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In the Journals

A Matter of Life and Death

10 Jan, 17 | by bearp

Guest Post by Professor Lynn Turner-Stokes

Re: A matter of life and death – controversy at the interface between clinical and legal decision-making in prolonged disorders of consciousness

In an article published in the JME, I highlight the confusion that exists amongst many clinicians, lawyers and members of the public about decisions with withdraw life-sustaining treatments from patients in permanent vegetative and minimally conscious states.

Recent improvements in acute care for patient who have suffered catastrophic brain injury undoubtedly save lives. However, some patients who would otherwise have died now survive but remain profoundly disabled. Many patients experience a brief period of unconsciousness (or ‘coma’) lasting a few days or weeks. However, an unfortunate few with very severe brain injury remain in a vegetative and minimally conscious state (VS/MCS) for many months – or in some cases permanently.

Unfortunately the lay press, and even much of the medical literature, tends to conflate VS/MCS with coma, but they are in fact very different. Coma is a state of ‘unrousable unresponsiveness’ from which the patient cannot be awakened. It rarely persists for more than a few days or weeks, as the large majority of patients will either die or start to regain consciousness. Patients in VS or MCS are awake, but have either very limited awareness of themselves and their environment (MCS), or none at all (VS). With supportive treatment, many will live in these states for a decade or more.


We’re all Gonna Die… Eventually

6 Oct, 16 | by Iain Brassington

It might just be a product of the turnover of people with whom I have much professional contact, but I’ve not heard as much about human enhancement in the past couple of years as I had in, say, 2010.  In particular, there seems to be less being said about radical life extension.  Remember Aubrey de Grey and his “seven deadly things“?  The idea there was that senescence was attributable to seven basic processes; those basic processes are all perfectly scrutable and comprehensible biological mechanisms.  Therefore, the argument went, if we just put the time and effort into finding a way to slow, halt, or reverse them, we could slow, halt, or reverse aging.  Bingo.  Preventing senescence would also ensure maximum robustness, so accidents and illnesses would be less likely to kill us.  To all intents and purposes, we’d be immortal.  Some enterprising people of an actuarial mindset even had a go at predicting how long an immortal life would be.  Eventually, you’ll be hit by a bus.  But you might have centuries of life to live before that.

Dead easy.

I was always a bit suspicious of that.  The idea that death provides meaning to life is utterly unconvincing; but the idea that more life is always a good thing is unconvincing, too.  What are you going to do with it?  In essence, it’s one thing to feel miffed that one isn’t going to have the time and ability to do all the things that one wants to do: life is a necessary criterion for any good.  But that doesn’t mean that more life is worth having in its own right.  Centuries spent staring at a blank wall isn’t made any better by dint of being alive.

But a letter published this week in Nature suggests that there is an upper end to human lifespan after all.  In essence, the demographic data seem to suggest that there’s an upper limit to survivability.  That being the case, we should stop worrying about making people live longer and longer, and concentrate on what’s going on during the 125 years or so that Dong, Milholland and Vijg think is allotted to us. more…

There’s Argument, and there’s Disputation.

7 Jun, 16 | by Iain Brassington

Very well, then: let’s allow that the quality of argument in bioethics – and clinical ethics in particular – is not of high quality.  What should be done about it?

That’s a hard question, though it’s predictable and wholly justifiable that it should be asked.  And, to be honest, I don’t know offhand.  I might have a few germs of ideas, but nothing that I’d be prepared to mention in public.  That doesn’t mean that I can’t look at other ideas, and test them out.  One such idea is mooted in this paper by Merrick et al: in essence, they propose a sort of debating competition.  They begin by explaining – with some plausibility – some of the factors that make it a bit hard to get full-blooded engagement with ethics in the medical curriculum:

As educators, we have observed additional challenges medical students face in their ethics education, which echo others’ experiences. First, because of the prodigious amount of information medical students are presented with during their first two years of training, they typically adopt a strategy of selectively reading assignments, attending large lectures, and participating in small group discussions.  In this context, ethics appears to be deprioritized, because, from the students’ perspective, it is both more demanding and less rewarding than other subjects.  Unlike other subjects, ethics requires students to reflect on their personal moral sensibilities in addition to understanding theory and becoming familiar with key topics and cases.  Yet, also unlike other courses, poor marks in ethics rarely cause academic failure, given the way performance in medical school curricula is typically evaluated.  Thus, ethics is both more demanding—because of the burdens of self-reflection—and less rewarding—because excellence in ethics does not contribute significantly to grades or test scores.

Second, medical students face challenges in how they individually conceptualize the value of ethics in the medical context.  Although many indicate that morality is important to them, they also suggest that it is a subject matter that relates to their personal, as opposed to professional, actions.  Instead, students often conflate the domains of institutional policy and health law (especially risk management and malpractice litigation) with medical ethics.  Although these domains are obviously also of essential concern for future physicians, they remain distinguishable from ethical issues likely to emerge in practice.  Consequently, rigorous and effective ethics education within the medical school context faces the challenge of distinguishing ethics from other aspects of professionalism.

Too often, ethics gets run alongside communication skills training (well, it’s all about getting informed consent, isn’t it?  Eh?  Eh?); and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked to prepare multiple choice questions for ethics assessment.  (Standard answer: nope.  It’s got to be an essay of some sort, or it’s not worth doing.)

So what to do?  The paper, as I’ve already said, suggests a quasi-competitive debating competition, in which teams of students are given a problem, and a limited time to make a case in response to that problem.  An opposing team then has a limited amount of time to place a counterargument.  Then they swap roles, so the counterarguing team gets to make the argument, and the previous arguers now become counter-arguers.  Judges can ask questions, and assign a score.  “The basic aim of the MEB curriculum,” the authors say,

is to help students learn how to produce and present an argument for an ethical position in response to a realistic clinical situation.


Every now and again I get asked to help judge debating competitions – sometimes for academic institutions, sometimes for non-University bodies, sometimes for others (*cough* Instituteofideas *cough*).  I used to be happy to help out.  But I’m not so sure now. more…

Writers Whose Expertise is Deplorably Low

4 Jun, 16 | by Iain Brassington

Something popped up on my twitter feed the other day: this document from Oxford’s philosophy department.  (I’m not sure quite what it is.  Brochure?  In-house magazine?  Dunno.  It doesn’t really matter, though.)  In it, there’s a striking passage from Jeff McMahan’s piece on practical ethics:

Even though what is variously referred to as ‘practical ethics’ or ‘applied ethics’ is now universally recognized as a legitimate area of philosophy, it is still regarded by some philosophers as a ghetto within the broader 
area of moral philosophy.  This view is in one way warranted, as there is much work in such sub-domains of practical ethics as bioethics and business ethics that is done by writers whose expertise is in medicine, health policy, business, or some area other than moral philosophy, and whose standards of rigour in moral argument
are deplorably low.  These writers also tend
 to have only a superficial understanding of normative ethics.  Yet reasoning in practical ethics cannot be competently done without sustained engagement with theoretical issues
in normative ethics.  Indeed, Derek Parfit believes that normative and practical ethics are so closely interconnected that it is potentially misleading even to distinguish between them.  In his view, the only significant distinction is between ethics and metaethics, and even that distinction is not sharp.  [emphasis mine]

It’s a common complaint among medical ethicists who come from a philosophical background that non-philosophers are (a) not as good at philosophy, (b) doing medical ethics wrong, (c) taking over.  All right: there’s an element of hyperbole in my description of that complaint, but the general picture is probably recognisable.  And I don’t doubt that there’ll be philosophers grumbling along those lines at the IAB in Edinburgh in a couple of weeks.  There’s a good chance that I’ll be among them.

There’s a lot going on in McMahan’s piece, and his basic claim is, I suppose, open to a claim that, being a philosopher, he would say that, wouldn’t he?  But even if that claim is warranted, it doesn’t follow that it’s false.  And it probably isn’t false.  There is some very low-quality argument throughout bioethics (and, from what I remember from my time teaching it, business ethics) – more particularly, in the medical ethics branch of bioethics, and more particularly still, in the clinical ethics sub-branch.  Obviously, I’m not going to pick out any examples here, but many of us could point to papers that have been simply not very good, because the standard of philosophy was low, without too much difficulty.  Often, these are papers we’ve peer-reviewed, and that haven’t seen the light of day.  But sometimes they do get published, and sometimes they get given at conferences.  I’ve known people who make a point of trying to find the worst papers on offer at a given conference, just for the devilry.

It doesn’t take too much work to come up with the common problems: a tendency to leap to normative conclusions based on the findings of surveys, or empirical or sociological work; value-laden language allowing conclusions to be smuggled into the premises of arguments; appeals to vague and – at best – contentious terms like dignity or professionalism; appeals to nostrums about informed consent; cultural difference used as an ill-fitting mask for special pleading; moral theories being chosen according to whether they generate the desired conclusion; and so on.  Within our field, my guess is that appeals to professional or legal guidelines as the solutions to moral problems is a common fallacy.  Not so long ago, Julian noted that

[t]he moralists appear to be winning.  They slavishly appeal to codes, such as the Declaration of Helsinki.  Such documents are useful and represent the distillation of the views of reasonable people.  Still, they do not represent the final word and in many cases are philosophically naïve.

Bluntly: yes, the WMA or the BMA or the law or whatever might say that you ought to do x; and that gives a reason to to x inasmuch as that one has a reason to obey the law and so on.  But it’s unlikely that it’s a sufficient reason; it remains open to us always to ask what those institutions should say.  Suppose they changed their minds and insisted tomorrow that we should do the opposite of x: would we just shrug and get on with the business of undoing what we did today?

And yet…  The complaint about poor argument is not straightforward, for a couple of reasons. more…

Healthcare Ethics Consultants’ Place in the World of Health Care ‘Professionals’

17 May, 16 | by BMJ

Guest Post by Abraham Schwab

During a recent meeting at a local hospital, I was asked what role a good Healthcare Ethics Consultant should play.  I gave a more ambiguous answer than I would like.  I pointed out that Healthcare Ethics Consultants can help patients, providers, and administrators come to a common understanding of the values at play in a particular health care situation.  A Healthcare Ethics Consultant can also help them reach a decision that reflects the medical realities, the patient’s values, and, as appropriate, the families’ values.  But I also pointed out that the role of the Healthcare Ethics Consultant is determined by the particular institution’s needs.  One institution’s Healthcare Ethics Consult can look like another’s Family Care Conference or another’s Palliative Care Consult and so on.  In short, the Healthcare Ethics Consultant’s role and responsibilities is not neatly defined across institutional boundaries.

The American Society of Bioethics and Humanities (ASBH) Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibilities for Healthcare Ethics Consultants aims to “set out the core ethical responsibilities of individuals performing healthcare ethics consultation.”  If successful, it would provide guidance as clinical ethicists and others attempt to answer the question, “What is a Healthcare Ethics Consultant responsible for?”.  Looking over the ASBH’s code, however, it’s hard to imagine using it to provide a content-rich and clear answer.   As I argue in my paper, “The ASBH Code of Ethics and the Limits of Professional Healthcare Ethics Consultations”, the code falls short of its goal in two substantive ways.  First, the Code implicitly relies on the category “professional”, despite the fact that this category lacks clear definition.  Second, the code articulates only vaguely defined responsibilities.

The ASBH’s Code of Ethics is a short document – less than five pages – but invokes the word “professional” 14 times.  That the word is not defined in the code is of no surprise: the use of “professional” is common coin in health care fields.  And yet, the category “professional” is poorly defined.  As I argue, the best available definition is a formal one: professionals share a common commitment to something.  But that something remains undefined in general.  The concept of “profession” is a placeholder indicating that practitioners of a particular occupation have taken on certain additional obligations, and those obligations are specific to the profession in question.  When an occupation claims to be a “profession”, a necessary follow-up question is, “But what does that mean for your occupation?”  Ideally, the ASBH’s Code of Ethics would answer this question for Healthcare Ethics Consultants.

In this regard, the ASBH’s code falls far short.  Most of the broadly defined obligations could be the obligations of any occupation.  The obligations also include conceptual confusions, from conflating privacy and confidentiality to invoking the requirement that Healthcare Ethics Consultants should meet professional standards – the very standards that the Code itself should be providing.

Despite these shortcomings, I write to criticise the ASBH code, not to bury it.  Healthcare Ethics Consultants play important roles in the institutions in which they exist.  Help in defining their responsibilities is needed.  And so I also provide a suggestion for moving the ASBH code forward.  Specifically, the relationships between  “professionals” in health care has shifted.  The isolated responsibilities of the isolated physician have gone the way of the country doctor.  The work of health care “professionals” is now the work of a team and a system, and the responsibilities that attach to these “professionals” are team-based responsibilities.  Further defining the responsibilities of Healthcare Ethics Consultants will require a more comprehensive collaboration across disciplinary boundaries.

If the ASBH’s Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibilities for Healthcare Ethics Consultants is to help answer the question, “What role does a Healthcare Ethics Consultant play?”, it’s next iteration will have to provide more narrowly and clearly defined responsibilities.

Read the full paper here.

Special Obligations: What Can Physicians Learn from Parenting?

6 May, 16 | by bearp

Guest post bJon Tilburt and Baruch Brody

Editor’s note: this post introduces a recent paper by the authors now in press at the Journal of Medical Ethics: “Doubly distributing special obligations: what professional practice can learn from parenting

Gaps between our ideals and our behavior are common. Sometimes what we say we believe and what we actually practice differ because we fail to live up to what we actually believe. Doctors who are disingenuous, selfish, corrupt, or duplicitous in their actions must own their failures to live up to their said ideals. Other times we use oversimplified language to describe a said ideal because the wording feels right even when that language is not strictly speaking accurate and never has been completely true in lived reality.

According to a traditional ethic of medicine, part of what makes medicine a profession is that doctors sign up for a greater level of service and self-effacing care to some people, namely our patients.  Taking care of my patients is my particular job.  If I consider someone my patient, that means something about what I owe them in terms of time, attention, and care.  I will stay late for my patient; I don’t have special obligations to all of the patients who show up at my institution or who live in my community; I have special obligations to my patients.


Where to Publish and Not to Publish in Bioethics

5 May, 16 | by bearp

Guest Post by Stefan Eriksson & Gert Helgesson, Uppsala University

* Note: this is a cross-posting from The Ethics Blog, hosted by the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB) at Uppsala University. The link to the original article is here. Re-posted with permission of the authors.


Allegedly, there are over 8,000 so-called predatory journals out there. Instead of supporting readers and science, these journals serve their own economic interests first and at best offer dubious merits for scholars. We believe that scholars working in any academic discipline have a professional interest and a responsibility to keep track of these journals. It is our job to warn the young or inexperienced of journals where a publication or editorship could be detrimental to their career. Even with the best of intent, researchers who publish in these journals inadvertently subject themselves to criticism. We have seen “predatory” publishing take off in a big way and noticed how colleagues start to turn up in the pages of some of these journals. This trend, referred to by some as the dark side of publishing, needs to be reversed.


The Curious Case of Informed Consent for Egg Donation

17 Mar, 16 | by BMJ

Guest Post by Alana Rose Cattapan

As Michael Dunn writes in a recent editorial for the JME, “no medical ethicist worth their salt would deny that consent is a foundational concept in contemporary medical ethics,” and it is an extraordinary understatement to say that much ink has been spilled on the topic. The spaces between consent in theory and in practice is the subject of Dunn’s editorial, where he describes the ways that scholarship about consent fails, at times, to account for the messiness of the real-life process.

Obtaining consent for egg donation is a particularly messy endeavour. We still know relatively little about the long term effects of egg donation, and donors are sometimes seen as secondary players while the recipient of the eggs – the woman carrying a pregnancy and having a child – is viewed as the primary patient. Like other corporeal donations – blood, organ, bone marrow – egg donation presents a curious case of medical treatment in which there are no physiological benefits to the donor. However, in the case of egg donation, the intervention occurs not to save a life, but rather to fulfil someone else’s desire to have a child.

In Canada, where laws prohibit payment and a grey market in paid donors has emerged, the complexities of obtaining informed consent for egg donation are particularly fraught. Donors that receive payment (are they really donors if they are paid?) have to navigate a system where they are seemingly engaged in something illegal and they may not feel empowered to demand the kind of treatment (including follow-up care) to which they are entitled.

Egg donation, then, must be held to a higher standard of consent than other forms of medical treatment, a position also endorsed by a range of experts including the Canadian Fertility and Andrology Society, and the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada. In 1999, these organizations issued an ethics statement stating explicitly that given the sensitive nature of egg donation, “obtaining voluntary, uncoerced and informed, written consent is crucial to the clinical acceptability of oocyte transfer between women.”

My study of consent forms for egg donation in Canada, published in the JME, reveals some of the curiosities of obtaining consent in this strange in-between place of medicine and reproduction. more…

Stay Classy, BMJ.

14 Feb, 16 | by Iain Brassington

Lord only knows, it pains me to jump to George Osborne’s defence – more so by resurrecting a meme that was already past it when I was first invited to run this blog in 2008 – but on this one occasion, I’m going to have to do it.

Last week, the BMJ reported about a case in which a psychiatrist was struck off the medical register for having entered into a sexual relationship with a vulnerable client.  That’s dodgy enough in its own right; but he also asked her at the beginning of the affair to promise not to report him to the GMC.  That shifts the whole case from being only (!) deeply dodgy to downright despicable – in effect, he’s admitted in that that there is cause to report him for his behaviour, but then gone ahead with that behaviour anyway.  The vulnerability of the woman with whom he was having the affair adds extra piquancy to the whole sorry tale.

I don’t think that there can be any objection to this sort of thing being reported, though it doesn’t get reported often.  I don’t know how often the GMC hears this kind of case, or whether every hearing attracts coverage.  Maybe cases like this get reported whenever they happen, but that they don’t happen all that often.  Or maybe they’re not infrequent, but the GMC has the consistent bad luck only to hand down its verdicts on days when there are bigger news stories to eclipse them.

Or maybe – and I have a suspicion that this is so – it’s the kind of case that is much more likely to get reported when the perpetrator happens to be the brother of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.  Call me a cynic, but that seems… tolerably likely.

Exhibit A on the evidence table: the opening sentence of the story in the BMJ.

Adam Osborne, the psychiatrist brother of the United Kingdom’s chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, has been struck off the UK medical register for “blatant disregard of the fundamental tenets of the medical profession.”

Quite what George has to do with the story, and why the link to him is worth drawing is beyond me.

Ha!  Just kidding.  It’s not beyond me at all.  It’s almost entirely to do with making the story enticing.  Adam’s behaviour is no better or worse by dint of his family connections; they do nothing except to add a detail to something that would otherwise be merely sordid.  And if you can offer a whiff of guilt-by-association by drawing a link between a creepy doctor and a prominent member of a government currently deeply unpopular among medics… well, so much the better, eh?

Now, the BMJ is not the only organisation to make this move: Adam Osborne has been in trouble before, and the BBC, for example, has never been reluctant to point out the family link.  Here’s the thing, though: I don’t think that the Beeb should be doing it either.  For sure, the BBC is at the very least a general-interest news provider, whereas the BMJ could, I think, be expected to concentrate on medicine and medics; yet even that partial mitigation of the BBC is so dismally weak that the only reason to articulate it is to provide a space to air doubts about whether it should have been articulated.

The BBC shouldn’t be doing it; no news organisation should be doing it; the BMJ shouldn’t be doing it.

The same principle applies to other people with embarrassing siblings, of course.  Yes, we know that climate-change “sceptic” Piers Corbyn is Jeremy’s brother.  Unless Jeremy’s policies on CO2 emissions are influenced by Piers, though, that’s neither here nor there; and in the event that Piers does something even dafter than predicting that another ice-age will begin in the middle of next week, there’d almost certainly be no justification for roping in his Jeremy.  The same rules apply.  But since that’s not a medical matter, I’m not going to moan about it here.

I just want to make it clear that I’m not holding a torch for George on this.  I may disagree with him about any number of things, but the conduct of his brother is one thing for which we shouldn’t throw brickbats at him.  Leave George alone.

Should Junior Doctors Strike?

25 Jan, 16 | by Iain Brassington

Guest Post by Mark Toynbee, Adam Al-Diwani, Joe Clacey and Matthew Broome

[Editor’s note: Events in the real world have moved more quickly than David or I have; the facts of the junior doctors’ strike have moved on since the paper was published and this post submitted.  Still, the matters of principle remain. – IB]

A strike by junior doctors is planned for January 2016 following failure of the last-ditch ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) mediated talks between the BMA and the Department of Health (via NHS Employers) – see media reports here, here, and here.  Industrial Action had previously been planned for December last year but was suspended at the last minute when both sides agreed to the now failed mediation.  The current regrettable position has resulted from over two years of formal negotiations between the BMA and NHS Employers regarding a new junior doctor contract.  The BMA went to its junior doctor members for a mandate for industrial action last autumn as the talks stalled and received an almost unprecedented mandate with 98% indicating they would be prepared to strike.

Subsequently, many well-known figures voiced their concerns about the ethical and practical implications of industrial action (here and here).  Strikes by doctors are not common, with only one example in the UK in the last generation, but far from unprecedented.  The overwhelming recent ballot result raises many interesting issues, foremost among them the ethical legitimacy of industrial action by doctors, specifically junior doctors.

The term ‘junior doctor’ is often misunderstood.  It applies to all doctors from graduation until completion of specialist training – over 50,000 individuals.  Their roles and responsibilities have evolved significantly over many years; their pay and hours have reduced whilst their debts, costs and responsibilities have increased.  The patient-doctor relationship has also changed with increased emphasis on patient involvement and the promotion of autonomy.

We have looked at arguments proposed during previous instances of doctor industrial action, often from this journal (see this, this, and this) and considered them in the current context.  Absolute ethical objections to doctor industrial action appear old-fashioned, especially when applied to junior doctors.  Concerns about harms caused by doctors withdrawing their labour also seem less sustainable in the light of recent evidence than perhaps would be expected.  Indeed, the ethical responsibilities of doctors may require them to take action if they believe patient care, or the well-being of their colleagues’, is being compromised.

So far there has been strong support for the junior doctors from the Consultant bodies of many Trusts, and the Royal Colleges.  The modern NHS asks more of its junior doctors than ever before, placing ever increasing responsibilities on their shoulders, with ever more challenging working conditions.  With industrial action by junior doctors now likely to go ahead, claims that it would be unethical appear to us to be increasingly hard to justify.

Read the paper here.

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