IVF blunder in Singapore


Hi there,

The biggest news of the past week was the US mid-term elections. The Democrats were routed and surrendered control of the House of Representatives to the Republicans. This will not transform the bioethical landscape but it will make embryonic stem cell research more difficult if scientists are depending on Federal funding.

However, the item which caught my eye was a brief story about an IVF blunder in Singapore. As usual with such things, the wrong sperm was used – something the parents detected only when a blood test showed that the baby had a blood type belonging to neither parent – a sign that something was gone wrong.

As usual, the medical director of the IVF clinic apologised but insisted that the centre's operating procedures "meet all regulatory requirements, and are of the highest international standards". Am I the only one who finds this neither reassuring nor convincing? Nearly all the IVF blunders which have appeared in the media have involved racial differences which were very obvious at birth. What about all the other babies?

Call me a sceptic, but I am not ready to believe assertions that such incidents are exceedingly rare. How do IVF clinics know? The only way to confirm the parentage would be to genetically test every baby. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever proposed that. But wouldn’t it give parents the certainty that the child is theirs?

What do you think?

Cheers,
Michael Cook
Editor

 

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Late, sorry


Hi there,

Sorry. This edition of BioEdge is a bit late, as I spent some time this week preparing for yesterday’s annual conference for New Media Foundation. We discussed how to improve BioEdge and our other publication, MercatorNet, and how to promote them more effectively.

Actually, as a BioEdge subscriber, you are our best sales person. If you know of colleagues or friends who might be interested in receiving it, please pass the word on. We have found that Facebook is particularly effective! Post an endorsement on your wall!

This week, for some reason, most of our stories deal with euthanasia. At the top of the page is a touching tribute to a Frenchwoman who has suffered from locked-in syndrome for 30 years. The French government has just given her the Legion of Honour for her efforts in fighting euthanasia.

Cheers,

Michael Cook
Editor, BioEdge

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How should we treat disabled infants?


Hi there,

Euthanasia is back in the news. A new report from a British think tank is highly critical. The author, Cristina Odone, argues that the “chattering classes” will suffer none of the harms of legalised euthanasia, protected as they are by their network of friends and colleagues. It is the vulnerable who will be expected to take early leave: the elderly without relatives, the poor, the disabled, and so on. It is a well-informed and impassioned essay.

One of the news items in this week’s newsletter might support her view. A paediatric palliative care doctor from Vancouver describes how he helped five newborn disabled infants to die. No doubt the children had a very short life expectancy. But his solution was to pump them so full of sedatives that they could not cry – or disturb the parents – and to withdraw all nutrition and hydration so that they died of thirst and starvation. But it was still very distressing for the parents to look on as their child became more and more emaciated until it passed away. At least one of the children lasted 26 days.

“It's very hard to study because this is ethically a very sensitive area,” he says. Is this the right way to deal with disabled newborns? Something doesn’t seem quite right here. Any ideas from readers?

Cheers,

Michael Cook
Editor

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Bob Edwards and his Nobel gong


Hi there,

This always happens. Go away on a holiday and the biggest story of the year breaks in your absence. Oh well.

This time it was the Nobel Prize awarded to Robert G. Edwards for developing in vitro fertilization. This was greeted around the world with great applause as an estimated 4 million new lives have emerged in the world thanks to this technique.

But I listened in astonishment to a representative of the committee who selected Professor Edwards as he blandly declared that the ethical issues surrounding IVF itself were “resolved” decades ago. I am not quite sure what “resolved” means. Is there another field of medicine which regularly gives rise to such knotty ethical issues, ranging from the exploitation of impoverished Indian women as surrogate mothers to the thousands of children of anonymous sperm donors who will never know their fathers?

In a sense IVF is a touchstone of contemporary bioethics. Accepting its complete legitimacy means embracing the project of human enhancement for which Professor Edwards was an enthusiastic midwife. In the wake of IVF come genetic engineering, cloning (possibly), surrogacy, designer babies… I, for one, felt disappointed that the Nobel committee’s ethical sensitivities were so dull.  

I know that this is a controversial stand. Tell us what you think.

Cheers,

Michael Cook
Editor

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More shameful syphilis experiments by US doctors


Hi there,

Before I forget, there will be no BioEdge next week, as its staff are on holiday. Back on October 16!

Bioethics stories seem to come in waves. Sometimes it’s stem cells, then euthanasia, then organ donation. This week, it’s institutional abuse and lack of informed consent.

From Bulgaria comes a report on homes for mentally disabled children. It makes harrowing reading. In a country which is a member of the EU, mentally-disabled children have been allowed to starve to death in orphanages. And then from Denmark comes a report about lobotomies. These were banned there in the 1980s, but not before 300 mentally disabled children had the discredited operation.

But the most shameful of these stories comes from Guatemala. In the 1940s American public health officials deliberately infected nearly 700 men and women with syphilis without their consent. Worst of all, those overseeing the project were fully aware that this breached ethical standards. An American researcher uncovered the experiments in some dusty archives.

President Obama has been on the phone to his counterpart in Guatemala apologising for these violations of human rights. So he should.

Cheers,
Michael Cook
Editor

 

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Felicific calculus


Hi there,

Some time ago I reviewed a book by David Benatar, a South African utilitarian, whose view of life was so bleak that the headline was “the ultimate miserabilist”. The theme of Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, is that we all would be better off had we never existed. As the old Jewish joke goes, "Life is so terrible, it would have been better never to have been born. Who is so lucky? Not one in a hundred thousand!"

It turns out that the same utilitarian argument can be applied to animals. Jeff McMahan recently argued in the New York Times (see below) that carnivores cause such dire suffering in the animal world that we (homo sapiens) should organise their extinction as soon as possible.

I highlight this only to suggest that the “felicific calculus” of utilitarianism can produce peculiar answers. The ultimate utilitarian, Peter Singer, has become the guiding light of the animal rights movement because he wants to decrease suffering in chicken farms and laboratories. However, the same principle also leads to McMahan’s extinction idea.

It seems to me that utilitarian thinking, however compassionate it may sound, has a dark side. Taken to its logical extreme, the best way to eliminate the suffering of living beings is to eliminate the living beings. Does this say something about utilitarian arguments for euthanasia? Should we look elsewhere for an answer to the perennial problem of pain?

Cheers,
Michael Cook
Editor

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The BBC and euthanasia


Hi there,

Journalists are amateur bioethicists. Not just yours truly, but all of us who supply the news. And sometimes journalists have their own agenda. Another instance of this came to the fore this week in the UK. Ray Gosling, a veteran broadcaster and gay rights activist, was found guilty of wasting police time by fabricating a cock-and-bull on-air confession about mercy-killing a lover with AIDS some time ago.

It turns out that the story – which cost British taxpayers a pretty penny to investigate – was a complete fabrication. The 71-year-old told the court that “I would have done it. I would have, the tenses were wrong.”

As the judge pointed out, a bit more than the tenses were wrong: “You know the power of television celebrity and the trust the public and television producers have in you. You have to match this with the responsibility of identifying and telling the truth to the public.”

But, to my mind, the real scoundrels in this fantasy were the BBC producers whom Gosling told about the “murder” and did nothing. For them it was just an appealingly sensational yarn. They did not shrink from collaborating with Gosling’s aggressive promotion of euthanasia. Isn’t that evidence of unabashed prejudice on the part of the BBC, Britain’s premier source of news?

Any comments from the UK?

Cheers,

Michael Cook
Editor

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The Professional Guinea Pig


Hi there,

Occasionally we present a special issue. This week it is an interview with Roberto Abadie, the author of The Professional Guinea Pig: Big Pharma and the Risky World of Human Subjects. Apparently there is a subculture of Americans who make their living by swallowing pills and opening their veins for drug researchers. It’s risky and you can’t get rich, but it pays the bills.

I found it a bit disturbing. Tell us what you think.

Cheers,
Michael Cook
Editor

PS – the regular BioEdge newsletter will appear later this week, as usual.

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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

to make a comment, click here

 

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