The deficiencies and dangers of ‘radical individualism’

O. Carter Snead, What it means to be human: The case for the body in Public Bioethics, Harvard University Press, 2020, pp.321

Anyone concerned about the current values conflicts in our societies should read this book. Although it focuses on conflicts in public bioethics, the insights of the author, O. Carter Snead, have application to a much broader range of values conflicts in what are sometimes called the “culture wars”.

Snead starts with a history of American Public Bioethics. He then asks, “What does it means to be human” and addresses two competing responses – “expressive individualism” and “embodiment” – and articulates the anthropology (the study of human beings and societies) that informs each of these views. He argues the former is inadequate on at least two fronts. First, it “forgets the body” and sees the person as only a mind, a self-actualizing will. Second, it does not contemplate or accommodate human relationships and the reality that we are social… MORE

What is the law on iBlastoids?

This week Professor Jose Polo and an international team have reprogrammed human adult cells to create an “iBlastoid” at Monash University. This breakthrough has opened a legal and ethical can of worms. Are the current laws ambiguous or superannuated?

The importance of these iBlastoids is that they enable us to learn how early-stage human embryos develop and implant in the uterus. It is claimed that they could lead to medical treatments for various problems such as infertility, miscarriage, developmental disorders and genetic diseases. They could provide insights into what happens during the black box of early human development between the 14th and 28th day after fertilisation. They could help women who have difficulties conceiving, have experienced miscarriages or are worried their child may have a genetic illness.

Usually an embryo begins with fertilisation of an egg by a sperm. After a few days, it is a tiny ball of around 100 cells called the blastocyst.

iBlastoids are formed by… MORE

Can machines be moral?

One big question arising from the rapid development of AI technology in the 21st century is whether it is possible to create moral machines.

Many researchers in the field of artificial intelligence recognise that machines will find themselves in ethically challenging situations. One example might be the so-called ‘trolley-problems’ that self-driving cars are likely to encounter.

In light of this, researchers are attempting to program AI machines for ethical decision-making. MIT’s Moral Machine project, for example, has collected data from millions of people across the world about how they would respond to the ethical dilemmas of driving. The researchers will use the survey to program self-driving cars.

But can we build ethics into AI machines? While some experts believe it’s just a matter of surveying drivers, others argue that this is merely a simulacrum of ethics. Real ethics has a personal and experiential character.

Australian ethicist Rob Sparrow recently tackled this issue in AI & Society. Sparrow offers… MORE

Forcibly sterilized during Fujimori dictatorship, thousands of Peruvian women demand justice

The regime of Peruvian dictator Alberto Fujimori sterilized 272,028 people between 1996 and 2001, the majority of them Indigenous women from poor, rural areas – and some without consent.

Now, in public hearings that began earlier this year, thousands of these women are demanding justice for what they say were forced sterilization procedures called tubal ligations.

Sterilization was a covert part of Fujimori’s “family planning” policy, which purported to give women “the tools necessary [for them] to make decisions about their lives.” But in fact, as revealed in government documents published by the Peru human rights ombudsman’s office in 2002, the regime saw controlling birth rates as a way to fight “resource depletion” and “economic downturn.”

These were euphemisms for what Fujimori, and past leaders of Peru, referred to as the “Indian problem” – higher birth rates among Indigenous people than Peruvians of European descent. And since Indigenous women of Quechua descent had the highest… MORE

A class action suit against an Australian IVF provider is a reminder that IVF is a huge industry

Remember Erin Brockovich, an inspiring consumer advocate and environmental activist in winning a US$333 million class-action lawsuit, the biggest of its kind in US history? She brought a small town to its feet and a huge corporation to its knees, as the tagline goes.

A class action was just lodged against Monash IVF Pty Ltd, the owner of IVF clinics in Australia. The lawsuit emerges amid revelations that the innovative genetic testing used by Monash IVF is less reliable than initially thought.

The lead plaintiff, Ms Danielle Bopping, who is in her 40s, was informed by Monash IVF that her last embryo, categorised as abnormal, may have been viable. It is claimed that the fertility clinic may have incorrectly labelled healthy embryos as abnormal before discarding them through a now-suspended non-invasive genetic testing programme.

Ms Bopping will provide instructions to the legal firm about the case's conduct and adduce evidence during the proceedings. The legal documents were filed in the Supreme Court… MORE

Arkansas case shows path forward for banning Down Syndrome abortions

A novel argument for chipping away at legalised abortion in the United States is catching on amongst the judiciary: abortion should not be used for eugenic purposes.

Earlier this month the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit struck down Arkansas Acts 493 and 619. The first attempted to ban abortions after 18 weeks because it is possible that some foetuses are viable at that stage. The second would have forbidden abortions of a foetus with Down Syndrome. Little Rock Family Planning Services sued.

The court found that it had no choice but to uphold the US Supreme Court which had ruled in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania. v. Casey (1992) that “a State may not prohibit any woman from making the ultimate decision to terminate her pregnancy before viability.” The Arkansas abortion lobby won the case. However, that is not the end of the story.

In 2019, US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas penned an eloquent dissent… MORE

Forced sterilization policies in the US targeted minorities and disabled – and lasted into the 21st century

An operation in 1941 on South Side of Chicago 

In August 1964, the North Carolina Eugenics Board met to decide if a 20-year-old Black woman should be sterilized. Because her name was redacted from the records, we call her Bertha. She was a single mother with one child who lived at the segregated O'Berry Center for African American adults with intellectual disabilities in Goldsboro. According to the North Carolina Eugenics Board, Bertha had an IQ of 62 and exhibited “aggressive behavior and sexual promiscuity.” She had been orphaned as a child and had a limited education. Likely because of her “low IQ score,” the board determined she was not capable of rehabilitation.

Instead the board recommended the “protection of sterilization” for Bertha, because she was “feebleminded” and deemed unable to “assume responsibility for herself” or her child. Without her input, Bertha’s guardian signed the sterilization form.   

Bertha’s story is one of the 35,000 sterilization stories… MORE

Regenerative clinics: strong language from FDA

A strongly worded article in JAMA gives a heads-up to stem cell clinics operating outside of the regulatory framework that they may not be granted more time to reach compliance with Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations.

The article, written by the FDA during a pandemic when it is busy with other concerns, underscores the agency’s duty to promote evidence-based regenerative medicine. 

Authors Stephen Hahn, the FDA’s new commissioner, and Peter Marks, the director of the Center for Biologics and Evaluation and Research, write that “these products, whether autologous or allogeneic, are not inherently safe and may be associated with serious adverse consequences”.

There has been an increasing number of unscrupulous clinics in US advertising treatments for diseases and conditions ranging from autism to ageing. But the safety and efficacy of these products are yet to be proven. For instance, three women became blind after receiving untested stem cell treatment on their eyes in a Florida clinic.


There is a bright side. If you catch Covid-19, you’ve missed out on bubonic plague

Milan is in the grip of an epidemic. Towns have been quarantined. Public gatherings have been cancelled. The streets are empty. Public officials try to dampen mounting hysteria. Dark rumours are circulating. Hospital wards are overflowing.

The coronavirus?

No, the Great Plague of 1630 in which perhaps a million (1,000,000) people died. About 35,000 have died so far in Italy’s coronavirus outbreak. That figure alone should immunise you against nostalgia for the Good Old Days. The panic and suffering of the citizens of Milan during the bubonic plague — who also had to cope with a drought, a famine and the Thirty Years’ War — make coronavirus seem like a Sunday summer picnic.

Europe, to say nothing of the rest of the world, has had plagues a-plenty, but Milan’s torment may be the best known thanks to its vivid description in the Great Italian Novel, I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed). Written by Alessandro Manzoni, it was published in 1827… MORE

Things you should think about when you hear ‘vaccine by end of the year’

On July 27, 2020, the Washington Post reported, Two coronavirus vaccines begin the last phase of testing: 30,000-person trials, wrapping it in historical terms:

At 6:45 a.m. Monday, a volunteer in Savannah, Ga., received a shot in the arm and became the first participant in a massive human experiment that will test the effectiveness of an experimental coronavirus vaccine candidate. The vaccination marks a much-anticipated milestone: the official launch of the first in a series of large U.S. clinical trials that will each test experimental vaccines in 30,000 participants.

“We are participating today in the launching of a truly historic event in the history of vaccinology,” Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said at a news conference. He noted that the United States has never moved faster to develop a vaccine, from basic science to a large Phase 3 trial designed to test safety and effectiveness.

Fauci predicted… MORE

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