The hidden stories of medical experimentation on Caribbean slave plantations

‘The Plantation,’ oil on wood, ca. 1825. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC BY

In the natural course of events, humans fall sick and die. Patients hope for miraculous remedies to restore their health.

We all want our medicines to work for us in wondrous ways. But how are human subjects chosen for experiments? Who bears the burden of risk? What ethical brakes keep scientific enthusiasm from overwhelming vulnerable populations? Who goes first?

Today, the question of underrepresented minorities in medical experimentation is still volatile. Minorities, especially African-Americans in the U.S., tend to be simultaneously underrepresented in medical research and historically exploited in experimentation.

My new book, “Secret Cures of Slaves: People, Plants, and Medicine in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic,” zeroes in on human experimentation on Caribbean slave plantations in the late 1700s. Were slaves on New World sugar plantations used as human guinea pigs in the same way African-Americans were in the American South centuries later?

Exploitative… MORE

‘Digital dust’

Now for something completely different – at least for BioEdge: bioethics-inspired poetry. Johann Roduit sent us some thoughts in verse about “enhancement, transhumanism, immortality ... “ Dr Roduit is Managing Director  of the Institute of Biomedical Ethics and History of Medicine, at the University of Zurich, in Switzerland.

Responses? Comments?

Digital dust

A creature of clay. I am 
Shattered so easily.  
Delicate dust, 
Facing Pompeii's destiny.

A man of steel. I desire 
An artificial heart.
Simulated soul,
Chasing the philosopher’s stone.

A ghost in a shell. I become
Deprived of my flesh.
Digital dust,
Dissolving under Icarus’ sun.

A creature of steel. I remain
Fragile undoubtedly.
Digital death,
Hoping for the Potter’s breath.

"Digital Dust" was first published in the journal Medical Humanities


Interview: Lydia S. Dugdale on death and dying

Assoc. Professor Lydia S. Dugdale MD is the Associate Director of the program for biomedical ethics at Yale School of Medicine, in New Haven. She recently edited a book on death and dying, Dying in the Twenty-First Century: Toward a New Ethical Framework for the Art of Dying Well.

BioEdge asked her to explain some of her ideas on the modern way of confronting death.

* * * * * * * *

BioEdge: Why are current approaches to dying problematic? Most people (in the developed West, that is) die in hospitals where patients are clean, well-fed and adequately cared for medically, aren’t they?

Lydia S. Dugdale: The question in my mind is whether current medicalized approaches to death are sufficient to solve the existential quandaries of my patients.

I have had office visits with patients whose only goal is to talk about what’s going to happen to them. And they don’t mean what physical dying… MORE

Only in Sweden? But why?

Child protection agencies all over the world should examine closely the epidemic of “Resignation Syndrome” among refugee children in Sweden. This bizarre phenomenon began in 2001 and continues to this day.

At least a thousand refugee children awaiting political asylum, and possibly many more, are affected. The children, aged 7 to 19, are unable to eat, speak and move. According to a recent study, the typical patient is “totally passive, immobile, lacks tonus, [is] withdrawn, mute, unable to eat and drink, incontinent and not reacting to physical stimuli or pain”.

Unless they are given intensive nursing care, they will die.

In Swedish Board of Health and Welfare’s version of ICD-10, the diagnostic manual used by United Nations agencies, the children have been given diagnostic code F32.3A. The Board acknowledges that specialists disagree about the reason for the disease.

After asylum is granted most of the children recover after a few weeks or months. But about one in seven do… MORE

Update from the UK: Noel Conway can challenge assisted dying ban

Noel Conway and supporters 

A possible tipping point in overturning the United Kingdom’s blanket ban on assisted suicide (under s2(1) Suicide Act 1961) has recently been highlighted. That possible tipping point comes in the form a challenge to the legality of the ban by Mr Noel Conway.

It was argued the importance of Mr Conway’s case lies in its long term chances of success. Despite Mr Conway’s case being in its initial stages, it has recently cleared an important legal hurdle in the English Court of Appeal; Mr Conway can challenge the assisted dying ban.

To recap, Mr Conway’s attempts to overturn the ban arise from tragic and distressing facts. He has Motor Neurone Disease, and he has largely lost his mobility. He uses a wheelchair, and needs assistance with many everyday activities.

In order to attempt to overturn law, Mr Conway seeks a declaration under s4(2) of the Human Rights Act… MORE

Caution needed with multipotent stem cells

Everyone seems to be excited about stem cells. Their excellent promise as a treatment for a range of diseases and injuries mean almost guaranteed coverage for research. While some types of stem cells are already being used in treatment – for treating diseases of the blood and leukaemia, for example, multiple sclerosis and problems in the bone, skin and eye – there’s still a lot of hype and exaggeration, with some even selling empty promises to seriously ill or injured patients.

There are many different types of stem cells in the body and they have varying abilities. When most people think of stem cells, it’s often of embryonic stem cells, which have been controversial for ethical reasons, or their closely related cousins, induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, adult cells that have been reprogrammed to acquire stem cell-like properties. As the word “pluripotent” suggests, these stem cells have the capacity to transform into any cell… MORE

Dear Mr Trump, isn’t it about time to announce your bioethics commission?

Last week, seven Democratic members of the US House Representatives sent a letter to the White House asking President Trump to appoint a director to the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), position that normally serves as the presidential science advisor. The impetus for writing the letter was a communication from the Deputy National Science Advisor that two hoax reports, that tried to undermine climate change, were circulating through the West Wing as “science.” The Congresspersons state “Where scientific policy is concerned, the White House should make use of the latest, most broadly-supported science…Relying on factual technical and scientific data has helped make America the greatest nation in the world.” Among the signers are a PhD in math and a PhD in physics. They hold that the US faces strong questions that revolve around science, both opportunities and threats, and the need for a scientist who can understand and explain the importance of objective fact to the chief executive is essential.


Belgian Catholic group explains switch on euthanasia

Last week marked an important step in the integration of euthanasia into the Belgian healthcare. A religious order in the Catholic Church, the Brothers of Charity, which is responsible for a large proportion of beds for psychiatric patients in Belgium announced that it will allow euthanasia to take place in its facilities.

This has been an extremely controversial move because the Catholic Church is unequivocally opposed to euthanasia. In 1995 John Paul II declared that “ euthanasia is a grave violation of the law of God, since it is the deliberate and morally unacceptable killing of a human person”. And Pope Francis described it earlier this year as a symptom of a selfish “throwaway culture”.

The local organisation has clearly split from Rome on this issue. The superior-general of the order, Brother René Stockman, has described the decision as “a real tragedy”.

Euthanasia for psychiatric patients has… MORE

Head of Belgian order explains shock move on euthanasia

Brother René Stockman   

Brother René Stockman is the superior general of the Brothers of Charity, a “congregation” of the Catholic Church which cares for the poor and the needy. Although residing in Rome in recent years, he has been one of the leading voices in Belgium opposing legalised euthanasia.

This week the Belgian region, where the congregation started in the 19th Century, announced the startling news that its hospitals would offer euthanasia to non-terminally-ill psychiatric patients who request it. This was big news in the Belgian media because the Brothers are major player in Belgium’s healthcare system, with 15 psychiatric hospitals and a number of other projects.

Brother Stockman was interviewed by email about this break with Catholic opposition to euthanasia.


Is it certain that euthanasia will be offered in the hospitals of the Brothers of Charity? Or is there… MORE

Stronger, faster and more deadly: the ethics of developing supersoldiers

Image 20170224 21964 7mo177

The future soldier may be enhanced. Shutterstock  

Enhancing a soldier’s capacity to fight is nothing new. Arguably one of the first forms of enhancement was through improving diet. The phrase “an army marches on its stomach” goes back at least to Napoleon, and speaks to the belief that being well fed enhances the soldier’s chances of winning a battle. The Conversation

But recent research has gone well beyond diet to enhance the capabilities of soldiers, like purposefully altering the structure and function of a soldier’s digestive system to enable them to digest cellulose, meaning that they can use grass as a food.

Perhaps their cognitive capabilities could be substantially altered so they can make more… MORE

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