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Guest Post

Nudges in a post-truth world.

22 May, 17 | by miriamwood

Guest Post: Neil Levy

Full Article: Nudges in  a Post-Truth World

Human beings are motivated reasoners. We find ways to believe what we want to believe, sometimes even in the face of strong evidence to the contrary. This fact helps to explain why so many political issues are intractable, and why so many of us reject the scientific consensus on urgent issues like GMOs, vaccination and climate change. Given the importance of these issues, any means of increasing our responsiveness to evidence deserves exploration.

Nudges – proposals, stemming from the behavioural sciences, for changing the way people act by changing their environments – may be one way of increasing responsiveness to evidence. In my paper, I briefly review evidence that suggests that people resist messages for (apparently) irrelevant reasons, and that by focusing on these reasons, we can make them more responsive to these messages. For instance, people tend to dismiss testimony that comes from those who do not share their political ideology, even when the issue is an empirical one (like climate change). There is evidence that ensuring that the ideology of the source matches the ideology of the audience makes the audience more receptive to the message.

But nudges are ethically controversial. There are a number of reasons why they are controversial, but the central reason is that many people see them as threatening the autonomy of the nudged. It is one thing to address people are reasoning beings, by giving them arguments. It is another to address them as mechanisms, bypassing their reasoning. The truth of claims about vaccines, say, do not depend on who says them, and if we make people more responsive to these claims by altering their source, we manipulate them. We give them causes for their beliefs, not reasons. Or so many people claim.

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The Unusual Case of Ian Paterson and Criminally Harmful Surgery

9 May, 17 | by Iain Brassington

Guest post by Alex Mullock, University of Manchester

On 28th April 2017 in the case of breast surgeon, Ian Paterson, the jury in Nottingham Crown Court agreed that in carrying out unnecessary and mutilating surgery the defendant had done what no reasonable surgeon would do.  Paterson was convicted of seventeen counts of wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm (GBH) and three counts of unlawful wounding (under, respectively, sections 18 and 20 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861) against nine women and one man. These ten victims, however, have been reported to represent a tiny proportion of all Paterson’s alleged victims, a group that might amount to hundreds from his many years of practice in the NHS and private sector.

The “obscure motives” that compelled Paterson may forever remain a mystery but it is interesting that the charges against him relate only to patients he treated in his private practice.  This enabled the prosecution to create a narrative that suggested that financial gain could have been the motivating factor for Paterson’s crimes.  Without greed as a possible motive his actions are baffling, and the prosecution’s case, in alleging that surgery which Paterson argued was performed in the patient’s best interests actually constituted GBH or unlawful wounding, would be more challenging because of the medical context of the allegations.  Importantly, the medical exception to the criminal law – the principle that consensual surgery carried out by qualified professionals is legitimate (“proper medical treatment”) – means that there is an assumption that harm caused by surgery is not a matter for the criminal law because it is a risk that we accept in order to enjoy the benefits of surgical medicine.

Even when surgeons make terribly negligent mistakes, English criminal law, interpreted through legal principles established through the courts, means that even recklessly dangerous surgeons need not fear the criminal law.  (An exception may arise if the patient dies, in which case a charge of gross negligence manslaughter might follow.)  Paterson’s conviction is a landmark case, which might have implications for the prevailing assumption that non-fatal surgical violations are not a criminal matter. more…

Gene Editing For A Long Life – A No Brainer?

28 Apr, 17 | by miriamwood

Guest Post: Isabelle L Robertson
Paper: Student Essay- Designing Methuselah: an ethical argument against germline genetic modification to prolong human longevity

I am 16 years old. I am at the start of my life and looking towards my future, deciding on universities, career options and how I want my life to be. At the moment I can expect to perhaps live to 90 years of age. To me, this seems like a pretty good life. If I was offered more would I take it? I’m not sure; perhaps, if my health and independence can be guaranteed, then yes, I might.

Scientists have identified genes in mice that regulate lifespan. They have then edited these genes and have bred mice that have lived a full generation longer than their peers. These genes have their equivalents in the human genome too. Gene editing is becoming more refined by the day and it is predictable that it will one day be technically possible to edit the genome of human embryos to extend their lifespan. Again, extending from mice trials humans with these same genes altered could live to around 130 years old, the equivalent of a whole extra generation.

Gene editing technology brings with it many exciting opportunities such as the possibility of ridding some individuals of disease causing genetic variants. The possibilities extend beyond this though. It is not an unlikely prospect that in my lifetime I will be faced with the choice of deciding if I want my children to have any genetic alterations. These alterations might not just be limited to lifespan extension either; it is foreseeable that enhancements to traits as varied as intelligence, appearance and athletic capability may be potentially on offer. It’s clear that ethical discussion around each of these scenarios is needed. In my paper I have concentrated on whether genetically editing the human genome to extend lifespan is likely to enhance the quality of a person’s life.

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The Implications of Libertarianism for Compulsory Vaccination

24 Apr, 17 | by miriamwood

Guest Post: Justin Bernstein

Paper: The Case Against Libertarian Arguments for Compulsory Vaccination

In a recent political controversy, libertarian Senator Rand Paul articulated his opposition to a policy of compulsory vaccination, stating that he was “all for [vaccines],” but that he was “also for freedom.” U.S. opponents of vaccines often object to compulsory vaccination on the (false) grounds that vaccines cause autism. But Paul’s claim that he was “for freedom” suggests a distinct, libertarian-minded rationale for opposing compulsory vaccination.

Libertarians deny that the state has the right to restrict individual liberty in order to promote welfare. A policy of compulsory vaccination promotes welfare by ensuring herd immunity. But such a policy also restricts individual liberty because it requires parents to subject their children to a medical procedure, and permits the state to punish non-compliance. So, a policy of compulsory vaccination certainly seems at odds with the libertarian’s commitment to liberty–even if herd immunity is threatened.

Some libertarians, however, attempt to avoid the controversial conclusion that libertarianism is incompatible with compulsory vaccination. In my recent paper, “The Case Against Libertarian Arguments for Compulsory Vaccination,” I argue that such attempts are unsuccessful, and so libertarians must either develop new arguments, or join Senator Paul in opposing compulsory vaccination.

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Breakthrough Immunotherapies Seem Like a Dream Come True for Children with Leukemia

18 Apr, 17 | by miriamwood

Guest Post: Nancy Jecker, Aaron Wightman, Abby Rosenberg, Doug Diekema

Paper: From protection to entitlement: selecting research subjects for early phase clinical trials involving breakthrough therapies

A breakthrough therapy to cure cancer in children suffering from acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is a dream for many families.  New immunotherapies appear to make this dream a reality. Such therapies use a person’s own immune cells to recognize and combat their disease. In the largest study to date of ALL patients treated with a form of immunotherapy known as Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T-Cell therapy, a 93% remission rate was reported. Such results are a glimmer of hope for those whose prognoses were previously considered very poor.

However, the good news is tempered by the fact this potentially lifesaving experimental therapy may not be available to everyone who might benefit. And demand is growing as word spreads. Since CAR T-cell therapy for ALL is available only through clinical trials, do patients have a right to participate? How should we choose among medically suitable candidates?

We have faced these questions before. Most recently, with ZMapp to treat Ebola Virus Disease, azidothymidine (AZT) to treat HIV and AIDS, and Immunitab (Gleevac) to treat Chronic Myleogenous Leukemia. Are patients suffering from devastating, life-threatening diseases entitled to breakthrough therapies?

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The Moral Bioenhancement of Psychopaths

18 Apr, 17 | by miriamwood

Guest Post: Elvio Baccarini and Luca Malatesti

Paper: The Moral Bioenhancement of Psychopaths

We argue that the prescription of mandatory moral bioenhancement (from now on MB) of psychopaths is justified because it satisfies the requirement of public reason as elaborated in political philosophy. This is the requirement that a moral or political prescription should be justifiable to all those persons over whom the prescription purports to have authority.

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Individually-Randomized Controlled Trials of Vaccines Against the Next Outbreak

11 Apr, 17 | by miriamwood

Guest Post: Nir Eyal, Marc Lipsitch

Paper: Vaccine testing for emerging infections: the case for individual randomisation 

The humbling experience of international response to Ebola taught the world a thing or two on preparing for Zika and for other emerging infections.

Some of those lessons pertain to vaccine development against emerging infections. One lesson was that vigorous vaccine development should start long in advance of outbreaks. CEPI, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, was recently launched with an initial investment of half a billion US dollars from the Gates Foundation, Britain’s Wellcome Trust and the governments of Japan, Norway and Germany. There is also growing recognition that best practices on vaccine testing should be developed prior to outbreaks, from a study methodology viewpoint.

By contrast, in Zika, ethical guidelines on response in general and on an aspect of vaccine testing were created only once the pandemic erupted. Shouldn’t ethical disputes, e.g. on trial design for vaccine candidates, be ironed out in advance of emerging infections?

One persistent ethical question in vaccine testing pertains to individually-randomized control in efficacy trials. At the height of the 2014-5 Ebola outbreak, individually-randomized controlled trials were much maligned. Our paper at the Journal of Medical Ethics sets out to defend that approach for vaccine efficacy testing in emerging infections, including highly fatal and untreatable ones in developing countries.

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The Deadly Business of an Unregulated Global Stem Cell Market

30 Mar, 17 | by miriamwood

Guest Post: The deadly business of an unregulated global stem cell industry

Tereza Hendl and Tamra Lysaght

In our paper, we report on the case of a 75-year old Australian woman who died in December 2013 from complications of an autologous stem cell procedure. This case was tragic and worth reporting to the medical ethics community because her death was entirely avoidable and the result of a pernicious global problem – doctors exploiting regulatory systems in order to sell unproven and unjustified stem cell interventions.

The patient at the centre of this case, Sheila Drysdale, underwent a liposuction procedure administered by cosmetic surgeon, Dr Ralph Bright, at his private Sydney clinic. Dr Bright did not perform this procedure for cosmetic reasons, but rather to ‘treat’ her advanced dementia with adipose (fat) derived stem cells. Mrs Drysdale died within ten hours of the surgery. Following an inquest into her death, the New South Wales Deputy Coroner stated that the utilisation of stem cells to ‘treat’ dementia was “highly questionable” and displayed “some of the hallmarks of ‘quack’ medicine,” particularly owing to the lack of scientific evidence supporting such ’therapy.’ The Coroner, thus, called for a more rigorous regulation of ‘innovative’ medical procedures in Australia that would protect vulnerable patients. Sadly, the relevant regulatory authorities have done very little to bring about any justice for Mrs Drysdale, or to address the systemic problems in Australia’s legislative framework that allows medical professionals to offer unproven stem cell-based interventions to patients without any accountability.

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Family Presence During Resuscitation: Extending Ethical Norms from Pediatrics to Adults

28 Mar, 17 | by miriamwood

Guest Post: Christine Vincent and Zohar Lederman

Paper: Family presence during resuscitation: extending ethical norms from paediatrics to adults

Family Presence During Resuscitation is an important ethical issue for discussion within the medical community. Currently, family presence is more commonly accepted in paediatric cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) than adult CPR. However, we argue that this fact is not morally justified and that the case for family presence during adult CPR is indeed morally stronger. In our paper we provide an ethical argument for accepting both family presence during adult CPR and pediatric CPR.

Arguments commonly used by ethicists and medical professionals to justify family presence during resuscitation (FPDR) in the emergency room revolve around scarce evidence of harm to patient outcome, strong evidence demonstrating benefits to relatives, and respect for patient’s wishes. However, we argue that these three main reasons all seem to be stronger in the case of adult patients than pediatric ones.

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Aid-in-Dying Laws and the Physician’s Duty to Inform

22 Mar, 17 | by miriamwood

Guest Post: Mara Buchbinder

Paper: Aid-in-dying laws and the physician’s duty to inform

Why do so many people assume that any clinical communication about aid-in-dying (AID, also known as assisted suicide), where it is legal, ought to be patient-initiated? Physician participants in my ongoing study tend to assume that physicians should wait for patients to initiate discussions of AID. The clinical ethics literature on communication about AID has reinforced this expectation by focusing on how to respond to patient requests. Consequently, bioethics has largely remained silent on whether there is a professional duty to inform terminally ill patients about AID laws and their clinical and legal requirements.

As a medical anthropologist, I pay attention to such gaps in professional discourse, as they often indicate ideas that are so taken for granted that they escape formal expression. In this case, bioethics’ silence on professional obligations to inform patients about AID suggests to me that initiating such a discussion is widely viewed as dangerous. But why? My recent article in the Journal of Medical Ethics began with this puzzling question.

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