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In the Journals

On the other hand…

20 Jul, 15 | by Iain Brassington

… the phenomenon of apologising for the wrong thing comes alongside people taking umbrage at the wrong thing.  Last week, the BMJ ran a head-to-head feature on the “question” of whether doctors should recommend homeopathy.  This was the latest in a series of articles in which a question is posed, apparently strictly on the understanding that it’ll accommodate a polarised debate, and one person is invited to give a “yea” response, and another to give “nay”.  I won’t bother here with a screed about homeopathy: Edzard Ernst does a good job in the BMJ piece, as have many others across the blogosphere.  (You could do worse, for example, than to have a wander through the Anomalous Distraction blog, which is written by an ex-schoolmate of mine, and which also has lots of pretty pictures of proteins and things.)  Since it’s a nice day, and I’m in a reasonably good mood, I’ll even admit that when Hahnemann was working, something like homeopathy was probably as good a punt as anything else that medicine had to offer.  But… y’know.

Aaaaaanyway…  A rather angry letter appeared.  I think it’s worth examining, because it makes a number of normative and value claims; and if norms and values aren’t the meat and veg of an ethicist’s life, then we might as well go home. more…

How to be a good (consequentialist) bioethicist…

6 Jul, 15 | by David Hunter

There has recently been a pattern of papers (and I am not going to identify which ones) which I take as being slightly embarrassing to academic bioethicists because they portray us in a less than flattering light because of the naive mistakes they seem to make, or the outlandish poorly argued claims they make. I have noted a trend for these to have come from relatively new, consequentialist bioethicists and being the helpful sort that I am, the aim of this blog post therefore is to help consequentialist bioethicists from falling into these pitfalls.


We should not Prevent Some Depressed People from Access to Assisted Dying

18 May, 15 | by BMJ

Guest post by Udo Schuklenk

We should not prevent some depressed people from access to assisted dying.

Deborah E Gray, whose depression is (according to her account) successfully managed today, describes vividly on her website the impact depression had on her.  She writes:

you don’t feel hopeful or happy about anything in your life.  You’re crying a lot for no apparent reason, either at nothing, or something that normally would be insignificant.  You feel like you’re moving (and thinking) in slow motion.  Getting up in the morning requires a lot of effort.  Carrying on a normal conversation is a struggle.  You can’t seem to express yourself.  You’re having trouble making simple decisions.  Your friends and family really irritate you.  You’re not sure if you still love your spouse/significant other.  Smiling feels stiff and awkward.  It’s like your smiling muscles are frozen.  It seems like there’s a glass wall between you and the rest of the world.  You’re forgetful, and it’s very difficult to concentrate on anything.  You’re anxious and worried a lot.  Everything seems hopeless.  You feel like you can’t do anything right.  You have recurring thoughts of death and/or suicidal impulses.  Suicide seems like a welcome relief.  Even on sunny days, it seems cloudy and gray.  You feel as though you’re drowning or suffocating.  Your senses seem dulled; food tastes bland and uninteresting, music doesn’t seem to affect you, you don’t bother smelling flowers anymore.

In many jurisdictions where the decriminalisation of assisted dying is debated, proponents of decriminalisation hasten to add that they would, of course, exclude patients that suffer from depression.  This may be a political move aimed at increasing the societal acceptability of assisted dying, but it is unjust towards patients suffering from treatment-resistant depression.  Many lay-people, and even doctors and nurses, fail to acknowledge the severe suffering that comes with depression.  Patients who suffer from long-term treatment resistant depression are not just ‘feeling a bit low’.  As the quotation above shows, these people really suffer existentially, and because their depression has proven to be untreatable (often over the course of decades) there is no relief for their suffering. more…

Autonomy and the Circumcision Wars

27 Feb, 15 | by Iain Brassington

Guest Post by Akim McMath

In December of last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released its proposed new recommendations on male circumcision.  The verdict?  Circumcision provides major benefits with minimal risks.  These benefits accrue whether circumcision is performed in infancy or later on in life.  Circumcision may even help to stem the HIV epidemic in the United States.  Perhaps you should do something about that foreskin.

The resulting firestorm was swift, fierce, and predictable.  Critics of infant circumcision blasted the CDC, accusing it of trampling the child’s right to bodily integrity.  Defenders of circumcision fired back, extolling the prophylactic virtues of the procedure.  Subtle questions about autonomy were lost in the maelstrom.  Yet these questions lie at the heart of the conflict, as I suggest in a new article.

Let’s look more closely at the debate over circumcision and HIV.  Defenders of circumcision tout studies showing that circumcision reduces female-to-male sexual transmission of HIV.  Critics retort that there exists a more effective and less drastic means of achieving the same end – namely, condoms.  Perhaps, concede the defenders, but many men don’t use condoms consistently and effectively – hence the enduring problem of STIs.  That’s their choice! say the critics.  So? say the defenders.  And so on, ad infinitum.

The foregoing squabble is essentially a disagreement about autonomy. more…

Does religion deserve a place in secular medicine?

26 Feb, 15 | by bearp

By Brian D. Earp

The latest issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics is out, and in it, Professor Nigel Biggar—an Oxford theologian—argues that “religion” should have a place in secular medicine (click here for a link to the article).

Some people will feel a shiver go down their spines—and not only the non-religious. After all, different religions require different things, and sometimes they come to opposite conclusions. So whose religion, exactly, does Professor Biggar have in mind, and what kind of “place” is he trying to make a case for?


Should Anyone get IVF?

25 Nov, 14 | by Iain Brassington

Cast your mind back to this summer, and Christina Richie’s paper about the provision of ARTs.  It attracted a fair bit of controversy because of the way it talked about gay people’s rights to access ARTs, and their “voluntary” infertility.  For my money, that was the weakest part of the paper, and it should have been left out of the argument; the majority of the paper, and the more ethically interesting part, had to do with the environmental impact of striving to have more and more kids, irrespective of their parentage.  But I can see why the part about gay people struck many people as worth commenting on.

Why mention all that now?  Well, there’s a nice paper by Emily McTernan currently on pre-pub in the Journal of Applied Philosophy asking whether any fertility treatment should be state-funded.  In it, she asks whether IVF should be state-funded at all.  In a nutshell, her claim is that many of the arguments about the good of parenthood are either weak in their own right, or else could apply equally well to any number of other goods that a person might pursue.  Those that are weak are obviously less likely to sustain a claim that iVF should be provided; those that apply equally well to other goods obviously suggest either that governments should fund the pursuit of those other goods as well, or that if pursuit of those other goods is not funded, then neither should IVF be.  Thus

it is unjustifiable for a state to provide fertility treatment more generously than it funds other valuable like projects, both in the quantity of funding and the lack of means testing.

What I really like about the paper is that McTernan sets out the main arguments for funding in a simple but never simplistic manner, and calmly knocks them down one by one.  I’m already inclined to be suspicious of, if not hostile to, public funding of IVF (there being things with a more pressing need for public money, and genetic relatedness being not all that important), but she puts the arguments more neatly than I ever could.  She’s very good at pointing out that a particular argumentative strategy might be tempting, but that we would probably fight shy of adopting it because it would commit us to moral conclusions we wouldn’t normally want to embrace.  So, for example, if you’re inclined to agree with the Daniels line that adverse departures from normal species functioning could count as disease, you might be tempted to say that infertility is a disease – and therefore ought to be treated, or at least ameliorated, by IVF.  But

lack of reproductive success cannot itself suffice to make for an adverse departure [from the norm]: we would not want to conclude that those preferring same-sex partners have a disease, given the reproductive failure resulting from their statistically unusual sexual preference, let alone that it should be treated.


Elsewhere, she attacks the idea of parenting as a unique good as a ground for providing IVF, and the idea that we ought to support and enable reproduction as a social good.  McTernan recognises that there is arguably a social injustice in that a woman’s most fertile years tend to coincide with the years most crucial for her career.  This means that a woman who wants kids is likely to defer pregnancy, thereby reducing her chance of getting pregnant.  IVF might correct for that.  However, McTernan contends, this isn’t compelling, not least because the argument transforms a social phenomenon – which she thinks constitutes an injustice – into a problem with the individual; providing IVF (which isn’t all that reliable anyway) might provide an interim solution to the social problem, but it does nothing to address it fundamentally.  So, she claims, the argument probably isn’t all that strong.

But she then makes a fascinating exception – and this is where her paper is in interesting contrast to Richie’s: it’s that we do have more of a reason to provide IVF to gay couples. more…

The Ebola Outbreak in Western Africa: Ethical Obligations for Care

11 Sep, 14 | by BMJ

Guest post by Aminu Yakubu, Morenike Oluwatoyin FolayanNasir Sani-Gwarzo, Patrick Nguku, Kristin Peterson, and Brandon Brown

In our article “The Ebola Outbreak in Western Africa: Ethical Obligations for Care” we focus on the health care system’s ability to combat the recent epidemic of Ebola in Western Africa.  This is a timely and urgent issue.  Many medical ethicists – including those called upon by the WHO – are focusing on availability of experimental drugs, but little is being discussed about on-the-ground care and human rights.  By the time this article was written, in August 2014, there were 1145 deaths from Ebola.  In the news, Ebola treatment facilities were being taken over by armed civilians who stole medicines to protect themselves, resulting in Ebola patients fleeing for their lives and further spreading the virus.  This action has taken a toll on an already limited infrastructure.

The unspoken heroes of the Ebola epidemic are the healthcare workers who brave potential infection to save the lives of those infected.   In Nigeria, nine health care workers were infected, and three health care workers had already died by the time this blog was written.  With this news, willingness of medical staff to provide care for patients with Ebola virus is limited, as the danger to their own life is great.  Moral obligations of healthcare staff to provide care should have limited sanctions for non-compliance so as not to infringe on the healthcare workers right to life.  Workers who do care for Ebola patients must be provided with adequate protective equipment and a safe working environment, as well as compensated if they become infected in the course of duty.  Traditional public health ethics has paid little attention to the protection of the rights of healthcare workers, but the Ebola epidemic has brought this issue to the forefront.  Its time those who are responsible for saving our lives have a voice.


Read the full paper here.

UPDATE:  Brandon Brown emails:
I just received a nice on the ground photo (Ebola decontamination) from my collaborators in Nigeria if we can attach to the blog entry.  [Click image for bigger.]





On Conflicts of Interest

28 Jul, 14 | by Iain Brassington

It’s only a few days since Richie’s paper on providing IVF in the context of global warming was published, but already there’s been a couple of lines of objection to it that have been fairly widespread; I thought it might be worth nodding to one, and perhaps offering an attempt of a defence against the other.

The first objection is that there’s no justification for the claim about same-sex couples in Richie’s paper – that she shouldn’t have treated homosexuality as a lifestyle choice and as “non-biological” infertility.  I think that there’s significant merit to this objection to the paper; and though neither Dominic nor I mentioned the objection explicitly, I think that it’s there between the lines of each of our commentaries.  (It’s certainly an aspect of the paper that’s picked up by the Telegraph‘s coverage of the paper, and it’s been mentioned a couple of times on Twitter and Facebook by people I know and follow.  (I note that the Telegraph also gave a highly bastardised version of my post here.  Ho hum.))  I think that Richie’s argument would have been at least as strong if she’d talked about providing IVF to anyone whatsoever – the qualifications about different “sorts” of infertility and lifestyle, I suspect, weakened the paper, inasmuch as that a paper with unnecessary and argumentatively weak aspects is more vulnerable to objections generally than one in which those aspects have been left out.  So, yeah: I think that that might count as having been – at best – a strategic error on Richie’s part.

Here’s the other claim that I’ve seen a few times about the paper: that it’s weakened by a conflict of interest because of the author’s affiliation.  This isn’t directly a claim about the quality of the argument in the same way that the previous objection is.  Rather, it’s a claim that there’s something unreliable about the very fact of the argument’s having been put.  (I’m not articulating the distinction very well, but I think you can see what I mean.)  In essence, the worry is this: Richie works for a Jesuit Institution; this isn’t clear from her affiliation in the paper; there’s something iffy about this; this iffiness is some form of conflict of interest and her argument is likely to be biased.

I’m not sure what to make of this. more…

Resurrectionism at Easter

23 Apr, 14 | by Iain Brassington

There’s a provocative piece in a recent New Scientist about what happens to unclaimed bodies after death – about, specifically, the practice of coopting them for research purposes.

Gareth Jones, who wrote it, points out that the practice has been going on for centuries – but that a consequence of the way it’s done is that it tends to be the poor and disenfranchised whose corpses are used:

[T]he probably unintended and unforeseen result [of most policies] was to make poverty the sole criterion for dissection. [… U]nclaimed bodies are still used in countries including South Africa, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Brazil and India. While their use is far less in North America, they continue to constitute the source of cadavers in around 20 per cent of medical schools in the US and Canada. In some states in the US, unclaimed bodies are passed to state anatomy boards.

For Jones, the practice of cooption ought to be stopped.  His main bone of contention is the lack of consent – it’s a problem that’s made more acute by the fact that the bodies of the disenfranchised are more likely to be unclaimed, but I take it that the basic concern would be there for all.

One question that we might want to ask right from the off is why informed consent is important. more…

From the File Marked “This Can’t End Well”

25 Nov, 13 | by Iain Brassington

… and cross-referenced with the file marked “You Wouldn’t Let It Lie”.

Francesca Minerva has a paper in Bioethics in which she refers – none-too-obliquely – to the furore surrounding The Paper Of Which We Do Not Speak.  Her central claim is that there is a threat to academic freedom posed by modern communications, inasmuch as that a paper in a journal can now attract to the author intimidation and threats.  A case in point would be The Paper.  But, she claims, it’s vital to the academic exercise that people be able to knock ideas around.  This ability is limited by things such as the response to The Paper; academic freedom is therefore threatened.

Yeah, but no.  I think it’s reasonable enough to say that academic progress depends on the free exchange of ideas, and that there should be no sacred cows.  Sometimes conventional ideas turn out to be untenable or flat-out wrong; and we tend to take it as axiomatic that it’s desirable to have fewer wrong ideas.  (I suppose we could imagine a culture that is satisfied with its opinions as they are, and is not bothered by their truth so much as by some other value they might have, such as their ability to promote social cohesion; but I’ll leave such cultures aside for the moment.)  I’d go along with the idea that we shouldn’t back away from controversial claims, on the basis that repugnance is no objection to the truth of a claim; that if a claim’s true, we should accept it as best we can, like it or not; and that if a claim is false, we shouldn’t have cause to fear its articulation, because we can take it that it won’t survive scrutiny.

And I’d agree that some of the responses to the paper – and to Julian’s defence of publication – were indefensible, and that this is so irrespective of the merits or demerits of the paper or the defence.  But not all of them were.  While some were from obvious dingbats and keyboard warriors (Jonolan remains even now the sole occupant of the banned commenters list here – and I rather suspect that he rather enjoys that honour), other responses were from people whom one might think wrong, but whose response was nonetheless worth taking seriously because it was much more considered and at least on the face of it amenable to argument – which is what academic discourse is all about.

Does any of this tell us about threats to academic freedom, though?  I don’t think so. more…

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