A friend and subscriber told me recently that he found BioEdge depressing. Perhaps the effort to scan newspapers and blogs has inured me to the sombre aspects of bioethical news.
But as a New Year’s resolution, I’ll be keeping a weather out for uplifting stories. Today we have a winner, I think, about bioarcheology. This is a new profession which involves analysing the remains of ancient humans as clues to the societies in which they once lived.
The New York Times recently described a discovery in northern Vietman by an Australian researcher. (The original journal article appeared nearly two years ago, actually, a sure sign that the International Journal of Paleopathology is flying way below the Gray Lady’s radar.) It was the skeleton of a man in his early 30s, about 4,500 years old. He had a condition which implied paralysis of the lower limbs and impeded motion of the upper limbs.
In other words, he was a useless eater leading an unproductive, meaningless life in a hunter-gatherer society. Well, that’s the way many of our contemporaries would think of him. But his didn’t. The evidence suggests that they cared for him tenderly, with all the dedicated nursing that paralysis requires. Life five millennia ago may have been nasty and short, as Hobbes said, but not necessarily brutish.
Furthermore, the authors infer that the “secure, emotionally-supportive, inclusive environment” would have helped him to resist the temptation to lapse into depression because of his handicap. To me this seems like a lesson that our own atomised society needs to relearn.
A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all of our readers.
Today’s lead sketches the results of an inquiry into academic misconduct in the Netherlands. A social psychologist, Diederik Stapel, has fessed up to fiddling data and outright fraud. His career is in tatters and the doctorates of some of his students are tainted, even though there is no indication that any of them colluded with him.
Far more significant than the personal tragedy of yet another fallen star of academia are the implications for social science research -- on which a lot of bioethicists rely in constructing their arguments and proposals. A recent issue of the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science was devoted to responding to the “crisis”. It reminded its readers that the credibility of science is not assured; it rests squarely on its ability to correct error.
But researchers today are too busy writing articles with extravagant claims which will attract more funding to engage in the boring work of replicating their colleagues’ results. John P.A. Ioannidis, of Stanford University, even concludes that “Empirical evidence from diverse fields suggests that when efforts are made to repeat or reproduce published research, the repeatability and reproducibility is dismal”.
For non-scientists, this story is a surprising and somewhat disturbing insight into the dark side of research, although it was not reported very widely. It’s something to remember when the next set of extravagant claims hits the front page…
Well, I am afraid that jet lag has finally caught up with me and put a crimp in my plans for this week's newsletter. Sorry about the late delivery.
However, I'm sure that you will find the two reports on euthanasia in Belgium and the Netherlands interesting. The European Institute of Bioethics recently released its evaluation of a decade of legal euthanasia in Belgium. It makes interesting and rather unsettling reading. And the Dutch government has just released an English translation of its annual report on legal euthanasia. Ditto.
Another article deals with a topic so distasteful that I thought carefully about whether to include it or not. However, while other countries are legalising outmoded taboos, Germany has decided to reimpose a ban on zoophilia -- and for a very interesting reason. See below.
There are stories which are so controversial that an editor hesitates before hitting the OK button. One such is the report below on female genital mutilation (FGM). One of the world’s leading bioethics journals, The Hastings Center Report, has published an article which claims that this practice – absolutely abhorrent to Westerners – has been badly misrepresented.
(Having reported this much, I noticed that a couple of Twitter followers immediately unfollowed us, so please grit your teeth and bear with me if you are feeling queasy or outraged.)
The authors of the report do not take a stand on whether FGM should be allowed to continue, but they do say that there is little evidence for sensational media claims.
Even an obstetrician-gynecologist at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, who is critical of FGM comments, “Speaking as both an African woman and an obstetrician-gynecologist, I hope that this practice ends during my lifetime. However, the impetus to abandon female genital cutting must come from within each community; a ban on it cannot be imposed by outsiders”.
In view of the fact that the UN General Assembly is set to pass a non-binding resolution drafted by its human rights committee condemning FGM later this month, this is essential reading.
Cheers and thanks for your patience last week while I was away on holidays.
I would like to thank everyone who contributed to our recent fund-raising drive. Donations are still coming in but we are close to achieving our goal. Our readers have been unexpectedly generous. It’s a big boost for our morale, apart from helping us pay the bills.
I am taking a brief holiday, so there will be no newsletter next week. But we will resume on the following weekend.
The world’s attention on Tuesday was on America’s elections. After spending about US$6 billion, the US stuck to the status quo, with President Barack Obama still in the White House, as strong, or even stronger, than he was on November 5.
From a purely self-interested point of view, this is good news for BioEdge: there will be plenty to talk about. Here are a few issues which could be more prominent over the next four years.
Surrogacy. With the moral support of President Obama, four states endorsed same-sex marriage. This will undoubtedly lead to an increase in demand for surrogate mothers to carry the children of gay couples, both in the US and in countries like India and Guatemala.
Conscientious objection. The Obama Administration will begin to roll out the Affordable Care Act. Apart from constitutional challenges brought by several state governments, the Act is also facing a number of lawsuits brought by institutions and companies who conscientiously object to providing insurance cover for abortion and contraception.
Abortion. Whoever the victor had been, abortion would have remained an important bioethical issue. However, Obama is an ardent supporter of a woman’s right to choose and his Administration will continue to promote it in the US and overseas, as a condition for foreign aid.
Euthanasia. Talk of “Obamacare death panels” was largely political hype. But greater government control of health care delivery will inevitably lead to lurid allegations of euthanasia in the media. Just look at the bitter dispute in Britain over the Liverpool Care Pathway.
Stay tuned. It will be an interesting four years.
On another note, several people have reminded me that the UK’s fertility watchdog, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, is conducting a major public consultation on “mitochondria replacement”. This is a technical term for creating children with three people contributing to their genetic make-up. This is your chance to influence public policy, both in the UK and elsewhere! You have to register, which is a nuisance, but the survey does not take long and is well designed. Just click here.
As usual, the US election is being described as a choice between Armageddon and Götterdämmerung. But in all likelihood, whether it’s Barack Obama or Mitt Romney who makes a victory speech next Tuesday evening, Wednesday morning will be business as usual for Americans. They are blessed to live in a stable and tolerant country.
The contrast between American law and order and the chaos of everyday life elsewhere is evident in stories about organ trafficking. In the US, admittedly, this is a real possibility: an Israeli man was sentenced to jail earlier this year for organising illegal organ transplants in New Jersey. But in other countries, allegations of organ theft are being used as virulent political propaganda. Some are more plausible than others.
* Serbia has accused Kosovar soldiers of removing organs from Serbian prisoners of war and selling them on the black market in the 1990s. It even claims that the current Kosovo prime minister Hashim Thaci was involved. There may be something in this and the EU is investigating.
* The Falun Gong, a religious group banned by the Chinese government, alleges that its members are being arrested and executed and that their organs are stolen.
* The Armenian media is exploiting reports from its hostile neighbour Azerbaijan that Azeri military units were trafficking in their own soliders’ organs.
* The Iranian media (which supports the Assad regime) has reported that Syrian rebels are abducting civilians and soldiers from government-controlled areas, killing them and removing kidneys, eyes and livers.
* In 2010 Sweden’s leading daily newspaper, Aftonbladet, alleged that Palestinians were being killed for their organs. It turned out that there was at least some justification for this, as organs were removed without consent from both Israelis and Palestinians by forensic specialists in the 1990s.
It is almost impossible to assess the truth of most of these claims. They are reported in languages that I do not know and they happened (allegedly) thousands of miles away. I know little about the poisonous politics behind the claims. Perhaps from the comfort of Sydney, or New York, or London, they seem preposterous. But in an atmosphere poisoned by xenophobia, no atrocity seems too far-fetched. Back in the First World War, the British media reported that German soldiers were bayoneting Belgian babies.
Perhaps, however, this visceral fear of body snatching will remind transplant surgeons that they must be seen to operate with the utmost rectitude and remind the rest of us not to believe all of the lurid headlines.
You may have read that an Italian court has found six Italian scientists and an ex-government official guilty of manslaughter and sentenced them to six years in jail. Their crime was minimising the risk of the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake which killed 309 people.
The men were all members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks. The judge found that they issued "inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory" information which falsely reassured the public.
Scientists around the world are aghast. The leaders of the current commission resigned in protest. The world’s leading science magazine, Nature, thundered that “The verdict is perverse and the sentence ludicrous.”
I’m inclined to agree. Earthquake prediction is a very inexact science and science communication is a very difficult art. I hope that the verdict is overturned on appeal.
The moral of this might seem to be that the public is stupid. But, isn’t it the opposite: that the public has a superstitious faith in scientists? They are the new high priests of progress whose incantations bring prosperity, health and knowledge. They can even predict earthquakes.
If scientists are honest with themselves, I think that they have to admit that their press releases foster this image. When, however, that faith is betrayed, the public revolts. The L’Aquila earthquake scandal ought to lead scientists to be cautious about over-selling their wisdom.
I apologise for the late arrival of this newsletter and I must be brief. We were derailed by some other projects, I’m afraid.
Something else to apologize for is a story below about a UK company touting “celebrity sperm donors”. As a business, it sounded decidedly shaky; as an idea, it sounded no more absurd than other ways of scamming people’s longing for children. Unfortunately, the company was bogus, a publicity stunt for a new TV show. Most of the British media seems to have been taken in as well.
You know, more novels are needed about the Wild West of reproductive technology; Brave New World is quite out of date. I used to be a big science fiction fan, but I have fallen out of touch. Are any of you aware of more contemporary novels? Send us your suggestions.
This week we have highlighted some under-reported areas of bioethics -- under-reported here at least (you can’t do everything). As you would expect, BioEdge normally focuses on the day-to-day issues you read about in Western newspapers – surrogacy, IVF, euthanasia, and so on. All of these trail political controversies behind them.
However, there are areas which doctors in Manchester or Chicago or Melbourne will never encounter. The principle of medical neutrality is one. If a doctor treats a gunshot wound in a hospital, she need not fear being arrested, let along tortured. But this is what happened to six medical professionals in Bahrain after violent protests during last year’s demonstrations. See the moving video from Physicians for Human Rights.
Perhaps even more removed from the daily round is discussion of transhumanism – using technology to create humans with capacities which transcend our current intelligence, strength – or morality. However, this is a topic which is growing in prominence among bioethicists for some reason. And recently, as we note below, the world’s first openly transhumanist politician has been elected to a national parliament (in Italy).
Finally, whatever your views on the proper limits to population may be, they probably don’t include sanctioning forced abortions. But that is the topic of the most recent novel by Mo Yan, a Chinese writer who has just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Hopefully Wa (or Frogs) will soon be translated into English.