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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…

Should Junior Doctors Still Strike?

20 Sep, 16 | by bearp

Guest Post by Adam James Roberts

In early July, the British Medical Association’s junior members voted by a 16-point margin to reject a new employment contract negotiated between the BMA’s leadership and the Government. The chair of the BMA’s junior doctors committee, Johann Malawana, stood down following the result, noting the “considerable anger and mistrust” doctors felt towards the Government and their concerns about what the contract would mean “for their working lives, their patients and the future delivery of care” in the National Health Service (the NHS).

The BMA pressed the Government to reopen negotiations and to reverse its decision to impose the contract unilaterally. Those appeals having been rebuffed, the BMA announced two months later a new programme of strikes, citing concerns about the impacts on part-time workers, “a majority of whom are women”; on those doctors who already work the greatest number of weekends, “typically in specialties where there is already a shortage” of staff; the contract’s implications for the ability of the NHS to “attract and keep enough doctors” into the future; and the lack of an answer as to how the Government would manage to staff and fund the extra weekend care which was so often drawn on to justify pushing that new contract through.

Earlier this year, Mark Toynbee and colleagues argued in the JME that the earlier rounds of strikes by British juniors were probably ethically permissible, noting that emergency care would continue to be available, that the maintenance of patient well-being was apparently a goal, and that the strikers felt they were treating industrial action as a last resort. In a later paper, I attempted to outline and apply an ethical framework drawing on Thomist ‘just war’ theories, reaching the same conclusion about the strikes as Toynbee did.

In this guest post, I attempt to update or supplement that literature, considering some of the more recent and popular arguments against the current rounds of strikes and whether any of them might be morally compelling. In particular, I look at the fact that the BMA’s junior leadership had described the rejected offer as “a good deal”; the argument that strikes are a disproportionate response to the remaining issues; the concerns voiced about the strikes by Britain’s General Medical Council; and the allegation that striking doctors are “playing politics”.


Letter from Iraq: Ethical Dilemmas in an Iraqi Burn Centre

17 Sep, 16 | by BMJ

Guest Post by Mustafa AL-Shamsi

Health requires a multidisciplinary approach.  In the absence of proper support, facilities and literate people, there is little that a physician can do to cure his patient regardless his proficiency.  The following is not a story; it comes from what I experienced when I was an intern at the burn unit.  I faced a lot of ethical rather than medical challenges.  Some I could cope with; others were not so easy.

I was an intern in Basra city, according to the internship curriculum.  My internship in the burn unit changed my outlook and made me aware of how fragile the health care system is in Iraq.  Being a doctor in the Iraqi health care system is tough; there are many challenges to stand against, but you have little to do because of a limited resources, poor training and supervision.  The most disturbing thing is you have little to do for your patient!  (Others have noted similar problems.)

I learned a lot of good-sounding terms like mercy and empathy during medical school, but is any of them is applicable in the burn unit?  There was too much sorrow and pain to deal with.  Human lives were placed on the shelf without care from authorities.  On my first few days I was upset by every burn patient; however, this made me feel sick and frustrated, and I began to project my emotion on my family, friends and patients.  I realised that I would not able to manage patients properly if I continued dealing with this situation from this position, so I developed a new strategy: apathy.

In the past, I always considered apathy to be a malaise; but in the burn unit it became my salvation. more…


26 Aug, 16 | by Iain Brassington

Jumping to the defence of pharmaceutical companies over their pricing policies isn’t fashionable – and a lot of the time, it’s not going to end prettily.  But it’s perfectly coherent to think that the profit motive is one of the motors of innovation, and that it’s part of the quid pro quo for spending money on drugs that may do nothing; in fine, that the profit motive may actually be a necessary part of getting the good stuff we want.  To an economist, the phrase “normal profit” means the minimum profit necessary to keep a firm going – where average revenue equals average total cost.  But if that was all that was on offer, there’d be no incentive to enter a market in the first place: if you’re (on average) in the same place as you were before entering the market, why bother?  So it’s reasonable to think that there ought to be some level of supernormal profits.  They help ensure we get a world that’s better tomorrow than it was yesterday.

On this account, the problem is not with making a supernormal profit – oh, all right then: what in everyday English we’d simply call a profit – but with gouging and/ or profiteering.  The question that needs to be addressed is one of what level of profit, and what kind of return on investment, is reasonable.  In some sectors of the economy, it may be quite high.  For example, if I can manufacture a luxury good for which people are willing to pay through the nose, and make a stonking great profit from it… well, all hail me.  In other sectors, this will not be the case.

The determinants of the level of acceptability will depend on all kinds of factor.  It’s a complicated question, and it may defy satisfactory answers from time to time.  All the same: one doesn’t have to be able to say that or why x is good in order to be able to say that y stinks.  The story about EpiPen pricing that’s emerged over the last week or so is one such case.

Here’s the story: EpiPens deliver a dose of adrenaline, and are therefore very useful in cases of allergic reaction.  Adrenaline is not expensive, but delivering it via a syringe is cumbersome; EpiPens make it much simpler.  Mylan Pharmaceuticals obtained the rights to the device in 2007; since then, the price has risen by somewhere between 400 and 500% in the US (different sources offer different amounts; but a pack of two EpiPens costs about $415 in the US, and about $85 in France).  That’s bad enough on the face of it, though Mylan CEO Heather Bresch does apparently have a defence, as Fortune explains: more…

In Praise of Ambivalence: “Young” Feminism, Gender Identity, and Free Speech

13 Jul, 16 | by bearp

By Brian D. Earp (@briandavidearp)

* Note: this article was first published online at Quillette magazine.


Alice Dreger, the historian of science, sex researcher, activist, and author of a much-discussed book of last year, has recently called attention to the loss of ambivalence as an acceptable attitude in contemporary politics and beyond. “Once upon a time,” she writes, “we were allowed to feel ambivalent about people. We were allowed to say, ‘I like what they did here, but that bit over there doesn’t thrill me so much.’ Those days are gone. Today the rule is that if someone—a scientist, a writer, a broadcaster, a politician—does one thing we don’t like, they’re dead to us.”

I’m going to suggest that this development leads to another kind of loss: the loss of our ability to work together, or better, learn from each other, despite intense disagreement over certain issues. Whether it’s because our opponent hails from a different political party, or voted differently on a key referendum, or thinks about economics or gun control or immigration or social values—or whatever—in a way we struggle to comprehend, our collective habit of shouting at each other with fingers stuffed in our ears has reached a breaking point.

It’s time to bring ambivalence back.

A Fatal Retraction

Given the state of politics these days, Dreger’s remarks could have been triggered by just about anything; but as it happens, she was reflecting on a controversial decision by the editors of Everyday Feminism, a popular online feminist magazine, to pull an essay of hers on sex education. The essay had earlier been published by Pacific Standard with the provocative title, “What If We Admitted to Children That Sex Is Primarily About Pleasure?”

The essay wasn’t the problem. In fact, the editors liked the essay: they had reached out to Dreger to ask her permission to republish it, which is how this whole episode began. Instead, the problem was some other, unrelated material that Dreger had published elsewhere—a kind of “guilt by association” with her own work.

This is how the editors explained their decision (key bits in bold):

What happened was that we decided to pull the article from circulation shortly after it went up. When we asked permission [to republish] it we weren’t aware of some of the articles you’ve published on trans issues and after a reader brought it to our attention [we] looked into them.

Trans issues means transgender issues. The editor went on:

We … realized that while we very much valued the information in the article on teaching children that sex is about pleasure, the views expressed in several of your other articles directly conflicts with the work we’re trying to do in Everyday Feminism. For that reason, we decided to pull the article.

If you aren’t familiar with Dreger’s work, you are probably wondering what she’s written about trans issues that the editors found so troubling—troubling enough to retract an unrelated essay. And if you are familiar with Dreger’s work, you are probably wondering even more. This is because Dreger is widely regarded as being a supporter of trans rights, as well as rights for intersex people, for gender non-conformers generally, and for other marginalized groups, all of which seems broadly consistent with the aims of Everyday Feminism.

Dreger’s support for sexual minorities is not idle. Instead, she has devoted the better part of her professional career to blowing up narrow-minded gender identity norms, against sometimes huge resistance, and to fighting oppressive attitudes about sex and gender within the more traditional corners of science and medicine. Her work on intersex ethics has been especially influential.

So what could be going on behind the curtain?


Event: Courting Controversy?

3 Jul, 16 | by Iain Brassington

This might be of interest to some readers:

Courting Controversy?  Recent Developments in Health Care Law

21 July 2016

Chancellors Hotel, Chancellors Way, Moseley Road, Fallowfield, Manchester M14 6NN

This afternoon seminar examines some controversial recent developments in health care law and introduces two new books on law and medicine:

  • Margaret Brazier and Emma Cave Medicine, Patients and the Law (6th Edn) (Manchester UP, 2016)
  • Catherine Stanton and Hannah Quirk (eds), Criminalising Contagion: Legal and Ethical Challenges of Disease Transmission and the Criminal Law (Cambridge UP, 2016)

Participants will have the opportunity to discuss developments in the law and meet the authors and researchers from the Centre for Social Ethics and Policy (CSEP) informally.


13:30 – 14:00  Registration

14:00 – 14:30  Overview of recent developments (Margot Brazier and Emma Cave)

14:30 – 15:00  Protecting Vulnerable Patients (Emma Cave)

15:00 – 15:30  Criminalising Disease Transmission: Demands, Difficulties and Dangers (Hannah Quirk)

15:30  Tea

16:00 – 16:30  Patient Autonomy: Clinical Compulsion?  An Analysis of Montgomery and Doogan – Margot Brazier

16:30 – 17:00  Law Commission Recommendations on Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards – Neil Allen

17:00  Open Discussion

17:30  Reception

This event is free and offered by the CSEP and the School of Law, University of Manchester.  Registration, however, is required.  Please reserve your place here.  For more information, email maureen.barlow[at]

Recent Attempts to Restrict the Abortion Law in Poland: A Commentary

25 Apr, 16 | by BMJ

Guest post by Dr Atina Krajewska, University of Sheffield

A couple of weeks ago news hit the headlines about attempts to introduce a total ban on abortion in Poland.  The legislative proposal that caused outrange among women’s rights organisations has been drafted by a citizen’s initiative, “Stop Abortion”, and is the fourth attempt to restrict abortion access to have been given a parliamentary hearing in Poland in the last 5 years.  The proposal must be supported by 100 000 signatures before it can be voted in Parliament.  However, as this threshold has been easily met in the past, it is worth reflecting on its causes and possible legal and social consequences for Poland and Europe.

Current law

Poland is well known for its conservative approach towards reproductive rights.  The current Act on Family Planning, from 1993, extends the protection of the right to life to the prenatal phase of human life.  It allows doctors to perform lawful abortions in only three sets of circumstances: when a) the pregnancy constitutes a danger to the life or health of the mother; b) prenatal tests suggest a high risk of a serious and irreversible abnormality or a severe life-threatening illness of the foetus; c) there is a justified suspicion that the pregnancy is a result of a criminal act (rape or incest).  A lawful termination can take only place within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.  The Act has been often criticised as one of the most restrictive in Europe.

Nevertheless, despite popular belief, it is not the current law that seems to lie at the root of the problem.  The reason for the limited access to abortion services for women is not the restrictive legislation, but its highly limiting and narrow interpretation and incorrect implementation.  Poland has recently lost three major cases before the European Court of Human Rights (Tysiac, R.R., and P & S) due to the lack of adequate procedures guaranteeing the full exercise of statutory rights and medical practice substantially limiting access to lawful abortions.  For the first time in the abortion context, the Court found that the actions of Polish authorities and medical professionals have met the threshold of inhumane and degrading treatment, set in Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Poland is the best example of how social, historic and political circumstances led to the bifurcation of different forms of legality, i.e. to discrepancies between formal and informal rules, between law and other – ethical and social – norms.

The new proposal

The new bill “on the general protection of human life and preparation for family life” defines “prenatal life” as starting from the moment of conception, which is described as “the fusion of the female and male gametes”.  The same definition applies to the term “conceived child”, used in the Polish criminal code.

Crucially, the Bill proposes to delete all three conditions under which lawful abortion is currently permitted.  This, of course, constitutes a dramatic departure from the current legal framework, and converts the current legislation into an administrative tool setting general directions for (limited) sexual education and social care necessary for families affected by the new regulation.  At the same time, and more importantly, the new proposal sets out changes to the Polish criminal code, according to which ‘the causation of the death of a conceived child’ would carry a sentence between 3 months and 5 years of imprisonment.  The same sanction would apply if someone were to assist with, or incite, abortion.

There is only one exception. more…

Circumcision and Sexual Function: Bad Science Reporting Misleads Parents

22 Apr, 16 | by bearp

by Brian D. Earp / (@briandavidearp)


Another day, another round of uncritical media coverage of an empirical study about circumcision and sexual function. That’s including from the New York Times, whose Nicholas Bakalar has more or less recycled the content of a university press release without incorporating any skeptical analysis from other scientists. That’s par for the course for Bakalar.[1]

The new study is by Jennifer Bossio and her colleagues from Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada: it looked at penile sensitivity at various locations on the penis, comparing a sample of men who had been circumcised when they were infants (meaning they had their foreskins surgically removed), with a sample of men who remained genitally intact (meaning they kept their foreskins into adulthood).[2]

What did the researchers discover? According to a typical headline from the past few days:

Circumcision does not reduce penis sensitivity.”

But that’s not what the study showed. Before we get into the details of the science, and looking just at this claim from the “headline” conclusion, it might be helpful to review some basic anatomy.


No to Conscientious Objection Accommodation in Health Care

22 Apr, 16 | by BMJ

Guest post by Udo Schuklenk

Canada is currently in the midst of a national debate about the scope of assisted dying regulations and policies.  It’s a result of a 2015 Supreme Court ruling that declared parts of the country’s Criminal Code null and void that criminalises assisted dying.  As you would expect, there is a lot of forth and back happening between proponents of a permissive regime (à la Belgium/ Netherlands), and those who would like a restrictive regime.  Another issue is being debated as well as litigated in the courts, the seemingly intractable question of conscientious objection accommodation.

In preparation for incoming provincial policies on assisted dying, the provinces’ statutory medical bodies, such as for instance the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, have stipulated that while doctors are not obliged to provide directly assistance in dying to eligible patients, they must transfer patents on to a colleague who they know will provide that service.  A similar stance has been taken in the recommendations issued by an expert advisory group appointed by the country’s provinces and territories, who are ultimately responsible for health care.  The same holds true for a report issued by a special joint parliamentary committee of the country’s national parliament.  Unsurprisingly, religious doctors’ groups, but not only religious doctors’ groups, are all fired up about this and have taken, for instance, the Ontario College to court to stop this policy from being implemented.  Their argument is that conscientious objectors among its members must not be forced to provide even this level of assistance if their conscience dictates otherwise.

It is likely that the compromise reached will entail an obligation on health care professionals to transfer patients on to a willing health care professional.  That will not satisfy the objectors, because if you really hold the view that assisting a competent patient who meets the criteria stipulated by the Supreme Court is tantamount to murder, this compromise would simply translate into you passing on your patient to someone who you know would ‘murder’ that patient.  It is also not satisfactory from the patient’s perspective, because they could – depending on where they live – be forced to travel great distances in order to meet the obliging health care professional.  That could well prevent some patients from access to an assisted death.

The question arises why we should accommodate conscientiously objecting health care professionals in the first place.  It is somewhat taken as a given in much of the medical ethics literature that conscientious objectors are deserving of some kind of accommodation.  Arguments often focus on what makes a conscientious objection deserving of accommodation, and on what reasonable limits should be imposed on conscientious objectors, as opposed to the question of whether conscientious objectors deserve accommodation at all.

In our paper we develop a more radical argument for the view that health care professionals have no moral claim to conscientious objection accommodation in liberal democracies.  We put forward a number of arguments to support that conclusion.  For starters, it is impossible to evaluate the truth of the authoritative documents that motivate particular consciences.  The courts in many jurisdictions that have had to deal with conscience related cases have conceded that much.  It turns out that we also actually cannot test whether someone’s conscience claims are actually true, in the sense that that person actually has those convictions.  It might just be a convenient cop-out, and yet we readily accommodate objectors at great inconvenience to patients and significant cost to health care systems.

Why should we accommodate privately held convictions that objecting professionals would like to prioritise over their professional obligations to patients?   That demand seems unprofessional in its own right.  The promise to serve the public good and the individual patient first goes right out of the window, there and then.  These professionals joined their profession voluntarily and they knew that the scope of professional practice and their obligations to patients wouldn’t be defined by them personally, and also that changes to scope would invariably occur over time.  The content of conscientious objections is by necessity arbitrary and encompasses any number of practical refusals to provide services.  No health care system should permit its monopoly service providers that sort of freedom when it comes to the delivery of the very same services that they voluntarily contracted to deliver.  Permitting such conscience accommodations ultimately subverts the very reasons for why society has professions in the first place.


Udo Schuklenk tweets @schuklenk

Read the full paper here.

Why Brits? Why India?

3 Apr, 16 | by Iain Brassington

Julie Bindel had a piece in The Guardian the other day about India’s surrogate mothers.  It makes for pretty grim reading.  Even if the surrogates are paid, and are paid more than they might otherwise have earned, there’s still a range of problems that the piece makes clear.

For one thing, the background of the surrogates is an important factor.  Bindel writes that

[s]urrogates are paid about £4,500 to rent their wombs at this particular clinic, a huge amount in a country where, in 2012, average monthly earnings stood at $215.

It’s tempting, at first glance, to look at the opportunity to be a surrogate as a good thing in this context: these women are earning, by comparative standards, good money.  But, of course, you have to keep in mind that the standard is comparative.  If your choice is between doing something you wouldn’t otherwise do and penury, doing the thing you wouldn’t otherwise do looks like the better option.  But “better option” doesn’t imply “good option”.  So there’s more to be said there; more questions to be asked.  Choosing x over y because y is more awful doesn’t mean that x isn’t.  It might be a good thing; but it might not be.  There might be economic – structural – coercion.  Choosing to become a surrogate might be a symptom of there being no better alternative.

A related question is this: are the women really making a free choice in offering their reproductive labour even assuming that the terms are economically just?  Possibly not:

I have heard several stories of women being forced or coerced into surrogacy by husbands or even pimps, and ask Mehta if she is aware of this happening.  “Without the husbands’ [of the surrogates] consent we don’t do surrogacy.”

Note (a) the non-denial, and (b) the tacit acceptance that it’s the husband’s decision anyway.  That’s not good.

(In a wholly different context, I’ve recently been reading David Luban’s Lawyers and Justice, and – in a discussion about lawyers cross-examining complainants in rape cases, he makes this point:

([H]ere we have two people who are confronted by powerful institutions from which protection is needed.  The defendant is confronted by the state [that is: in any criminal trial, the defendant does need protection from the power of the state – IB], but the victim is confronted by the millennia-long cultural tradition of patriarchy, which makes the cliché that the victim is on trial true.  From the point of view of classical liberalism, according to which the significant enemy is the state, this cannot matter. But from the point of view of the progressive correction of classical liberalism, any powerful social institution is a threat, including diffuse yet tangible institutions such as patriarchy. (p 151)

(The sentiment would seem to apply here.  A view of human agency that sees liberty as being mainly or only about avoiding state interference is likely to miss all kinds of much more subtle, insidious pressures that are liberty-limiting.  Economic factors are such pressures.  The idea of the wife as property is another.)

I do wonder if readers of this blog might help out with answering one more question, though. more…

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