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Does Female Genital Mutilation Have Health Benefits? The Problem with Medicalizing Morality

15 Aug, 17 | by bearp

By Brian D. Earp (@briandavidearp)

Please note: this piece was originally published in Quillette Magazine.

 

Four members of the Dawoodi Bohra sect of Islam living in Detroit, Michigan have recently been indicted on charges of female genital mutilation (FGM). This is the first time the US government has prosecuted an “FGM” case since a federal law was passed in 1996. The world is watching to see how the case turns out.

A lot is at stake here. Multiculturalism, religious freedom, the limits of tolerance; the scope of children’s—and minority group—rights; the credibility of scientific research; even the very concept of “harm.”

To see how these pieces fit together, I need to describe the alleged crime.

* * *

The term “FGM” is likely to bring to mind the most severe forms of female genital cutting, such as clitoridectomy or infibulation (partial sewing up of the vaginal opening). But the World Health Organization (WHO) actually recognizes four main categories of FGM, covering dozens of different procedures.

One of the more “minor” forms is called a “ritual nick.” This practice, which I have argued elsewhere should not be performed on children, involves pricking the foreskin or “hood” of the clitoris to release a drop of blood.

Healthy tissue is not typically removed by this procedure, which is often done by trained clinicians in the communities where it is common. Long-term adverse health consequences are believed to be rare.

Here is why this matters. Initial, albeit conflicting reports suggest that the Dawoodi Bohra engage in this, or a similar, more limited form of female genital cutting – not the more extreme forms that are often highlighted in the Western media. This fact alone will make things rather complicated for the prosecution.

The defense team has already signaled that it will emphasize the “low-risk” aspect of the alleged cutting, claiming that it shouldn’t really count as mutilation. It is, after all, far less invasive than Jewish ritual male circumcision, which is legally allowed on minors in the US, no questions asked.

Based on this discrepancy, if attorneys for the Bohra can show a gendered or religious double standard in existing law, the ramifications will be not be small. Either male circumcision will have to be restricted in some way, or “minor” forms of FGM permitted. The outcome either way will be explosive.

I will dig into the male-female comparison—and explore its legal implications—later on. But the law will not actually be my main focus. Instead, what I’ll suggest in this piece is that the question of health consequences, whether positive or negative, should not exhaust the ethical analysis of these procedures.

There is more to “good” and “bad” than healthy versus unhealthy.

In fact, as the Bohra case will show, there are serious, even dangerous downsides to medicalizing moral reasoning – and to moralizing medical research. On both counts, I argue, at least when it comes to childhood genital cutting, apparently biased policies from the WHO are making things a great deal worse.

* * *

“The tendency today is to roll over and ‘scientify’ everything,” says Julian Savulescu, a philosopher at the University of Oxford. He goes on: “Evidence will tell us what to do, people believe.” But people are getting it wrong. When you reduce your ethical analysis to benefit-risk ratios, you miss important questions of value.

more…

Charlie Gard: An Ethical Analysis of a Legal non-Problem

11 Aug, 17 | by Iain Brassington

(Cross-posted from EJIL: Talk!)

For those with an internet connection and an interest in current affairs, the story of Charlie Gard been hard to avoid recently.  A decent précis is available here; but it’s worth rehearsing.

Shortly after his birth, Charlie’s health began to deteriorate, and he was diagnosed with a terminal and incurable mitochondrial DNA depletion syndrome.  By March 2017, Charlie needed artificial ventilation, and doctors at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital (GOSH) applied to the High Court for confirmation that removing that ventilation would be lawful, having judged that it was not in his best interests.  This was contested by his parents, Chris Gard and Connie Yates; the High Court ruled in favour of GOSH.  This was confirmed by the Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights.  During all this time, Charlie remained ventilated.

In the High Court, Mr Justice Francis said that his decision was subject to revision should new evidence emerge favouring continued treatment; in July, Charlie’s parents returned to the High Court, claiming that Charlie might benefit from an experimental treatment being offered by Professor Michio Hirano of Columbia University.  However, as proceedings advanced, it became clear that Hirano’s proposed treatment had never been used on patients like Charlie, that he had neither seen Charlie nor read his notes when he offered the treatment, and that he had a financial interest in that treatment.  The position statement issued by GOSH on the 24th July barely hides the hospital’s legal team’s exasperation.  On the 24th July, Charlie’s parents dropped their request for continued treatment.  The details of Charlie’s palliative care were still disputed; his parents wanted it to be provided at home, with ventilation maintained for a few days.  The High Court ruled against this on the 27th July.  Charlie was moved to a hospice; his ventilator was removed, and he died on the 28th July, a few days before his first birthday.

The way this case has played out has not been pretty.  Elements of the American media (this piece, which I’ve mentioned before, is one among many) and the political right wing used it to launch attacks on single-payer healthcare systems:

Nigel Farage weighed in, complaining about the state taking away parental rights:

From the left, Giles Fraser wrote that the case was being dealt with too rationally.  None of these claims is justified, and many left-leaning people have been surprised to find themselves in agreement with Melanie Phillips on this matter.

Legally, the case was very straightforward. more…

Is Hope a Virtue?

13 Jul, 17 | by Iain Brassington

It’s perfectly understandable that hope should have featured so prominently in the coverage of the Charlie Gard case; each proposal is presented as offering fresh hope, each reversal presented as dashing hopes.  In either case, hope is something presented as desirable.  A bit more deeply, hope is one of the Theological Virtues, and so anyone who has grown up in the West, irrespective of their doctrinal commitments, will come from a culture in which there’s an overwhelming sense of hope being something good.  For some, it may even be an unalloyed good – I’ll return to that in a moment.

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a culture in which hope is not fairly straightforwardly desirable: in which, that is, hope’s desirability is the exception rather than the rule.

Hard, but not impossible.

Here’s Hesiod, telling the story of Pandora in Works and Days (from Dorothea Wender’s translation for Penguin):

Before this time men lived upon the earth
Apart from sorrow and painful work,
Free from disease, which lets the Death-gods in.
But now the woman opened up the cask,
And scattered pains and evils among men.
Inside the cask’s hard walls remained one thing,
Hope, only, which did not fly through the door.
The lid stopped her, but all the others flew,
Thousands of troubles, wandering the earth.
The earth is full of evils, and the sea.
Diseases come to visit men by day
And, uninvited, come again at night
Bringing their pains in silence, for they were
Deprived of speech by Zeus the Wise.  And so
There is no way to flee the mind of Zeus.

Hesiod is ambiguous about hope here.  Was it placed in the cask by Zeus as a sort of remedy for all the other evils?  That’s the interpretation of the story to which I was exposed as a 10-year-old.  It’s plausibly quite a Christianised reading, with Hope as the consolation for the cares of the world, and a shield against despair.  That might have been how some contemporary Greeks took the story, too.  But there’s nothing in the text to indicate that it’s the correct interpretation; it does seem to be something we’d have to infer based on an assumption that Hope is good, and Hesiod offers no grounds for that assumption.  And there’d be puzzles left to solve for this interpretation to work.  Why would Zeus, intent on making humanity suffer, provide an antidote to suffering?  Well, maybe he had a change of heart.  But that seems implausible, since hope was sent with all the evils of the world.  A change of heart would be better expressed by not sending the evils – or not quite so many of them – in the first place.

Might Hope itself have been one of the evils sent by Zeus, then?  That’s be perplexing to a modern audience, but that counts for little; Hesiod was alive at roughly the same time as Homer, in the seventh or eighth century BC, so there’s plenty of time for all kinds of cultural contortions.  Maybe Hesiod’s audience was one in which hope had undesirable connotations.

But why should hope be seen as evil?  Well, Nietzsche has an answer to that in §71 of Human, all too Human: more…

Never Let an Ill Child Go to Waste

7 Jul, 17 | by Iain Brassington

The Charlie Gard saga is one about which I’ve been reluctant to say anything, not least because plenty of other people have said plenty elsewhere.  Sometimes they add heat, and sometimes they add light.

Beneath everything, the story is fairly simple: a small child is terribly ill; it is agreed by medical opinion that continued treatment is not only not in his best interests but would cause him positive harm; the courts have determined that the withdrawal of treatment is warranted.  One sympathises with his parents’ fight to keep treatment going – but it does not follow from that that their opinions should be determinative.  Indeed, the courts having decided that Charlie’s treatment should not be withdrawn immediately in order to allow his parents more time with him risks making the case about them, rather than about him.  If treatment is not medically warranted and actually is harmful, there may be something worrisome about continuing it anyway for the sake of his parents.  Their distress is not going to lessened by prolonging the child’s treatment, and even if it were, it is not the proper focus here.

So that’s my hot take on the story itself.  I don’t think it’s anything too radical.  Yet the coverage of the case has been, in places, something of a trainwreck.  Take, for example, this piece from the Chicago Tribune (with thanks to Charles Erin for the pointer).  It’s fascinating for just how much it manages to get wrong, and how mawkish it is, and for what it does with the story to such unpleasant ends.

Charlie’s parents, Connie Yates and Chris Gard, are fighting to bring their son to the U.S. for experimental treatment. They’ve raised $1.7 million on a crowdfunding website to do so.

But Charlie’s doctors, and the British courts, won’t let him go. Medical authorities argue that prolonging his life by keeping him on a ventilator could cause him pain. British authorities won’t even let the parents take him home to die.

Well, yes and no.  I mean, it’s true that Charlie won’t be travelling abroad for treatment, but the tone here is deeply misleading: it’s presented as a kind of custody battle, and it’s no such thing.  It’s about what’s in Charlie’s best interests.  “The authorities aren’t even letting him go home to die” is arguably a rather mendacious way of saying “Charlie really needs the kind of care that can’t be provided at home”.

The article continues: more…

What’s the Point of Professional Ethical Codes?

13 Jun, 17 | by Iain Brassington

For a few reasons, I’ve been thinking a bit over the last few months about professionalism and professional codes.  In fact, that’s the topic that’s attracted most of my attention here since… oooh, ages ago.  I find the idea of a code of professional ethics troubling in many ways, but also fascinating.  And one of the fascinating questions has to do with what they’re for.

They can’t be meant as a particularly useful tool for solving deep moral dilemmas: they’re much too blunt for that, often presuppose too much, and tend to bend to suit the law.  To think that because the relevant professional code enjoins x it follows that x is permissible or right smacks of a simple appeal to authority, and this flies in the face of what it is to be a moral agent in the first place.  But what a professional code of ethics may do is to provide a certain kind of Bolamesque legal defence: if your having done φ attracts a claim that it’s negligent or unreasonable or something like that, being able to point out that your professional body endorses φ-ing will help you out.  But professional ethics, and what counts as professional discipline, stretches way beyond that.  For example, instances of workplace bullying can be matters of great professional and ethical import, but it’s not at all obvious that the law should be involved.

There’s a range of reasons why someone’s behaviour might be of professional ethical concern.  Perhaps the most obvious is a concern for public protection.  If someone has been found to have behaved in a way that endangers third parties, then the profession may well want to intervene.  For example: if an HCP knew herself to be a carrier of a transmissible disease but did nothing about it, this would quite plausibly be a matter for professional concern, irrespective of what the law says, or whether anyone had been harmed.  The same would apply if we discovered that a surgeon was unable to function without a large brandy to settle his nerves.  But we’d want to make sure that the professional concern was for the right thing.  It would be inappropriate to sanction someone merely for being a carrier, or for being alcohol dependent.  (Along these lines, it seems defensible to me not to have suspended Martin Royle, a surgeon who falsified prescriptions in order to satisfy his addiction to painkillers.  It’s better to treat an addiction than to punish it.)

A second reason is for the sake of collegiality.  For example, there’s nothing illegal about being  a racist, and there probably shouldn’t be; but it is at the very best distasteful.  Imagine you discover that your colleague is an abiding racist.  It is not hard to see how this knowledge might have implications for your professional interactions – especially (but not only) if you’re a member of one of the groups to which your colleague has a demeaning attitude.  (Indeed, the same might be true if he had used to be a racist, but had changed his attitudes.  I suspect that that’s the sort of thing that might have a fairly long half-life.)  Now imagine that your colleague is a frequent attendee at rallies, held in support of racist policies, that are often associated with threatening behaviour: he doesn’t just dislike some people, but is visibly hostile to them.  That, it seems to me, might be a matter of professional concern, because it will predictably make the working environment much more difficult.  It would be harder to trust this colleague (again, especially but not only if you happen to be a member of one of the groups he hates).  That might be sufficient to raise worries about whether he’s a fit person to do the job in question.  Again, though, there’d have to be a proviso: there is a difference between one’s professional abilities and one’s personal attitudes, and between how one behaves in and out of work.  A surgeon is a surgeon for all that.  So there is a genuine problem here concerning what to do.  But a genuine problem means that there is a cause for concern.

(Indirectly, this second concern might have something to do with public safety, too.  A surgical team in which people are uncomfortable working along side each other may be one in which patient outcomes are affected.  But that would be a further matter, and would not have to collapse into the safety point.  Imagine that the profession is accountancy: it might still be that members of the group would simply be intolerably uncomfortable working alongside their racist colleague, although the audit will still be done perfectly well.  The same will apply in any profession.)

But there’s another factor, which is the status of the profession.  To what extent are professional ethics codes and bodies that judge professionalism in the business of protecting themselves and their high social status?  A couple of recent cases raises that question. more…

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…

Debate: The Fiction of an Interest in Death? Justice for Charlie Gard

26 Apr, 17 | by miriamwood

 

Julian Savulescu

Dominic Wilkinson’s Response

A judge ruled last week that baby Charlie Gard will have his treatment withdrawn, against the wishes of his parents. His doctors argued that the rare mitochondrial disease (MDDS) he was born with was causing him unbearable suffering.

His parents had raised funds to take him to the US for experimental treatment and they wanted the chance to try the treatment. His doctors argued that such treatment could only prolong his suffering. It was their belief that it was in his best interests for treatment to be withdrawn, and for his life to end, a belief which the trial judge endorsed.

“It is with the heaviest of hearts, but with complete conviction for Charlie’s best interests, that I find it is in Charlie’s best interests that I accede to these applications and rule that GOSH may lawfully withdraw all treatment save for palliative care to permit Charlie to die with dignity.”

This is a profoundly difficult decision, and one in which all parties are acting out of care and compassion for the child. My comments are of course limited as I do not have access to all the relevant facts. However, it does raise an important question about the current basis of such decisions.

Ethics of Limitation of Life Prolonging Medical Treatment

In general, medicine has a presumption in favour of saving life, or prolonging life. There are three justifications for departing from this default. That is, there are 3 justifications for withholding or withdrawing life prolonging medical treatment:

  1. the patient autonomously refuses it. (autonomy)
  2. continued life is no longer in the patient’s interests (best interests)
  3. the probability of the treatment prolonging life, or the quality of life, or the length of time the patient can surVive are too low to justify the cost of the attempt (distributive justice)

more…

Donald Trump’s Mental Health (again)

14 Apr, 17 | by Iain Brassington

The speculation about Donald Trump’s mental health that was doing the rounds earlier in the year seems to have died down a bit.  That’s to be expected; like it or not, his Presidency is now part of normal life.  But I’ve been lagging in my blogging here, and so it’s only now that I’ve got a moment to mention in passing an op-ed article about Trump in the New Scientist that appeared just after I posted last on the topic.  (February.  I know, I know.)

It’s by Allen Frances, and it takes issue with what he calls “armchair diagnosis” of the president.  He’s right to say that there’s something disquieting about armchair diagnosis: “psychiatric diagnosis is already done far too casually and inaccurately in medical and mental health practice.  Armchair diagnosis further cheapens its currency.”  However, I do wonder whether we ought to pay some attention to whose armchair it is.  Often, it’s an armchair occupied by the genuinely ignorant, or the spiteful.  That’s the internet for you.  Accusing someone of being mentally ill or having a personality disorder on this account may be simply mistaken; or it may be intended as a jibe, the subtext of which is that there’s something shameful about having a mental health problem.  But not every armchair is the same: as Frances’ article admits, a letter with 35 signatories who work within the mental health field appeared in the New York Times.  That letter may be misguided, or ill-motivated.  But it is by people who, presumably, know a thing or two about the topic.  Their armchair is not my armchair.

But there’s something else about the piece that’s just nagging away at me.  I don’t know a heck of a lot about mental health, but (and maybe that’s why) there’s a passage in the article that strikes me as being just strange:

But the main [reason for opposing armchair psychiatry] is the inaccuracy of the narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) diagnosis: Trump may be a world-class narcissist, but this doesn’t make him mentally ill.

I wrote the criteria for NPD for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which guides mental health diagnosis in the US and beyond. These require not only that the personality features be present, but also that they cause clinically significant distress and impairment. Trump appears to cause severe distress in others (rather than experiencing it himself) and has been richly rewarded (rather than punished) for his self-promoting and self-absorbed behaviours.

[…] We must avoid the frequent mistake of confusing mental illness with bad behaviour. Most people who lie, cheat and exploit others are not mentally ill, and most mentally ill people do not commit dishonourable acts.

There’s a few things that are a bit odd about this. more…

Law Changes and Slippery Slopes

13 Apr, 17 | by Iain Brassington

Apparently, there was a TV programme in Australia the other day in which a there was a discussion of assisted dying.  It got reported in The Guardian, largely on the basis that an 81-year-old audience member kept calling Margaret Somerville “darling” and then got mildly sweary.  I’ve only seen those clips from the programme that are linked in the Graun‘s report, so I’m not going to comment on the tone of the debate in particular.  Rather, I’m interested in one of the responses to the programme, from Xavier Symons, writing in The Conversation.

Symons takes the opportunity to unpick the idea of a slippery slope argument – in this case, the claim that allowing some forms of assisted dying will commit us to allowing… well, that’s open-ended, but it’s sufficient to say that it’d be terrible.  We’d want to avoid terrible things; therefore, the argument goes, we shouldn’t allow any of it.  This is well-worn stuff in the seminar room, but it’s a mode of argument that refuses to die.  Quite correctly, Symons points out that

there is a need for empirical evidence or sound inferential reasoning to support the claim that event B will necessarily (or probably) follow on from event A.  Without this evidence, the argument is invalid. I can’t just claim, for example, that the legalisation of medicinal marijuana leads to the legalisation of ice – I need to show some empirical or logical connection between the two.

So far, so standard.  (I’d say “unsound” rather than “invalid”, because the validity of an argument doesn’t depend on its evidence – or, at least, not in the same way; but that’s a small matter.)  He then makes another move, which is a bit more interesting:

But (and it’s a big but) there is such a thing as a good and valid slippery slope argument.  A good slippery slope argument demonstrates a causal or probable relationship between event A and B, such that event B can legitimately be expected to occur if event A is allowed to occur. […] There are, nevertheless, compelling empirical and logical slippery slope arguments available to defend more modest claims about the “normalisation” of assisted dying.

Is this correct? more…

Professional Codes and Diagnosis at a Distance

6 Feb, 17 | by Iain Brassington

This is the second part of my response to Trish Greenhalgh’s post on the propriety of medics, psychiatrists in particular, offering diagnoses of Donald Trump’s mental health.  In the last post, I concentrated on some of the problems associated with making such a diagnosis (or, on reflection, what might be better called a “quasi-diagnosis”).  In this, I’m going to concentrate on the professional regulation aspect.

Greenhalgh notes that, as a UK medic, she is bound by the GMC’s Duties of a Doctor guidance,

which – to my surprise – does not explicitly cover the question of a doctor’s duty towards a public figure who is not his or her patient.

[…]

My reading of the GMC guidance is that in extreme circumstances, even acknowledging the expectation of how doctors should normally behave, it may occasionally be justified to raise concerns about a public figure (for example, when the individual is relentlessly pursuing a course of action that places many lives at risk). Expressing clinical concern in such circumstances seems to involve a comparable ethical trade-off to the public interest disclosure advice (Duties of a Doctor paragraphs 53-56) that breach of patient confidentiality may be justified in order “to prevent a serious risk of harm to others.”

Well, to be honest, it’s not that much of a surprise to me that the GMC guidelines doesn’t stretch to public figures – but that’s a minor point.

The more interesting thing for me is what the relationship is between the practitioner and the GMC.  Greenhalgh ends her post by saying that she “wrote this blog to promote further debate on the topic and invite the GMC to clarify its position on it”.  But why should the GMC’s position be all that important?

OK: I’m going to go off on a bit of a tangent here.  Stick with me. more…

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