You don't need to be signed in to read BMJ Blogs, but you can register here to receive updates about other BMJ products and services via our Group site.

Archive for March, 2012

A Small Solution for a Big Problem?

28 Mar, 12 | by Iain Brassington

BioNews asked me to write something about Matthew Liao, Anders Sandberg and Rebacca Roache’s paper on engineering humanity to minimise global warming.  I’d been meaning to for a while, so this was the prod I needed.  Anyway: my take on their paper is here; but I thought I’d also reproduce it on this blog.  What follows is the version I submitted; it’s substantially the same, save for a few tweaks that BioNews made to conform with their house style.  (They didn’t like the Latin…)  I am massively grateful to the student who made the point about small people taking more steps to get anywhere.  I’d also like to think that the idea of making people smaller led me to Lilliput, thence to Gulliver, thence to the voyage to Laputa.  It didn’t.  I’m not that clever.  Laputa made its appearance quite unbidden.  But – hey, it works.

 *     *     *     *     *

There’s a part of Gulliver’s Travels where Gulliver visits the grand Academy at Lagado, wherein one of the academicians is trying to derive sunbeams from cucumbers.  It’s tempting to wonder at first glance whether there’s something of the Academy to Liao, Sandberg and Roache’s proposed strategy for combating climate change: that we could engineer humanity to be less of a drain on the environment.  Their paper, “Human Engineering and Climate Change” (forthcoming in Ethics, Policy and the Environment, with a pre-publication version here), has already attracted a reasonable amount of media interest, and it’s not hard to see why.  The headline proposal is that we could engineer people to be smaller, on the grounds that smaller people require less food and fuel: a population that is smaller on the whole would have less environmental impact.  (A small part of this – and I’m genuinely fond of this idea – is that heavier people wear out shoes and carpets more quickly, so are more resource-hungry.  On the other hand, as one of my students has pointed out, short people take more steps to get across the room; the carpet might actually suffer more.  Moreover, a small person has a greater surface-to-volume ratio, and so would lose heat more quickly, possibly requiring more central heating and more food.) more…

Cancer drugs and magic money fountains of youth

26 Mar, 12 | by David Hunter

The McMillian Cancer trust has published a report described on the radio as I drove to Manchester this morning as a damming and shameful report about the NHS and discrimination. The report alleges that more than 14 thousand elderly cancer sufferers are allowed to die in the UK because of age based discrimination.

Raised Glasses to Raised Prices?

26 Mar, 12 | by Iain Brassington

The proposal that there should be a minimum 40p/ unit price for alcohol, announced last week, has been broadly welcomed.  Not universally, but broadly.  There has been some dissent – but, by and large, it doesn’t seem to have been particularly vocal.

From a ethicist’s perspective, the objection that we might expect to hear articulated most has to do with paternalism: if the move is designed to coerce people into a certain kind of behaviour, and the motivation for this is a concern with people’s own good, then that might be presented as undue interference.  However, the response to this is simply to deny that paternalism of this sort is always a bad thing.  “Respect for autonomy” has become something of a dogma among many people working in bioethicists, but it’s not beyond question – and it’s certainly not enough simply to stamp your foot and say, “Yes, but AUTONOMY” to defeat a proposal.  At the very least, the idea that governments should not intervene to prevent self-harming behaviour needs argumentative backing.  (I know that this is a particular bugbear of Angus Dawson and a number of other people working in public health ethics.  I don’t agree with the suggestion in some quarters that the “rules” of PHE are different from the “rules” of the rest of bioethics, such that autonomy is not as important in PHE as it is in those other areas – I think that ethics is ethics is ethics; but this simply means that unquestioning deference to autonomy and liberty is philosophically bogus right across the board.)

But, actually, the minimum-pricing policy doesn’t have to be defended on public health grounds.   more…

Matters of Principlism

23 Mar, 12 | by Iain Brassington

There’s a short paper in the latest JME about which I’ve been meaning to write something for a while – ever since I noticed it as a pre-pub: William Muirhead’s “When Four Principles are Too Many”.  (Raa Gillon provides a commentary here.)

Anyone who’s ever heard me talk professionally for longer than about 35 seconds at once will know that I have little time for “Principlism”.  This is not quite the same as a claim that I have little time for the principles themselves – but this itself is arguably because what those principles demand is vague, or trivial, or some combination of the two.  (It’s one thing to say that actions should be just, for example, but that just leaves open the question of what justice demands; and who in their right mind would demur from the idea that actions ought to be just, especially when no substantive account of justice is entailed?  Or what about respect for autonomy?  That’s often taken to mean that autonomy is king – but giving something its proper respect doesn’t tell us that a great deal of respect is warranted…)  But, anyway: a critique of Principlism is all groovy in my view.

Except… well, this one doesn’t quite seem to work for me; and it’s problematic for a few of reasons. more…

How Abortion Law Works in Texas

16 Mar, 12 | by Iain Brassington

Remember a little while ago there was a rash of proposals in the US that’d force women to see a sonogram of the foetus, or to listen to detailed descriptions of it, before having an abortion?

Yeah: them.  Well, via Ophelia, here’s an account of what really happens.

Halfway through my pregnancy, I learned that my baby was ill. Profoundly so. […] “I’m worried about your baby’s head shape,” she said.  “I want you to see a specialist—now.”

[… B]efore I’d even known I was pregnant, a molecular flaw had determined that our son’s brain, spine and legs wouldn’t develop correctly.  If he were to make it to term—something our doctor couldn’t guarantee—he’d need a lifetime of medical care.  From the moment he was born, my doctor told us, our son would suffer greatly.

So, softly, haltingly, my husband asked about termination.  The doctor shot me a glance that said: Are you okay to hear this now?  I nodded, clenched my fists and focused on the cowboy boots beneath her scrubs.

She started with an apology[…]

That’s not a good start, is it?  An expression of sympathy, maybe.  But an apology?  It’s as if she knows that things are about to get worse.  And they are. more…

We’re Back!

14 Mar, 12 | by Iain Brassington

Just a quick housekeeping post: the servers fell over a couple of days ago, so noone has been able to moderate – or, as far as I can tell, submit – comments.  But hopefully things’re back on track now.

There has been a couple of changes, though: I have a feeling that the comments whitelist may have been wiped, so people may have to fill in all their details again to comment.  And there’s a couple of other alterations, too, so I’ve fiddled with some of the settings in the hope that the transition’ll be smooth – and hopefully the servers will stay standing.  I can’t see how to get the button that tweets posts back, nor the one that likes them on Facebook: I’ll keep looking for them.  Fingers crossed, eh?  Ah-ha!  Got ’em!

Update: One other change: there’s a hell of a lot of spam coming in, so I’m going to close comments on a post after a month to save having to mod and delete each post individually.


As you were.

Unlocking the Right to Die?

12 Mar, 12 | by Iain Brassington

It’s just been reported that Tony Nicklinson has won the right to have his right to die case heard before the courts.  This is the result of a hearing in which the Ministry of Justice’s contention was that any such case would potentially re-write the murder laws, and that this is a matter for Parliament, rather than the courts.

Nicklinson has had “locked-in syndrome” since a stroke in 2005: he’s capable of communication, but little else.  (His wife was interviewed on the Today programme this morning: it’s well worth a listen.)

As I understand it, what makes his case different from that of, say, Diane Pretty is that his argument rests on an appeal to necessity: his wife claims that “the only way to relieve Tony’s suffering will be to kill him.  There’s absolutely nothing else that can be done for him” (skip to about 3:30 in the interview for that bit).  There’s also a dignity aspect to the petition.

This being news that’s only broken in the last couple of minutes, further details are slightly sketchy.  (I suspect there’ll be a statement from the MoJ, but I can’t see anything on their website just yet.)  However, I’m prepared to stick my neck out to make a prediction.  It’s this:  more…

JOB: Research Fellow in Bioethics/ Philosophy

9 Mar, 12 | by Iain Brassington

School of Health and Population Sciences/ College of Medical and Dental Sciences, University of Birmingham

This post was created as a result of securing funds under the EU FP7 security call for collaborative research project SURVEILLE (Surveillance: Ethical Issues, Legal Limitations and Efficiency). In brief, SURVEILLE is a multidisciplinary project combining law, ethics, sociology and technology analysis is reviewing the impacts of different surveillance systems used to counter terrorism and serious crime, working with manufacturers and end-users. This post will support Heather Draper to conduct an evaluation of an ethics advisory service for technology developers and users that is being organised and run by Professor Tom Sorell (Centre for the Study of Global Ethics).

The post-holder will be based in Medicine, Ethics, Society and History (MESH) in the School of Health and Population Sciences, College of Medical and Dental Sciences. As such, the post-holder will work closely with Heather Draper and must be willing and able to contribute to the research effort in MESH (including making applications for further funding, as well research outputs, typically articles in high impact peer review journals). Accordingly, we are looking for a candidate who is both competent to conduct the evaluation (using qualitatively analysed interviews) of the advisory service and able work in bioethics, as well as being willing to engage with some of the philosophical work required for SURVEILLE.

Full details here; apply via this page.

Workshop: The Baby Gaga Saga: Regulation of Human Products and the Politics of Breastfeeding

8 Mar, 12 | by David Hunter

Posted on behalf of Sorcha Uí Chonnachtaigh.

All are welcome to our multi-disciplinary workshop on the regulation of human breast milk and the ethics and politics of breastfeeding! Please circulate the programme and information below to anyone who may be interested.


Some Responses to Giubilini and Minerva

5 Mar, 12 | by Iain Brassington

I did mention last week that I’d post links to sites that mentioned Giubilini and Minerva’s paper as they crossed my radar; but it turned out very quickly that there’d be no way to keep up.  And, to be frank, a lot of the blogosphere’s response has been fairly scattergun outrage rather than dispassionate engagement with the paper, and directed at Giubilini and Minerva themselves rather than at the argument they put forward.  There’s been much more heat than light.

This is perhaps unsurprising, as considered responses are almost certainly going to take a while to materialise.  However, they have begun to appear.  Here’s the first that I’ve spotted; I’ll post links to more in this thread as and when.  And if any readers have responses on or SSRN that they’d like mentioning, or if anyone spots anything of interest, do let me know. more…

JME blog homepage

Journal of Medical Ethics

Analysis and discussion of developments in the medical ethics field. Visit site

Creative Comms logo

Latest from JME

Latest from JME

Blogs linking here

Blogs linking here