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  6:14:00 AM

Should we pay commercial providers to assist suicides?

Assisted suicide is an idea which keeps evolving. Who could have foreseen the development of groups of non-doctors which help hundreds of people to die in Switzerland? Now a bioethicist from the University of Tübingen in Germany has proposed what he calls “commercially assisted suicide” (CAS) – paying a non-doctor to kill patients.

Roland Kipke argues in the journal Bioethics that there are no ethical arguments against CAS which cannot also be deployed against physician-assisted suicide (as in Oregon). It is not a popular cause, as the thought of CAS horrifies both supporters and opponents of assisted suicide.

Kipke rolls out several arguments in favour of CAS. It is not a breach of medical ethics because no doctor is involved. A for-profit provider will be more readily available than a doctor, who may have qualms of conscience.

He takes a very sceptical view of the competence of doctors. A commercial provider may not be skilled at detecting depression, but neither are doctors:

“The most common psychiatric disorder, and, at the same time, the disease that is most commonly associated with suicidal intentions, is depression. Several studies clearly show that a large number of physicians fail to recognize the depressive disorders of their patients. This is particularly remarkable because people with depression account for about 10% of a GP's patients…. Therefore, it is not justified to say that doctors are in general particularly able to assess the conditions for an autonomous decision for suicide.”

Nor are doctors particularly competent at prescribing adequate doses of drugs to commit suicide.

“a doctor does not normally learn (in education and medical practice) how many grams of sodium pentobarbital cause a quick death. Above all, the necessary knowledge about the correct dosage is limited and can easily be acquired by non-physicians.”

Kipke feels that patients would have more autonomy in making their final decision if they use a commercial provider.

“Studies have shown that doctors' assessment of the quality of life and of the suicidal wishes of seriously ill patients depends significantly on the psychological situation of the doctors themselves, and that they systematically underestimate the quality of life of their patients. Quite a few doctors also advocate directive counselling, even on morally controversial issues. It is probable that this is not fundamentally different with regard to their decisions for or against suicide.”

Finally, would CAS be another step forward in the insidious commercialisation of human life? No, says Kipke. “Doctors always earn their living from the needs of their patients: no one takes offence.” Why not a commercial provider? 

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  11:58:00 PM

Stop the carnage in Syria, doctors plead

The situation of civilians under siege by the Assad regime in Syria is even worse than under ISIS, the Islamic extremists, say Syrian doctors. In an op-ed in the New York Times, two doctors claim that at least 560 doctors and nurses have been killed and 155 medical facilities have been attacked since the war began.

Much of the destruction is due to barrel bombs, 44-gallon drums filled with explosives and shrapnel launched from helicopters. “The bombs explode with terrific force and breadth, amputating limbs and driving shrapnel throughout the body. One doctor we interviewed was still horrified by the indelible image of a mother and daughter whose bodies were blown apart while their hands remained clasped together.”

The doctors, Leonard S. Rubenstein, of Johns Hopkins University, and M. Zaher Sahloul, president of the Syrian American Medical Society, claim that the regime’s military is deliberately targeting clinics, field hospitals and ambulances. “When work in a field hospital becomes like death, it is difficult to imagine how life has any chance at all,” they write.

They have called upon the Obama administration to set up humanitarian buffer zones in northern and southern Syria so that civilians can be cared for.

Their words are echoed by a Syrian doctor writing on the blog Syria Deeply:

“We are doctors. We live to help and heal people – not to watch them die. Every one of us living in opposition-held territory of Syria has made a conscious decision: despite all the risks, we will stay and treat whoever needs us… As bombers tear across the sky on their way to dropping their deadly cargo, I wish that the urgency that moved the U.S. and other governments to bomb ISIS was matched by an urgency to save the lives of civilians. Please do not wait until there is no one left to save.”
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  11:28:00 PM

UK gay couple acquires 3 kids from 3 surrogates simultaneously

Surrogate mums and a mum discuss the experience   

A gay couple in Britain made history recently when all three of their surrogate mothers presented them with babies within seven months of each other. Daryl Lee, 41, and Luke Harris, 50, had been in a civil partnership for years and had always dreamed of having a family. Mr Harris told The Sun:

“When we told our families we are having our first surrogate baby, they were so excited for us, as they know for the past 15 years we've dreamed of having a family of our own. When we told them we were having a second baby they were amazed. And then, when we announced we're actually having three babies of our own they were stunned but overjoyed."

They had considered adoption, but after learning that singer Elton John and his partner David Furnish had acquired a child with a surrogate mother in 2010, they opted for surrogacy. They found the first surrogate, Becky Ellis, on the internet and she recruited two other women.

“I absolutely love being pregnant,” said Becky, who was a surrogate for the third time. In fact, she told ITV earlier this year that she had wanted to be a surrogate since she was 11 years old. The practice seems to be culturally embedded. The show interviewed her and three other surrogate mothers, Bex Harris, Viktoria Ellis and Jemma King, along with Bex’s mother, who cares for them during their pregnancies. (See photo above.)

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  10:55:00 PM

Hopes of anti-FGM campaigners dashed in Egypt

12-year-old Sohair al-Bata’a    

The first doctor to be tried in Egypt for performing female genital mutilation has been acquitted, dashing activists’ hopes that a conviction would send a stern message parents and doctors.

Raslan Fadl, a medical doctor and Islamic preacher in the village of Agga, northern Egypt, was on trial for manslaughter after 12-year-old Sohair al-Bata’a died in June 2013 after an operation. He denied that the procedure was FGM and said that his accusers were “on drugs”.

“Of course there will be no stopping any doctor after this. Any doctor can do any FGM he wants now,” Atef Aboelenein, a lawyer for the Women’s Centre for Guidance and Legal Awareness, told The Guardian. Suad Abu-Dayyeh, of Equality Now, said: “It’s a very unjust verdict from the judge. It sends a very negative message. It was the first case in the country and we were hoping we could build on it.”

Made illegal in 2008, FGM still has popular support, especially in rural areas. The Guardian reports:

“According to surveys by Unicef, an estimated 91% of married Egyptian women aged between 15 and 49 have been subjected to FGM, 72% of them by doctors. Unicef’s research suggests support for the practice is gradually falling: 63% of women in the same age bracket supported it in 2008, compared with 82% in 1995.”

“We circumcise all our children – they say it’s good for our girls,” one housewife, told the Guardian earlier this year. “The law won’t stop anything – the villagers will carry on. Our grandfathers did it and so shall we.”

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  10:23:00 PM

Where are the true utilitarians who have not bent the knee to Baal?

Nothing has done more to tarnish the prestige of utilitarianism in recent years than academic interest in trolley-ology. This neologism is shorthand for a flourishing cottage industry in a well-known philosophical dilemma: should you push a fat man onto a track to save five innocent people from being hit by an oncoming railway trolley? (See the recent book, Would You Kill the Fat Man?: The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us about Right and Wrong.)

People who say Yes say often explain why by invoking the greatest good for the greatest number so critics have called these fat-man-sacrificers typical utilitarian thinkers. Digging deeper, several researchers have found a correlation between this decision and Machiavellian, egotistic or even psychopathic personalities. Utilitarian=Psychopath has never been a good marketing slogan.

Responding to this interpretation, a leading utilitarian bioethicist, Julian Savulescu, of Oxford University, and colleagues argue in the journal Cognition that this slur is based on a mistake. They looked more closely at people's reactions and found that these “utilitarians” were really motivated by “the more modest, unremarkable, and ordinary thought that it is, ceteris paribus, morally better to save a greater number”. In fact, they were more likely to be moral egotists, whose only motivation is to maximize their own selfish welfare. They were faux utilitarians.

The true utilitarianism, says Savulescu, is a lofty, cerebral and exacting doctrine which is diametrically opposed to egotism:

“Utilitarianism is a radically impartial view: it tells us to consider things as if ‘from the point of view of the universe, without giving any special priority to ourselves, or to those dear or near to us. Instead, we should transcend our narrow, natural sympathies and aim to promote the greater good of humanity as a whole, or even the good of all sentient beings. Needless to say, this view of morality is strongly at odds with traditional ethical views and common intuitions. It is also a highly demanding moral view, requiring us, on some views, to make very great personal sacrifices, such as giving most of our income to help needy strangers in distant countries.”

Perhaps too lofty. In an post on the Oxford blog Practical Ethics, he confesses that he himself, a standard-bearer in the vanguard of utilitarianism, fails to live consistently by this demanding creed.

“Few people if any have ever been anything like a perfect utilitarian. It would require donating one of your kidneys to a perfect stranger. It would require sacrificing your life, family and sleep to the level that enabled you to maximise the well-being of others. Because you could improve the lives of so many, so much, utilitarianism requires enormous sacrifices.”

And then he makes an extraordinary confession:

“People think I am a utilitarian but I am not. I, like nearly everyone else, find Utilitarianism to be too demanding. I try to live my life according to ‘easy rescue consequentialism’ – you should perform those acts which are at small cost to you and which benefit others greatly.”

Which leaves his readers perplexed. If utilitarian sinners are psychopaths and utilitarian saints are non-existent, is utilitarianism a moral philosophy for ordinary human beings or only for the authors of obscure journal articles? 

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  4:14:00 PM

Egg-freezing doctor learns from Tupperware

One of the most famous advertisements in history was supposedly written by South Pole explorer Ernest Shackleton: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”

Perhaps egg freezing doctors have learned from Shackleton that highlighting the risks and dangers of cold places need not discourage clients. The video above suggests that it may actually inspire them.  It features “The Egg-Whisperer” (aka Dr Aimee Eyvazzadeh at and her “Tupperware parties” for fertility-conscious professional women working in and around Silicon Valley. “After you attend a party, we welcome you to become one of Dr. Aimee’s patients so that she can help guide you further. Join the party!” says her website. (Hat tip to the Center for Genetics and Society.)

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  3:05:00 PM

Pope condemns euthanasia, calls for a new ‘human ecology’

Pope Francis has condemned euthanasia, calling it “a sin against God the creator”. The Roman Pontiff made the statement in an address to the Association of Italian Catholic Doctors . The Pope – who may be the single most influential bioethical voice in the world -- criticised the logic of what he termed “false compassion”. He also applied the notion to arguments for abortion and IVF.

“The dominant thinking sometimes suggests a ‘false compassion’, that which believes that it is: helpful to women to promote abortion; an act of dignity to obtain euthanasia; a scientific breakthrough to ‘produce’ a child and to consider it to be a right rather than a gift to welcome”.

Summarising his scepticism about contemporary trends, the Pope said: 

“We are living in a time of experimentation with life. But a bad experiment. Making children rather than accepting them as a gift, as I said. Playing with life.”

In another recent address, Francis stressed the need to promote what he calls a new “human ecology”. This relatively novel idea draws together the Zeitgeist of the environmentalist movement with the natural law ethos of Catholic bioethics. The Pope is set to release a statement (possibly an encyclical) next year on “human ecology”, and the United Nations has suggested it will support the document.

The new publication is bound to be controversial. The idea of “human ecology” has its roots in Benedict XVI’s understanding of male-female complementarity, and the unethical nature of artificial reproductive methods.  

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  2:50:00 PM

Why discriminate with euthanasia?

An Australian academic has prompted spirited debate after suggesting that denying euthanasia to the mentally ill could be a form of unjust discrimination. 

In a recent article in The Conversation, Dr Sascha Callaghan of the University of New South Wales suggested that mental illness in itself may be insufficient grounds to deny an individual euthanasia: 

“The idea that euthanasia should not be offered for mental suffering is not universally agreed, and requires some further consideration… too stringent an approach risks locking people with mental illnesses out of the right to make decisions about the end of their lives – and this might be discriminatory.”

Callaghan referred to a case in the UK in 2012 in which a court ruled that an anorexic woman be force-fed despite her request that the treatment stop. “The implication of the decision was that, by definition, people with anorexia cannot make an end-of-life decision, no matter how harrowing and intractable their illness becomes.”

Whilst not committing to a particular viewpoint on the issue, Callaghan concludes that “certainly there are a range of defensible views on what is a good life and when assisted dying is acceptable.”

The Australian Medical Association recently suspended the medical license of euthanasia advocate Phillip Nitzchke, after he failed to dissuade a mentally ill man, 45-year-old Nigel Brayley, from taking his own life with a lethal barbiturate. 

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  2:40:00 PM

US Navy nurse investigated for refusing to force-feed prisoners

A US Navy nurse may be discharged after refusing to force-feed prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. The nurse, who has served in the Navy for over 18 years, used to participate but eventually concluded that it was “unethical”.

The US military’s preferred method of force-feeding involves inserting a tube through a detainee’s nostrils and into his stomach. The nurse changed his attitude to the procedure after seeing how much they resisted.

The American Nurses Association (ANA) recently released an open letter to Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel and the director of the Navy Nurse Corps, requesting that the nurse not be punished. The ANA invoked the ethical right of a nurse to “make an independent judgment about whether he or she should participate in this or any other such activity”. The Navy has not responded.  

The World Medical Association has condemned force-feeding, and this week the lobby group Physicians for Human Rights declared its support for the nurse. “Nurses, like physicians, have professional duties to respect the autonomous decisions of their patients and never participate in ill-treatment or torture,” said Dr Vincent Iacopino, PHR’s senior medical advisor. 

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  1:20:00 PM

The rise of the transhumanist movement

Whatever you think of transhumanism, one thing is quite certain: the transhumanist movement is alive, healthy and growing. In any ordinary week in the world of bioethics, several articles will be published exploring one aspect or other of transhumanism.

Consider, for example, Zoltan Istvan, best-selling author and self-proclaimed “transhumanist visionary”. Istvan has published 20 articles this year in the Huffington Post on transhumanism. He recently announced that he intends to run as a representative of the Transhumanist Party in the 2016 US presidential elections.

There is also a fully-fledged international transhumanist society, Humanity +. The organisation, founded in 1998, runs seminars around the world to discuss the latest developments in human enhancement technologies. The also organisation publish the online quarterly Humanity + magazine, a publication dedicated to discussing transhumanist news and ideas.

In a recent blog post, Wesley Smith argued that the transhumanist vision was a mere ‘utopian fantasy land’. A small army of transhumanist supporters came to the support of the movement, commenting extensively on the article and criticising Smith’s argument. 

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