How about licensing parents?


Hi there,

Some time ago, I recall writing an article about a loopy proposal to licence parents. There were too many incompetent parents around, ran the argument. Bringing a child into the world was a privilege, not a right, and the government ought to issue licences to people interested in having a family.

I see that the idea has surfaced again. A British sociologist recently contended on the BBC that unfit parents should be sterilised (see below). "Perpetrators should be prevented from producing any more children and from multiplying their victims," he said.

And the grumpy old professor isn’t alone. A German and British academic have just written a paper (see below) in which they argue that if gay and lesbian reproduction is regulated because it makes use of technology, how about natural reproduction? There are too many fecund and feckless females out there. They need to be regulated and indoctrinated with compulsory parenting classes.

Such proposals seem mostly daft, in my view, but they have a grain of sense. Children are best cared for within a stable marriage. Once that breaks down, as it has, inevitably there will be calls for the government to step in. The notion that the state can’t regulate personal morality evolves into the feeling that the state has to regulate morality if the person won’t.

Any ideas?

Michael Cook
Editor

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Time-poor couples courier their embryos to surrogate mothers


Hi there,

Have you heard the one about the two doctors who started a fist fight while their patient was going into labour? Unhappily, it is not a joke. Two doctors in a hospital in Sicily went at it hammer and tongs recently, forgetting that they had to care for a woman who was giving birth. The gynaecologist punched his hand through a window after another doctor grabbed his collar.

The baby may have suffered heart and brain damage as a result. The doctors and the hospital deny that the infant’s problems have anything to do with their disagreement, but the Italian health minister was so upset that he paid a visit to the mother in her hospital bed.

An inconsequential story? In some ways, yes. It hardly represents the Italian health system, which has one of the world's lowest rates of maternal mortality. But it does remind us that doctors, like the rest of us, are human. They have passions like anger, greed, and ambition. Some of them lie, cheat and plagiarise. Very few of them, to be sure, but some. Stories like these are a salutary reminder that the public should never give into a “white coat syndrome” and blindly assume the good faith, ethical integrity and objectivity of doctors and scientists. Laws should not be drafted on the assumption that doctors will almost never abuse their privileged position or will not allow financial gain to trump ethics. 

Cheers,

Michael Cook
Editor

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The stem cell debate is back


Hi there,

Just when you thought that it was safe to relax, stem cells are back. Not in the best of company, mind you. No one like lawyers, and settling a passionate debate about ethics in a courtroom seems unfair and underhanded. Isn’t that the job of Congress?

Well, actually that was US District Judge Royce Lamberth’s opinion, too, when he granted an injunction banning Federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research.

Every year without fail since 1996 the US Congress has passed the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which forbids funding for destructive embryo research. Human embryonic stem cell research is conducted on destroyed embryos, said Judge Lamberth. Ergo, it must be illegal.

It’s the argument of a black-letter lawyer who believes that it is his job to interpret statutes, not impose morality.

Both President Bush and President Obama wiggled around the Dickey-Wicker Amendment by saying: as long as you don’t kill embryos, we will fund research on your embryonic stem cells.

To be honest, this has always sounded dodgy to me and I said so back in 2001 when President Bush set down his policy: “Ethically, it enshrines the principle that it is wrong to benefit from experiments on someone you have killed, but right if someone else has done it for you.”

If the Obama Administration loses its appeal against Judge Lamberth’s injunction, Federally-funded research on human embryonic stem cells will stop. However, there is a way to get it moving again: drop the Dickey-Wicker Amendment. Whether the Obama Administration has the energy to push this through Congress before the mid-term elections in November is doubtful. And afterwards it may lose its majority in one or both houses, making it even more doubtful.

It may be time for scientist working on Federally-funded human embryonic stem cells to stock up on boxes of tissues.

Cheers,
Michael Cook
Editor

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What happened to the old science of morality?


Hi there,

Just one month ago, the Edge Foundation sponsored a fascinating seminar on “the new science of morality”. The big names of neuro-morality attended, including Jonathan Haidt, Sam Harris, Roy Baumeister, Paul Bloom, and Marc Hauser. Reporters from leading newspapers came as well and spread the word.

One of these luminaries, Marc Hauser, led a symposium on how thinking about morality as an evolved system of neurological rules could be used to make the world a better place, make governments work better, improve corporate governance, law, the internet, and so on.

Unfortunately, as we report below, Marc Hauser is now caught up in his own moral conundrum. His employer, Harvard University, has admitted that he was guilty of eight instances of academic misconduct. The nature of these offences is not altogether clear, but they seem to involve faking data for his work on animal cognition.

Speaking personally, I have always had reservations about neuro-morality. Reducing ethics to genetics and neurology eliminates free will and radically changes the nature of what it means to be human.

Academic misconduct is not exactly a hanging offence. However, if Hauser’s new science is true, rational morality consists of following arbitrary social conventions. It is a bit unsettling to learn that a prophet of an ethical revolution has been ignoring the fairly basic conventions of academic research. It will be interesting to see how the new science of morality develops from here.

Cheers,

Michael Cook
Editor

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a fool-proof test for Alzheimer’s


Hi there,

Earlier this week researchers announced in the Archives of Neurology that a spinal fluid test can provide an Alzheimer’s prognosis which is 100% accurate. The reputation of spinal taps is only marginally better than appendicectomies without anaesthetic, but experts say that they are safe and not especially painful. In fact, when drugs are developed to slow or cure Alzheimer’s they foresee that brain scans or spinal taps will be as routine as colonoscopies or mammograms.

I wonder how ageing baby boomers will react to this news when they’ve had a chance to absorb it? They are certainly interested. I noticed that the New York Times report rocketed to the top of the “most read” articles on its site.

Will people with a positive diagnosis feel pressured to take an early flight into the Great Beyond before they become too burdensome for their families? Fanciful? I don’t think so. At the moment, well over 90% of pregnant women who test positive for Down syndrome terminate their child. If they fear that life with a disabled child will be purgatory, what about life with a parent disabled by Alzheimer’s?

Is a new era about to begin? Leave your comments.

Cheers,

Michael Cook
Editor

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Making compulsory euthanasia look good


Hi there,

Way down at the bottom of the newsletter is a brief article from Australia. It’s a YouTube clip from “The Gruen Transfer”, a popular TV show about the world of advertising agencies. One of its features is “The Pitch” in which two agencies compete to create ad for unsellable products. In the past these have included whale meat, tourism in Baghdad, an invasion of New Zealand, bottled urine, child labour, housing built in the shadow of a nuclear reactor and so on. You get the idea: good taste and deference to conventional pieties are not high on the producers’ shopping list.

Recently “The Pitch” featured two advertisements for compulsory euthanasia. The agencies came up with two slogans: “Compulsory euthanasia at 80. The issue is very much alive” and “Australasia for euthanasia: let’s all go by 80”. The amazing thing was how persuasive they were. They pulled at the heartstrings and just for a moment made me feel that popping a Peaceful Pill was the decent thing to do.

Check them out.

Cheers,
Michael Cook
Editor

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the new science of morality


Hi there,

One area that we would like to cover more thoroughly in BioEdge is how some bioethicists are adapting their ethics to scientific developments. For thousands of years, it has been thought that some actions, like murder or adultery, were inherently bad. Now the new field of evolutionary psychology has “discovered” that good and evil are written into our genetic code and evolutionary history.

Obviously this upsets the applecart of religion, but not only that. A growing number of people – the transhumanists -- believe that their destiny is to transcend evolution. Presumably, then, they would transcend outmoded morality, too. From what I have read of the theorists of neuroethics, we can look forward to revolutionary proposals in bioethics.

Is this something to look forward to? Or to dread? Leave your comments on this week’s article about a conference on the new science of morality.

Cheers,
Michael Cook
Editor

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Barbarous anatomy classes


Hi there,

There is an argument to be made that contemporary bioethics grew out of the ashes of the Nazi regime. A number of Nazi doctors who collaborated in the atrocities in concentration camps were executed. But others, less well known, used Nazi inhumanity to advance their research agenda. 

An article in a recent issue of the journal Science highlights the use anatomists in Germany and Austria made of executed political prisoners in teaching and research. (See article below). Dr Hermann Stieve, for instance, was a famous professor at the University of Berlin and the Berlin Charité Hospital. He took advantage of the executions to study the female reproductive system, showing a barbaric indifference to the prisoners’ humanity. “What the best and brightest did was see the imprisonment and beheading of human beings as opportunities,” observes a scholar who has studied Stieve’s career.

There is always a great danger of misusing analogies with the Nazis. In many ways their corruption and depravity were unique. But human nature doesn’t change and doctors today still face temptations to objectify patients, to dismiss patient consent, and to place achievement above ethics. “Never forget” is advice bioethicists should take to heart as well.

Michael Cook
Editor

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When living wills won’t do


June 17, 2010 

Hi there,

The lead story in today’s newsletter is quite startling. A British man who became a quadriplegic in a motorcycle accident appeared to be in a permanent vegetative state. But then doctors discovered that he was fully conscious, evn though he was only able to communicate with his eyes. “I'm glad he's alive and didn't make a living will,” says his father.

The BBC has made a documentary about this. We have posted a link to a YouTube video with the first half of the program. Check it out.

You will have to go to the website to see the video. While you are there, become a Facebook “fan” of BioEdge. We’ve found that this is an effective way of promoting the website and getting other readers. We appreciate your help.

Cheers,

Michael Cook

Editor

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Helpful hints in the healthcare rationing debate


July 9, 2010 

Hi there,

One of the really cool things about being a journalist is that you need not actually know very much. You just report what other people said and did in a more or less colourful way. In fact, as a famous British war correspondent once pointed out, “tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner” and “tout pardonner” makes dull copy.

Of course, one needs to comprehend something, especially in bioethics, where some -- all actually -- of the issues are so thorny and controversial. But I frankly confess to being baffled by the angry American debate over healthcare rationing. Is it being thrifty or is it violating human rights?

I am grateful to Jacob M. Appel, who writes for a sterling bioethical journal called The Huffington Post, for enlightening me. In a recent contribution he makes the argument for rationing in the starkest possible terms: let’s unplug patients in a permanent vegetative state. Caring for them costs too much. (See below.)

When it is framed in such black and white terms, it is not difficult for me to make up my mind – at least at the outer margins of the debate. I doubt that the Obama Administration will be using Mr Appel as a consultant, but at least I now see what is at stake. So thanks, Jacob.

What do you think? Make a comment.

Cheers,

Michael Cook

Editor

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