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.

In the News

Strange Happenings in Belgium

3 Feb, 15 | by Iain Brassington

There’s a part of me that recognises this story as having been in the news before – but I don’t think I’ve written on it, so here we go.  It’s from the Telegraph, under the headline “Son Challenges Belgian Law after Mother’s ‘Mercy Killing'” – which is a reasonably pithy summation of what’s at issue.  A man, Tom Mortier, is attempting to bring a case before the European Court of Human Rights that would have Belgian laws on euthanasia scrutinised and – he hopes – declared contrary to the ECHR:

A Belgian man is going to the European Court of Human Rights after his depressed mother was killed by lethal injection under the country’s liberal euthanasia laws. […]

Mr Mortier is trying to take his mother’s case to the Strasbourg court under the “right to life” legislation in the European Convention of Human Rights. He hopes, at the very least, to trigger some debate in his country, and secure greater oversight in the way the existing rules are applied.

OK – so it’s not clear whether he’s actually got the Court to agree to hear his case (which is what “going to the ECtHR” suggests in ordinary usage), or whether he’s still attempting to get it to agree to hear it.  If it’s the latter, then he might be going to the ECtHR in the sense of being physically present – but that’s not going to achieve much.  The Telegraph isn’t clear on this.  Oh, well.  But is there anything of substance to his case?  It might have substance and still fail, of course – it’s perfectly possible for a court to say that they can see a person’s point, but that it’s not sufficiently powerful; but if it has no substance, then it ought to fail.

Based on the Telegraph‘s report, it seems that there really isn’t much substance to it.  This is not to say that there’s none – but there’s not much.  And, as we’ll see, it’s a bit strange in some ways. more…

Free Speech and the CMF

5 Jan, 15 | by Iain Brassington

Despite a slight reticence when it comes to quoting Mill approvingly, I do have to admit that sometimes he does articulate a thought clearly and pithily, and sometimes it’s a thought in which all right-thinking people ought to see the merit.  Like, for example, this, from the opening paragraph of chapter III in On Liberty:

An opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard.

The general point ought to be clear: whatever your prima facie right to say what you want, it doesn’t mean there’re no limits on the circumstances in which it can be said.  Mill is concerned about excitable mobs, but the basic principle could, I think, be extended without too much difficulty: if your free speech causes severe inconvenience or distress or inconvenience to others, you ought to moderate it or take it elsewhere.  Having the freedom to make a point is, and ought to be, compatible with others’ freedom not to be bothered by your making it.

I think that that’s pretty reasonable: your liberty is one thing, but it’s not the only thing.  There’s the liberty of others to avoid you to consider, for one thing.  Pushing things a bit further, we might be inclined to argue that liberty is a good because of its relationship with, and contribution to securing, the general welfare – but that there’re other things that contribute to that, too, which therefore ought also to be considered good things worth protecting.  Basic civility might be one such good.  Mill doesn’t make much of that, but there’s no reason why we couldn’t say that that’s a good worth preserving – and why we couldn’t fit that into a modified Millianism, should we so desire.  On Liberty isn’t Holy Writ: its good ideas might be extendable.

Keep that in the back of your mind for a moment.

Many readers will have seen the video posted a few weeks ago by Sunny Hundal in which a woman berates a group of pro-life protesters outside an abortion clinic.  The background detail is that there is reportedly an increasing prevalence in the UK of pro-life protesters congregating outside such clinics.  Sometimes those protests take the form of prayer vigils; sometimes – as in the video – they’re more direct, with posters of babies and foetuses, sometimes quite graphic.  Occasionally there’s barracking; I think that this is more common in the US, but I suspect that the trend may appear here soon enough, not least because these things do tend to escalate.  Yvette Cooper has apparently mulled the idea of buffer-zones around abortion clinics, within which pro-life protesters would not be allowed to protest.

Writing on the CMF blog, Cheryl Chin is not happy about Cooper’s idea; she thinks that “It would appear that once again, liberties are under threat of being curtailed by the proponents of the pro-abortion brigade”.* more…

A Bit More on Nonhuman Persons

23 Dec, 14 | by Iain Brassington

A bit of a followup to my last post: sometimes, nonhumans are granted habeas corpus:

Orangutans have been granted the status of “non-human persons” with legal rights in a landmark court ruling in Argentina. The decision clears the way for Sandra, a shy 29-year-old, to be freed from Buenos Aires Zoo after spending her entire life in captivity. […]

The ruling came after animal rights campaigners filed a habeas corpus petition – a document more typically used to challenge the legality of a person’s detention or imprisonment – on behalf of the Sumatran orangutan, who was born at a German zoo and was transferred to Buenos Aires two decades ago.

Sandra will, unless there’s a successful appeal, be moved from the zoo to a sanctuary.

In practice, this might not make all that much difference.  She’ll still be confined in a sanctuary; it would be utterly indefensible just to turf her out onto the streets, and she wouldn’t last long.  And in some cases, it’s quite possible that a well-run zoo is the best possible place in which to look after her or others like her.  Zoo, sanctuary: tomayto, tomahto.  Meh.

What matters primarily is that a point of principle is established, and secondarily that there would be some guidance about the kind of facilities that would be minimally decent.  It’s likely to be wholly acceptable, morally and legally, to keep great apes in some form of captivity if it’s in their interests, in rather the same way that we might provide a human child or an adult with an intellectual disability with sheltered or supervised accommodation, and might even limit their time away from it.  (The family home is a kind of sheltered and supervised accommodation!)  If a creature – human or orang or chimp or whatever else – can’t deal with the world around them, that seems to be morally required.  Let’s call this “soft captivity”, as opposed to the “hard” captivity of some zoos, prisons, laboratories, and so on.  The point is that, rather as we wouldn’t deny that a child or adult disabled human is a person and thus protected by the law, it does seem reasonable to extend that protection to members of other species.

I wonder how much further we could push it: it’s one thing to have a great ape in soft captivity for its own protection; and it’s one thing to say that if a great ape is in captivity, it ought to be soft captivity.  But could we make a similar claim about keeping a member of a species in soft captivity for the sake of protecting the species?

Orangs are under threat.  Now, a threat to the species is almost always a threat to the members of the species, too – and so we would almost always be unable to distinguish acting to protect individual orangs and the species as a whole.  But this needn’t be the case.  Imagine that there are two small colonies of the animal left; a genetic bottleneck means that neither is viable on its own, but, if they were combined, the species may be rescued and flourish in the future.  Furthermore, each colony is in a confined area that cannot support a bigger population.  There is no direct threat to either colony, though.  It so happens that a busy road separates the colonies, which means that they are to all intents and purposes isolated.

Would it be permissible to swing into action to take all these orangs into a sufficiently big sanctuary, and maybe to keep them there for the sake of increasing the population?  It wouldn’t obviously be in the interests of any particular living orang; but it could be in the interests of the species.  Even if the captivity is soft, it is still captivity.  Would it be justified?

Part of me thinks that it might be; but this does rely on thinking that the species qua species has a moral value and interest, aside from the value and interest of its members.  And that does seem like a bit of a stretch – especially if (as seems plausible) individual orangs have no concept of species with which they can identify.

 

Admittedly, this isn’t a medical ethics post in the strict sense – but it’s a nice story, so ner.

Rights, Duties, and Species

19 Dec, 14 | by Iain Brassington

A little earlier this year, there was a case brought before the New York courts concerning a chimpanzee called Tommy: the matter was the lawfulness of keeping Tommy confined.  Acting on Tommy’s behalf was an organisation called the NonHuman Rights Project.  The legal documentation filed is available here.  The basis of the case was not so much that Tommy was being harmed by his treatment as that he was wronged by it: to keep a chimpanzee in such conditions s a violation of certain rights, and ought not to be allowed granted a plausible application of habeas corpus, even the most comfortable of cages still being a cage – or so the claim went.  Essentially, the legal question under consideration was this: does a chimpanzee have any of the legal rights that a human has; and, if so, which?

Perhaps predictably, the suit was rejected; Justice Karen Peters found that habeas corpus did not apply to chimpanzees, and the other judges agreed.  Whatever legal restrictions there may be on primates, they do not fall under the rights paradigm.

The reasoning here strikes me as being a touch… well, wonky.

A significant part of the argument revolves around what kind of thing counts as a person, and so ought to have the rights of a person.  It’s not difficult to see why this is important in bioethics, because it’ll impinge on what happens in laboratories, and – potentially – on what happens in a human uterus or neonatal unit.  If the definition of “person” extends to chimps, the suit goes, then habeas corpus should apply.  If it doesn’t, then there’s no reason to suppose that it would.  The judgement is that personhood does not apply to chimps.  The term has, the court found, never been explicitly defined; and habeas corpus relief has never been granted to any nonhuman.  This wouldn’t mean that it shouldn’t be; the question then would move on to examining the ought question.

For Peters, there is no ought here, and this conclusion is based on an appeal to a particular definition of “person”.  It’s worth quoting the ruling at length here: more…

This could get Personal

5 Dec, 14 | by Iain Brassington

And so 23andMe has launched in the UK.

For those not familiar with it, 23andMe allows individuals to swab themselves and have their genome analysed, at a cost of £125. The company is offering to generate a report covering about a hundred traits, giving information on a range of potentially important to fun things: the list includes tests for the presence or absence of inherited conditions such as Tay-Sachs and Beta Thalassemia; risk factors relating to things like Alzheimer’s; how much DNA you have in common with Neanderthals; and earwax type.

To be honest, I’d’ve thought that by the time you’ve got £125 to spend on a test like this, you’d probably know all you’d ever want to know about your earwax, but… well, apparently there’s more.  Joy.

Anyway: BBC Breakfast invited me to witter on about it the other day.  I only got a couple of minutes, and so didn’t get to say much; shamelessly, I’m going to think aloud a little bit here.  My basic starting point is that it’s hard to see why the test per se is too big a problem: all else being equal, who would begrudge a person information about himself?  All the same, I think that there are questions that are probably worth asking.  (NB: in what follows, whenever I mention 23andMe, the point should be taken to cover any company offering a similar service.)  So, in no particular order… more…

Would Aristotle Vape?

13 Nov, 14 | by Iain Brassington

As I surfaced the other day, there was a discussion on Today about the marketing of e-cigarattes between Deborah Arnott, chief executive of ASH, and Lorien Jollye of the New Nicotine Alliance (now there‘s an organisation that wears its heart on its sleeve!).  It’s available from about the 1:22 mark here.  Having re-listened, it appears to me that they’re talking past each other for a significant amount of time; but the points around which they’re at least orbiting has to do with the safety of e-cigarettes and the permissibility of advertising for them.  Arnott’s concern is not so much about whether using e-cigs – which I believe the well-informed call “vaping” – can be shown in adverts, but how.  Jollye’s claim is that all that matters is whether and that the devices reduce levels of smoking across the board.  The subtext here is that the tone of the advertising possibly doesn’t matter – but if it does matter, and making the devices more attractive gets smokers to make the switch, then so much the better.

Arnott’s response here is that if e-cigs can lure smokers, they can presumably lure non-smokers, too.  And it does seem initially plausible that if the point is to coax smokers rather than non-smokers, it could be done in a non-glamorous way. emphasising the grimness of smoking-related illness and the relative benefits of vaping.  Glamour seems to be an attempt to be appealing to non-smokers as well.

Does that matter, though? more…

Once More unto the Breach of Covenant?

31 Oct, 14 | by Iain Brassington

The “Military Covenant” is in the news again:

The government is failing to abide by its military covenant, medical experts who treat injured soldiers have said.

Leading professors in psychology and orthopaedics say the healthcare system is not providing veterans with the service they have been promised. […]

The moral obligation to treat veterans should not stop when service ends, the covenant states, saying veterans should receive priority healthcare from the NHS when they are being treated for a condition dating from their time in the armed forces.

The Covenant is set out here; most of it is pretty vague, and what isn’t vague is largely predictable in its tone.  In respect of healthcare, the relevant part is on p 6:

The Armed Forces Community should enjoy the same standard of, and access to, healthcare as that received by any other UK citizen in the area they live. […]  Veterans receive their healthcare from the NHS, and should receive priority treatment where it relates to a condition which results from their service in the Armed Forces, subject to clinical need.

This, at first glance, seems to be saying that members of the forces, and ex-members, should be treated in the same way as everyone else, except that they shouldn’t.  (There’s a fuller version of the statement here.)  The Government repeats this confusing attitude elsewhere: its own website explains that

[i]t’s not about getting special treatment that ordinary citizens wouldn’t receive, or getting a better result. For those that have given the most, such as the injured and the bereaved, we do make an exception

But maybe that’s just a terminological infelicity.

The Covenant itself does not have the status of law (and even if it did, that wouldn’t make any moral difference, unless you happen to think that all law is de facto good law).  However, the Armed Forces Act (2011) does state that the Secretary of State must prepare and present before Parliament every year a report on the covenant; and, according to §343A(3), more…

Saatchi Bill – Update

28 Oct, 14 | by Iain Brassington

Damn. Damn, damn, damn.

It turns out that the version of the Medical Innovation Bill about which I wrote this morning isn’t the most recent: the most recent version is available here.  Naïvely, I’d assumed that the government would make sure the latest version was the easiest to find.  Silly me.

Here’s the updated version of §1(3): it says that the process of deciding whether to use an unorthodox treatment

must include—

(a) consultation with appropriately qualified colleagues, including any relevant multi-disciplinary team;

(b) notification in advance to the doctor’s responsible officer;

(c) consideration of any opinions or requests expressed by or on behalf of the patient;

(d) obtaining any consents required by law; and

(e) consideration of all matters that appear to the doctor to be reasonably necessary to be considered in order to reach a clinical judgment, including assessment and comparison of the actual or probable risks and consequences of different treatments.

So it is a bit better – it seems to take out the explicit “ask your mates” line.

However, it still doesn’t say how medics ought to weigh these criteria, or what counts as an appropriately qualified colleague.  So, on the face of it, our homeopath-oncologist could go to a “qualified” homeopath.  Or he could go to an oncologist, get told he’s a nutter, make a mental note of that, and decide that that’s quite enough consultation and that he’s still happy to try homeopathy anyway.

So it’s still a crappy piece of legislation.  And it still enjoys government support.  Which does, I suppose, give me an excuse to post this:

Many thanks to Sofia for the gentle correction about the law.

An Innovation Too Far?

28 Oct, 14 | by Iain Brassington

NB – Update/ erratum here.  Ooops.

One of the things I’ve been doing since I last posted here has involved me looking at the Medical Innovation Bill – the so-called “Saatchi Bill”, after its titular sponsor.  Partly, I got interested out of necessity – Radio 4 invited me to go on to the Sunday programme to talk about it, and so I had to do some reading up pretty quickly.  (It wasn’t a classic performance, I admit; I wasn’t on top form, and it was live.  Noone swore, and noone died, but that’s about the best that can be said.)

It’s easy to see the appeal of the Bill: drugs can take ages to come to market, and off-label use can take a hell of a long time to get approval, and all the rest of it – and all the while, people are suffering and/ or dying.  It’s reasonable enough to want to do something to ameliorate the situation; and if there’s anecdotal evidence that something might work, or if a medic has a brainwave suggesting that drug D might prove useful for condition C – well, given all that, it’s perfectly understandable why we might want the law to provide some protection to said medic.  The sum of human knowledge will grow, people will get better, and it’s raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens all the way; the Government seems satisfied that all’s well.  Accordingly, the Bill sets out to “encourage responsible innovation in medical treatment (and accordingly to deter innovation which is not responsible)” – that’s from §1(1) – and it’s main point is, according to §1(2), to ensure that

It is not negligent for a doctor to depart from the existing range of accepted medical treatments for a condition, in the circumstances set out in subsection (3), if the decision to do so is taken responsibly.

Accordingly, §1(3) outlines that

[t]hose circumstances are where, in the doctor’s opinion—

(a) it is unclear whether the medical treatment that the doctor proposes to carry out has or would have the support of a responsible body of medical opinion, or

(b) the proposed treatment does not or would not have such support.

So far so good.  Time to break out the bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens*, then?  Not so fast. more…

Ebola in the US: Privacy, public interest and the ethics of media reporting

3 Oct, 14 | by David Hunter

The first confirmed case of ebola has been found in the US, in Texas – unsurprisingly someone who had recently been to Africa. This has prompted an outbreak… of unethical media reporting about the case, with several breaches of privacy which seem unlikely to be in the public interest. Specifically the media has disclosed the victim’s full name, then to add insult to injury they published both his address and then a map of where he lives.

The media frenzy around this case is as unwarranted as it is unsurprising – scarily reminiscient of the painfully telling Onion piece – which claimed just 50 more white people needed to die of Ebola before a vaccine would be developed…

But even if we accept that the public is interested in the case (which no doubt they are) and that this interest warrants reporting on it does that give the media the right to release this person’s personal details and movements?

The main argument that can be offered for breaching typical standards of confidentiality is that the breach is in the public’s interest – this is the defense typically usually used in whistle blowing cases and in cases where medical professionals break confidentiality to prevent harm to others.

So isn’t this justification enough? Aren’t all Americans now at risk of ebola, amd hence have a right to know about who has it and where it is so they can choose to minimise their own risk?

It is worth noting that whilst Ebola is to be frank a terrifying disease it is relatively easily containable by the use of routine public health measures such as surveilance, isolation, contact tracing and modern hygiene standards and practices as it is spread through fairly obvious contact with bodily fluids, rather than airborne. And these fluids are only generated once someone is obviously symptomatic. As such there is little chance of a significant outbreak in countries like America or Australia because the number of contacts likely to be exposed to bodily fluids are usually minimal.

So this information is unlikely to help anyone protect themselves from being exposed to ebola – those who were already exposed (if any) have been exposed and are being contacted, and no one will now be exposed to this particular victim, so having their details in the public domain does no good, and has a potential to do harm in three ways:

1. It can reinforce false beliefs – “why would they tell us this if we weren’t at a significantly increased risk?”

2. It creates the potential for witch hunting – where the victim is blamed and potentially harmed – “civic-minded” citizens might take it upon themselves to “minimise” the risk of infection by burning down the apartment building he lives in for example.

3. It may perversely discourage other exposed travellers from seeking medical treatment and attention – it is worth noting that the victim took himself to hospital to seek treatment. If there is considerable public outcry, stigmatisation, distaste and displeasure the next victim may feel their details will be exposed in a similar fashion and avoid medical attention with predictably disasterous effects both for them, and for those potentially exposed to them.

Could spreading this information be helpful for contact tracing? Contact tracing is a public health practice where all those who might have been exposed are identified and contacted – both to see if they have symptoms and in some cases to isolate them until they are cleared. Reporting these details might enable a few people who haven’t been identified as being in contact to self identify, but practices of contact tracing are well established and this is a relatively easy case since his movements are well known and the victim has been able to communicate with public health officials about those he has been in contact with, so it is likely to be of minimal benefit, if anything it might well create more false positives than anything else – with worried people who think they were exposed using up valuable time and resources.

In a deeply misleadingly titled piece: “With Ebola, the public’s right to know trumps patient privacy” Art Caplan an American bioethicist argues that rebuilding and maintaining trust requires the public be given some normally confidential information. He argues there is a public interest in knowing the process of how this case was handled, and his movements so that the public can be reassured about the system and that they were not exposed. It is fair to note that mistakes were made in this case – he then went to hospital and was discharged despite having disclosed that he had recently travelled from Africa. However there is as Art acknowledges a significant difference between releasing this information, and the victims personal private details. It is hard to see how releasing that information really would provide public reassurance? I’d suggest it doesn’t really, instead it feeds fear and distrust which are the greatest killers in epidemics.

Highly dangerous infectious diseases create unique ethical challenges because by their very nature those who suffer them are as Battin et al put it “both victims and vectors of disease“. But whether someone is a victim or a vector of a disease, we ought to remember that they are still a person and as such deserve to have their private information protected, especially if disclosure is unlikely to benefit and may well harm the public’s interests, no matter how interested they are in knowing it.

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