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  4:20:00 PM

Controversy over Canadian fertility clinic’s mixed-race IVF prohibition

A Canadian fertility clinic has come under intense scrutiny for refusing to provide IVF for parents of different races. The Regional Fertility Program, which until recently had an official policy of not creating mixed-race babies, garnered media attention after one of its doctors told a single caucasian women she could only be inseminated with sperm from a white male. 

Dr. Calvin Green, the clinic’s administrative director, claimed that mixed-race IVF promotes a designer baby culture: “I’m not sure that we should be creating rainbow families just because some single woman decides that that’s what she wants”. 

In a statement last last month the clinic announced that it now provides mixed-race IVF, and that Dr. Greene’s comments merely indicate his own personal opinion.

Commentators have slammed the clinic former policy.

“This is not something that’s ethical”, said Gloria Poirier, executive director of the Infertility Awareness Association of Canada. “We certainly don’t support that”.

"If the assumption is that it is not in the best interest to be in a racially mixed family, that's very bizarre”, said bioethicist Kerry Bowman from the University of Toronto. "Women will decide for themselves how they want their family to be constructed."

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  4:04:00 PM

#Repligate: Social priming research in crisis

Debate over social priming research has intensified following an inquiry into the replicability of priming experiments. In a special issue of the journal Social Psychology a team of researchers conlcuded that out of seven “important findings” in the field of social priming, only one could be replicated.

The replication experiments were conducted by research groups such as the Many Labs Replication Project. Each study was reviewed in multiple research labs. 

Some of unreproducible studies included Simone Schall’s cleanliness and morality investigation and a widely publicized study into the effects of flag priming on conservative values

The grim findings, say those involved in the replication attempts, indicate the need for “crowdsourcing dozens of laboratories” to achieve accuracy and reliability.

The authors of the original studies think otherwise. Simone Schall has accused the editors of Social Psychology of “defamation”. Schall claimed that the method of the replication was flawed and has published a scathing response in the June edition of the journal. 

The replication trend is likely to continue, with the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology recently announcing it will allow for the publication of replication studies - a groundbreaking shift from their previous editorial moratorium on such papers.  

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  3:44:00 PM

Calls for regulation as Iran’s kidney trade spirals out of control

Street art in Tehran depicting an organ auction

Street art in Tehran depicting an organ auction / The Guardian

The peak body overseeing Iran’s kidney trade is lobbying the government for tighter regulation on foreign nationals procuring kidney transplants. According to Mostafa Qasemi, the head of the Charity Association for the Support of Kidney Patients (CASKP), many foreigners are entering the country with false documentation and procuring transplants in from unscrupulous doctors.

“These patients enter the country with false documents; doctors do not examine their documents and are paid millions to carry out a kidney transplant for them”, Quasemi said.

Quasemi referred to the case of two Saudi men who recently travelled to Iran and bribed doctors and patients for transplants. One of the Saudi men died, and an ensuing investigation led to the arrest of medical staff and group of people smugglers.

The government has hit back, accusing the CASKP of negligence. Ministry of Health representative Katayoon Najafizadeh said that the CASKP is responsible for issuing permits for all non-familial transplant arrangements. They have failed to ensure fake permits aren’t produced and accepted. “The Charity Association for the Support of Kidney Patients is responsible for this situation and must be held accountable”, he said.

Iran is the only nation in which the buying and selling of kidneys is legal. The market is regulated by two organisations - the CASKP, an NGO,  and the Ministry of Health’s Charity Foundation for Special Diseases. More than 2,300 kidney transplants are carried out in the country each year.

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  11:12:00 PM

Thailand cracks down on surrogacy

An Australian couple who commissioned a surrogate mother in rural Thailand abandoned a Down syndrome twin and left him with his impoverished mother, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

The story of 21-year-old Pattharamon Janbua, who is married with a three-year-old and a six-year-old in Chonburi province in northern Thailand, emerged as the Thai military government begins to crack down on Thailand’s burgeoning surrogacy industry.

The couple asked her to abort the Down syndrome boy, named Gammy, but she refused. After the birth, the surrogacy agent took the girl twin and left the boy with the surrogate. Now Ms Pattharamon realises that she had been terribly naïve. Gammy has serious heart problems and without an operation, he will probably die. The agent cheated Ms Pattharamon of a good chunk of her fee; she never met the commissioning couple. 

“I asked the agency, ‘Did I have to sleep with the man?’ I was an innocent young girl and I don’t know about this business," she told the SMH. "The agent told me, ‘We are going to make a glass tube baby,’ but I didn’t understand. “My husband agreed because we didn’t have money to pay our debt and I didn’t need to have sex with another man.”

The case has been widely publicised in Australia. This is "an incredibly sad story," said Prime Minister Tony Abbott. "I guess it illustrates some of the pitfalls involved in this particular business. It's a very, very sad story and I hate to think that a child could be abandoned like that." 

To put a stop to abuses like this, the military government plans to ban commercial surrogacy. From now on, the intended parents have to be married, heterosexual and medically infertile, the transaction must be altruistic, and the surrogate must be related to the intended parents. If the law is enforced, it will end a booming industry.

“The recent change in law in Thailand is likely to particularly impact upon same-sex couples, with many of the popular ‘low-cost’ destinations for surrogacy restricting surrogacy to married heterosexual couples," says Anne-Marie Hutchinson, of Dawson Cornwell, a UK family law firm.

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  10:31:00 PM

Have some American homeless become lab rats?

The web magazine Medium features a searing examination of the US clinical trials industry. The headline of the first part, written by bioethicist Carl Elliott, says it all: “The Best-Selling, Billion-Dollar Pills Tested on Homeless People: How the destitute and the mentally ill are being used as human lab rats”.

Elliott begins his investigation in Philadelphia, which has a large homeless population and a number of medical schools and pharmaceutical companies. He says that companies run clinical trials for drugs, even dangerous drugs, cheaper and faster than universities. This leads to questionable ethical practices. 

“Pharmaceutical companies now typically outsource clinical studies to contract research organizations like South Coast, which run trials faster and at lower cost than universities do. Their job is simply to follow the instructions of their sponsors. This formula is working: The contract research industry has grown steadily since the early 1990s and may now generate over $100 billion in annual income, according to the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development. At the top of the heap are corporations like Quintiles, which has 28,000 employees and operates in about 100 countries. At the other end are private physicians and small companies like South Coast, which are often based in strip malls or suburban office parks.”

These companies pay participants. for the destitute and mentally ill, it is money for jam. “The main ethical issues here, of course, are the competence and judgment of the prospective subjects,” writes Elliott. While compensation is not coercive, the poor can barely resist the temptation.

Elliott has been a harsh critic of fellow bioethicists for years, regarding many of them as shills for Big Pharma. He writes:

“None of the bioethicists or review board managers I spoke to were willing to publicly defend paying mentally ill homeless subjects to take part in clinical trials, although most did not seem especially surprised to hear that the practice was occurring. But some prominent bioethicists do not see homelessness as a barrier to research.”

The article is confronting and provocative. It’s well worth reading. 

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  9:18:00 PM

Warsaw hospital head sacked for refusing to refer for abortion

Dr Bogdan Chazan  

The director of a hospital in Warsaw has been dismissed because he refused to refer a woman for an abortion. The case has become a cause celebre in Poland, leading to protests from the Catholic clergy and internet petitions.

Dr Bogdan Chazan was approached in April by a woman who wanted an abortion because the baby she was carrying was badly deformed. He refused, citing “a conflict of conscience” and instead of referring her to another doctor who would do the abortion, he suggested that the child be cared for  in a hospice when it was born.

As a result Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, the mayor of Warsaw, fired Dr Chazan last month. She said that he did not have the right to refuse to refer and the he had not informed the woman about her options for getting a termination. Under Polish law, abortions can be performed until the 25th week of pregnancy if the life of the mother or child is at risk, or in cases of incest or rape.

“Today’s decision is the start of an attack on the conscience of doctors and people in management positions in the health service, it is a violation of their conscience,” Prof Chazan told the media. “Abiding by the laws of nature, and first and foremost by the law that prohibits killing a person, will probably become a reason for eliminating these people from management positions.”

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  8:53:00 PM

US hospital settles for US$190 million over violation of patient privacy

The prestigious Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore has agreed to pay US$190 million in compensation to 7,000 victims of a gynaecologist who secretly photographed pelvic examinations.

Dr Nikita A. Levy, a gynecologist and obstetrician for Johns Hopkins Community Medicine in Baltimore, was dismissed in February 2013 after a female colleague noticed that he wore a pen around his neck which was really a concealed camera. He committed suicide shortly afterwards.

The FBI concluded that Levy had not shared his photos or uploaded them to the internet. The lawyer for the class action suit, Jonathan Schochor, disagrees. “I think there’s overwhelming probability” that the images were shared, he told the New York Times. The lawsuit charged Johns Hopkins with invasion of privacy, emotional distress and negligence in its oversight of Dr Levy.

Many of Levy’s patients are very distressed. “There’s been a huge, devastating result to this whole thing,” Mr Schochor said. “Many have had changes in their ability to focus, problems with sleeplessness. Some have had changes in their relationships with spouses and significant others.” Some patients, he said, have lost trust in the medical system and now refuse to go to doctors or take their children.

“Words cannot describe how deeply sorry we are for all this has affected,” two top officials of Johns Hopkins wrote to former patients last year. “We are terribly sorry this has happened and for the distress you must be feeling… Protecting patients’ dignity and privacy is part of the core values that we instill in our patient safety procedures.”

This is a record payout for cases involving a doctor’s violation of privacy, but it is not extraordinary. In 2012 there were two gigantic settlements. A lawsuit over a Delaware paediatrician who recorded assaults on hundreds of children led to a $120 million payout and a Connecticut hospital settled for about $50 million after an endocrinologist used a medical study as a pretence to take obscene photographs of children.

Patient modesty and privacy are vital in the doctor-patient relationship. Scandals like this could scupper the use of Google Glass in a medical setting.

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  5:24:00 PM

Top physician dies after treating Ebola patients

The most senior Sierra Leone doctor helping to fight the Ebola epidemic has died after contracting the virus from patients. Dr. Sheikh Umar Khan was a virologist in charge of a hospital unit treating Ebola patients in Kenema – a major city in the most effected area of the country. Dr. Khan was credited with treating over 100 patients since the outbreak began in February.

He passed away on Sunday in a Doctors without Borders clinic, just a few days after being diagnosed.

"It is a big and irreparable loss to Sierra Leone as he was the only specialist the country had in viral haemorrhagic fevers," Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brimba Kargbo said on Tuesday.

Dr. Khan was aware of the risks he was taking, but continued to work with Ebola patients. He has been hailed by Sierra Leoneans as a national hero. 

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  4:57:00 PM

Savulescu on changing the world - literally

Academics advocating geoengineering usually encounter strong resistance, and sometimes ridicule, amongst their peers. Many say you risk creating problems worse than the ones you are trying to solve.

In a recent Practical Ethics post, Oxford bioethicist Julian Savulescu defended the notion, suggesting that it could be the only way to combat climate change.  

By genengineering, Savulescu is referring to large-scale interventions by which we can alter the structure of the environment, making it more conducive to human inhabitation. He used as an example the introduction of ants, iron sulphide, and artificial trees to combat global warming.

Savulescu suggests that genengineering is already occurring in the form of massive carbon omissions. Insofar as it is already happening we shouldn’t be concerned to engage in large-scale geoengineering to bring the world back to normal.

He also challenges the claim that the ‘natural’ climate is the best. We should rely less on assessing how things naturally are, and more on deciding how they should be:

“We cannot avoid asking and answering the question: what is a good human life? Likewise, we cannot avoid the ethical question: what is a good climate?”

Savulescu argues for a kind of long-term genengineering, as this will have less immediate negative effects (if any):

“We should prefer interventions that slowly modify climate over generations, rather than rapid interventions that carry risk within a single generation, if we wish to adopt a person-affecting precautionary approach.”

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  4:35:00 PM

Bioethicists defend ‘manipulative’ Facebook study

After the flurry of criticism for the now infamous Facebook ‘social contagion’ study, bioethicists are defending its authors.

The paper, co-authored by a data manager from Facebook and two researchers from Cornell, examined how users’ emotions changed when confronted with manipulated newsfeeds. Based on carefully written algorithm, researchers omitted certain ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ posts from users’ feeds when they logged on to the website (read the abstract here).

The experiment was conducted without the direct consent of its 310,000 participants.

The study has been variously labelled “terrifying”, “scandalous” and “cruel”.

In a column in Nature, a number of prominent bioethicists challenge these criticisms.

The authors argued that the study was no different from Facebook’s usual practice:

“It is true that Facebook altered its algorithm for the study, but it does that all the time, and this alteration was not known at the time to increase risk to anyone involved.”

They were divided on the question of informed consent:

“Some [of us] think that the procedures were consistent with users’ reasonable expectations of Facebook and that no explicit consent was required. Others argue that the research imposed little or no incremental risk and that informed consent might have biased the results; in those circumstances, ethical guidelines, such as the US regulations for research involving humans, permits researchers to forgo or at least substantially alter the elements of informed consent.”

They are concerned about the impact of intense criticism on further research:

“The extreme response to this study, some of which seems to have been made without full understanding of what it entailed or what legal and ethical standards require, could result in such research being done in secret or not at all.”

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