shift in society dynamics. Since the pill is the major tool for population control, it is time to find out what it does to our brain…
“As the number of women using oral contraceptives constantly increases, while the age of first contraceptive use constantly decreases down to sensitive neuroplastic periods during puberty, the associated changes in personality and social behavior imply significant consequences for society.”
The article does not scaremonger, but simply sets out the state of current research and points out that there are significant gaps.
The notion that religious convictions have no place in medicine or bioethics is widespread and growing. After the Canadian Supreme Court recently found that euthanasia and assisted suicide are constitutional, for instance, there were immediate suggestions that doctors who refused to assist on religious grounds might have to find other employment.
Writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics, Oxford theologian Nigel Biggar argues that this is wrong. First, because it assumes that only secularity is rational. “The ideal of secular medicine as a realm of reason and therefore as untroubled by deep metaphysical and moral disagreements is a fantasy,” he says.
Second, because religion itself, or at least the Christianity which he professes, is not irrational. Respecting other beliefs, it seeks to persuade with rational arguments.
“Positively, if I, a religious believer, am going to succeed in persuading you, an agnostic or atheist or different kind of religious believer, of my moral view, then I will have to show you that your view has weaknesses or problems, that these cannot be adequately repaired in your terms, but that they can be repaired in mine.”
Does Christianity add anything to bioethical discourse? Surprisingly, perhaps for some critics of Christianity in the public square, Biggar says that its first contribution is good manners. Respect for human dignity and love for the truth, both characteristically Christian, support a style of dialogue which is even-tempered, respectful and inquiring.
More importantly, though, its distinctive views of the fatherhood of God and the Incarnation give rise to convictions which underpin much of contemporary bioethics. “One general instance of such content is a high, humanist view of human dignity, which is not an inevitable part of the cosmic furniture and which we cannot afford to take for granted. Other, more specific instances are the notions that individual autonomy is properly bounded by social obligation and a special sensitivity to the plight of the poorer and weaker.”
Stuff and nonsense, fumed Brian D. Earp, an Oxford researcher and an incoming Associate Editor at the JME. Good manners and respectful conversation are the hallmark of philosophy, not religion, and there is no God the Father to ground respect for other humans. And what about Savita*, the woman who died in Ireland because she was denied an abortion on religious grounds? “Some people will feel a shiver go down their spines—and not only the non-religious” at talk of religion having a role in medicine.
Head transplants are a familiar theme in B-grade sci fi films which lends itself to an infinitude of excruciating puns. But according to an Italian scientist, it could happen within two years. Sergio Canavero of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group want to use the technique to help people with degenerative diseases like ALS or whose bodies are riddled with cancer. He told New Scientist “the major hurdles, such as fusing the spinal cord and preventing the body's immune system from rejecting the head, are surmountable, and the surgery could be ready as early as 2017.”
Other scientists are sceptical. “"I don't believe it will ever work, there are too many problems with the procedure,” one neurosurgeon told NS. However, Dr Canavero plans to present his ideas at the annual conference of the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaedic Surgeons (AANOS) in Annapolis, Maryland, in June.
The project presents both philosophical and bioethical conundrums. First of all, since the higher cognitive functions which are commonly thought to be “us” take place in the head, it is more accurate to speak of a body transplant. Would people try to extend their life by transplanting their heads onto a younger or more beautiful body? Could it be the ultimate way to lose weight?
Where would the bodies come from? Deceased donors? Euthanased donors? Altruistic donors? And it might be hard to negotiate laws which assume that a decapitated person is a dead person. A transplant might be seen as murder. Even the optimistic Dr Canavero believes that it would be a year before the patient is walking again.
The problems are huge, but NS shares Canavero’s optimism. “Every advance in transplantation has seemed outlandish at first, from hearts to hands to faces, but in each case, doubts have given way to appreciation.”
In fact, there have been some promising results from work on mice. According to NS, “ Xiao-Ping Ren of Harbin Medical University in China recently showed that it is possible to perform a basic head transplant in a mouse (CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics). Ren will attempt to replicate Canavero's protocol in the next few months in mice, and monkeys.”
Cryonics – or preserving the body or brain by freezing them for resuscitation in a more technologically advanced age -- is generally regarded as science fiction. However, it is a small industry in the US, where an Arizona company, Alcor, has cryo-preserved about 80 people and 30 pets.
One bioethicist has offered a thoughtful defense of the procedure, arguing “that the potential value that it might help realize is very big” and that “there is a non-negligible, even if small, chance for success”.
Moen argues that the technology, though perhaps still many decades away, will in principle be available to us eventually. Considering the huge potential it holds, we should invest more resources in the field. He observes:
“reviving cryopreserved persons, though it cannot be done today, does not require the development of radically new technologies; it requires further refinement and convergence of technologies that already exist.”
Moen discusses the various technological precedents that exist in current science, such as the routine freezing and thawing of human sperm, eggs and tissues.
He is cautiously enthusiastic about the possibilities that cyronic revival would open up:
“[We would have] a non-negligible opportunity to have a significantly longer life”.
At a more confident moment in his article Moen argues that we may have a rational imperative to opt for cryonic preservation:
“It is rational to opt for a small chance of survival when the alternative is no chance at all.”
Indeed, for most people it may sound like a flight of fancy. But by Moen’s cold logic this is something to take very seriously.
The law, passed by the ruling junta government last week, stipulates that foreigners will be prohibited from using Thai surrogates unless they have been married to a Thai national for at least three years. The violation of the law carries a prison sentence of up to ten years. Agents for surrogate mothers also face lengthy prison sentences.
"This law aims to stop Thai women's wombs from becoming the world's womb. This law bans foreign couples from coming to Thailand to seek commercial surrogacy services," said Wanlop Tankananurak, a member of Thailand's National Legislative Assembly.
Critics of the new law say that making commercial surrogacy illegal could push the industry underground, making it harder for patients to access quality physicians and medical care.
But some are sceptical that the legislation will even be implemented. “Law enforcement in South East Asia is famously lax”, wrote BBC correspondent Jonathan Head.
Thailand's junta, known as the National Council for Peace and Order, disbanded the upper house Senate following a May coup and placed all law-making authority in the hands of an interim parliament hand-picked by the military rulers.
In the fight to end polio, the Pakistani government has for the past year made safe-haven for internally displaced persons (IDPs) conditional on receiving polio vaccinations.
The country’s ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League, has made polio drops mandatory for anyone leaving the country’s tribal areas – the regions in which the worst polio outbreaks have occurred. Previous voluntary vaccination programs in these regions have failed to eradicate the polio threat.
As the stakes grow higher, the authorities have chosen to prioritize public health over individual consent. A significant number of refugees refuse the vaccine and are turned back at regional checkpoints. In June last year, for example, nearly 40 trucks carrying internally displaced persons (IDPs) from North Waziristan en route to Afghanistan were turned back by the Pakistan army at the Pakistan-Afghan border. The refugees demanded that they be first provided with food and shelter before the administration of the vaccine.
Refugees often believe Taliban authorities, who claim that vaccination is a ‘Western conspiracy’ and will ‘spoil’ (i.e. render infertile) their children. This is not an entirely unfounded claim. In 2011, the CIA used a hepatitis vaccination program as a front to gather intelligence on the whereabouts of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
The new government policy has attracted the attention of Western bioethicists. In an article in this month’s edition of the Journal of Medical Ethics, Art Caplan and David L Curry of the NYU School of Medicine argue that states have a right and a responsibility to require vaccination in instances where serious vaccine-preventable diseases threaten local populations.
“Aid can morally be made contingent on vaccination when there is direct, imminent risk to aid givers and nations from whom aid is being sought.”
Surprisingly, Caplan and Curry do not mention the CIA incident that has provided such strong support for Taliban scaremongering.
After eight people were shot to death this week in rural Missouri, the debate over psychiatrists’ confidentiality in treating people with mental illness has revived. Coincidentally, the American College of Physicians, seven other national health professional organizations, and the American Bar Association, made several recommendations this week about how to decrease deaths and injuries through guns.
One of them is to “oppose state and federal mandates that interfere with physician free speech and the patient-physician relationship, including physician ‘gag laws’ that forbid physicians to discuss a patient's gun ownership.”
The idea is that even mentally-ill persons have a constitutional right to bear firearms. Several states have passed laws guaranteeing this. Florida’s law, which was passed last year, specifies that “A health care practitioner … may not discriminate against a patient based solely upon the patient’s exercise of the constitutional right to own and possess firearms or ammunition.” Missouri passed a similar law this year.
Another recommendation is to “oppose blanket reporting laws that require physicians to report patients with mental or substance use disorders, as these laws may stigmatize the patients and inhibit them from seeking treatment.”
"These laws go too far, Steven Weinberger, executive vice president of the American College of Physicians, told New Scientist. "Blanket mental health reporting laws can have unintended consequences," he says. Such laws can discourage people from seeking mental health care, he says. "They can create a tremendous disincentive for people to get the support they need."
The daughter passed away four years ago from bowel cancer, but not before having her eggs frozen.
The mother, 59, claims that the daughter asked her to bear her baby in the event that she succumbed to cancer. The mother and her husband are now fighting to receive IVF treatment using the girl’s eggs. They claim that in receiving the treatment they will be honouring their daughter’s dying wishes.
Importantly, the objection made by the British authorities is not a matter of deep moral principles, but rather a question about whether the daughter had given express consent to the use of her eggs.
No UK-based clinic has agreed to treat the mother, so the couple have applied to export the eggs to New York – a clinic there have agreed to provide the fertility treatment at an estimated cost of up to £60,000.
The Human Fertility and Embryology Authority (HFEA) refused the couple’s application to export their daughter’s frozen eggs to America, on the grounds that she did not give clear written consent.
The deceased woman completed a form that gave consent for the eggs to be stored for use after her death, but crucially, failed to fill in a separate form that indicated how she wished the eggs to be used. This technically meant her consent became invalid.
They couple have appealed to the High Court. The case will be heard in the Administrative Court (a division of the High Court) at a date to be set.
The assisted suicide of American woman Brittany Maynard on November 1 may have tipped Colombia into legalising euthanasia.
Euthanasia has been in legal limbo in the South American nation since a decision by its Constitutional Court in 1997 that “mercy killing” was constitutional and that doctors who cooperated should not be prosecuted. It urged the government to pass a law to regulate the procedure. The government did nothing. Even sympathetic doctors were afraid to test the law and refused to have anything to do with euthanasia.
However, the issue continued to simmer away. One notorious doctor, Gustavo Quintana, claims that he has killed 200 patients in Colombia and abroad.
And earlier this week the Constitutional Court set a deadline for the Ministry of Health. It has 30 days to implement euthanasia protocols for doctors. Health agencies are supposed to set up committees to advise patients and their families about how to keep people who are depressed from requesting euthanasia.
The Court said that “without clear rules and precise procedures, doctors do not know exactly when they are committing a crime and when they are contributing to the realization of a fundamental right.”
Two New Zealand academics have proposed that surrogacy become a profession like nursing or teaching which is fully integrated into the health system. Writing in the journal Bioethics, Ruth Walker and Liezl van Zyl, of the University of Waikato, contend that both commercial and altruistic surrogacy have so many potential moral, legal and emotional complications that a complete change in the framework is needed.
Their discussion centres on decisions about whether to abort a surrogate mother’s foetus if there is a substantial abnornamlity. It would be unethical for commissioning parents to request abortion for a minor abnormality like a cleft palate, but in cases of severe abnormality, “abortion would be the morally responsible thing to do”.
Often, however, the intending parents and the surrogate mother quarrel over the fate of the baby. In a commercial model, parents often demand that the baby be aborted, which treats the surrogate as a mere vessel and denies her right to bodily integrity. In an altruistic model, the intending parents can just walk away if there are problems, leaving the mother with the baby or the decision whether to abort.
What the authors proposed is the creation of a professional cadre of registered surrogates working within a government instrumentality, with set fees and civil servants who can support the mother and parents if there are difficulties. “The professional model emphasizes the ethical dimension of surrogacy,” they believe.
“ … payment should not be tied to the delivery of a healthy infant. Although many critics of commercial surrogacy claim that it is the payment itself that is pernicious, we argue that the flaw lies in the way payment is managed. For example, in cases where the surrogate agrees to an abortion she should still receive full payment so that she is not penalized for doing the right thing. The intended parents are not buying a baby but (committed) service, which may include an abortion. Her financial situation should not be a factor in her decision whether to have an abortion.
"Further, in the professional model the intended parents would be the legal parents from the moment the baby is born. This ensures certainty for both parties, and best serves the needs and interests of the child. The intended parents should not be able to abandon the baby any more than the surrogate should be able to withhold it from them."