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Putting a Price on Empathy

12 Aug, 15 | by BMJ

Guest Post by Sarah Carter

My paper is another to add to the ever-increasing number of articles about moral (bio)enhancement – but why is this issue so important?  To take a cynical view: if we had a pill or injection that could make people more moral, less prone to harming others, and so on, it would likely be very attractive to governments (perhaps because of real concerns that we’re headed for disaster unless such steps are taken, or simply because it would save on policing and military bills).  So it’s very important to try to get our heads around this subject while it’s still something that’s merely an idea, rather than waiting until it’s something in our medicine cabinets.  This means thinking about and discussing everything from what moral enhancement would actually involve, right through to questioning how it should be distributed, regulated, and even – as my paper addresses – promoted to the public.

Writers such as Persson and Savulescu argue that there is a need to undertake moral bioenhancement as a means to avoid mankind wandering down the path of ultimate harm, but they concede that many people (especially those we might say to be most in need of moral bioenhancement) would be unlikely to undergo it willingly.  In 2014, Vojin Rakic suggested that incentives such as tax breaks, retirement benefits, schooling allowances, and affirmative action policies, should be used as a way to encourage people to undergo moral bioenhancement.  I think that Rakic’s idea, while prima facie sensible and reasonable, simply will not work. This is not due to issues of coercion or social justice that we would normally associate with the use of incentives, but rather because likely public perceptions of moral bioenhancement mean that the use of incentives for this purpose may present a taboo trade-off. more…

How do Medical Students Learn Ethics?

3 Aug, 15 | by Iain Brassington

Guest Post by Carolyn Johnston

How interested are medical students in learning ethics and law? I have met students who have a genuine interest in the issues, who are engaged in teaching sessions and may go on to intercalate in ethics and law. On the other hand some consider that ethics is “just common sense”. They want to know only the legal parameters within which they will go on to practice and do not want to be troubled with a discussion of ethical issues for which there may not be a “correct” answer.

Ethics and law is a core part of the undergraduate medical curriculum and so in order to engage students successfully I need to know whether my teaching materials are relevant, useful and interesting. In 2010 I ran a student selected component in which MBBS Year 2 students created materials for medical ethics and law topics for pre-clinical students which they considered were engaging and relevant, so that students might go further than learning merely to pass exams. One student, Marcus Sorensen, who had managed a design consultancy focusing on web design and development before starting his medical studies, came up with the idea of a website as a platform for ethics materials for King’s students and he created the website

It was through our ongoing discussions that we identified a lack of information about students’ experiences of learning medical ethics and law, especially outside the classroom environment. 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.


The Legal and Moral Significance of Implantation

23 Jun, 15 | by BMJ

Guest post by Sally Sheldon

We tend to talk about contraception and abortion as if they were two separate and readily distinguishable practices, the former preventing pregnancy and the latter ending it. This understanding has a very important effect in current British law, where a relatively permissive approach to the availability of contraception stands in stark contrast to the morally grounded, onerous criminal sanctions against abortion. Yet is the distinction between abortion and contraception really so clear cut?  How and why do we make it? And is the line that we have drawn between the two morally defensible?

As a matter of biological fact, the development of human life is not characterised by bright lines. As the eminent lawyer Glanville Williams once put it, “abstract human life does not ‘begin’; it just keeps going.” A seamless biological continuum exists through the production of sperm and egg, their joining together in a process of fertilisation, the gradual development of the new entity thus created throughout pregnancy, birth, subsequent growth, eventual death and ensuing decay of the body. Defining what happens along the way as an ‘embryo’, ‘fetus’, ‘person’, ‘adult’, or ‘corpse’ requires an attempt to draw lines on the basis of criteria selected as holding significance for legal or other purposes. How and where we draw such lines is a tricky business, involving careful moral reflection informed by medical fact.

The “regulatory cliff edge” between the relatively permissive regulation of contraception and the criminal prohibition of abortion relies on a line drawn on the basis of the biological event of implantation, where the fertilised egg physically attaches itself to the wall of the womb some six to twelve days after ovulation. Yet while enormous legal weight has been placed upon it, little consideration seems to have been given as to why implantation matters morally. The voluminous philosophical literature on the ethical status of the human embryo and foetus offers little support for the view that implantation is an important marker.

Further, while it might once have been suggested that implantation offers a conveniently timed moment for a necessary gear change between the appropriate regulation of contraception and abortion, this argument is difficult to sustain in the light of modern medical science. more…

What should Investigators be Doing with Unexpected Findings in Brain Imaging Research?

22 Jun, 15 | by BMJ

Guest Post by Caitlin Cole

Incidental findings in brain imaging research are common. Investigators can discover these unexpected findings of potential medical significance in up to 70% of their research scans. However, there are no standards to guide investigators as to whether they should actively search for these findings or which, if any, they should return to research participants.

This complex ethical issue impacts many groups in brain imaging: participants and parents of child participants who may desire relevant health information, but alternatively may suffer from anxiety and financial burden; investigators who must ethically grant their participants autonomy, but who also may suffer from budget and personnel restrictions to manage the review and report of these findings; Institutional Review Board (IRB) members who must provide ethical oversight to imaging research and help mandate institutional standards; and health providers who must interface with their patients and assist with follow up care when necessary.

Our research study shows these groups share some ideas on the ethics of returning incidental findings – the researcher has an ethical responsibility or obligation to tell a subject that there’s something there, however they do it, but just inform the subject, even though it’s not part of the research” – yet also acknowledge the inherent risk in reporting medical research information. As one of our IRB members commented, I mean [in regards to withholding findings] one reason would be to protect the patient from doing something stupid about them.

When participants are asked about incidental findings, they consistently state that they want to receive all information pertinent to their health. Research participants want to make their own medical decisions and feel investigators have a responsibility to keep them informed.

However, it is clear from our research that participants do not always understand the difference between a brain scan for research purposes and a clinical scan. The incidental finding reports that they receive include personal health information, written in medical jargon, discovered during a clinical procedure that may have immediate or long term medical significance. Because of this crossover between conducting research and sharing health information, participants may overestimate the clinical utility of the reported research information. This is a challenge for investigators whose role is to conduct research, not to diagnose participants or offer findings with clinical certainty. Participant assumptions otherwise have the potential to cause downstream legal complications for the research institution.

It is necessary to understand the impact on all parties involved in the process of disclosing incidental findings to determine appropriate management policy. This challenging task should not be underestimated as these groups think differently about the balance between risk and benefit based on their role in this process, whether they be a research participant, a research investigator, an IRB member or a health provider. Overall there is an ethical demand to manage and report unexpected findings discovered in brain imaging research; finding a way to do this while minimizing negative impact for all involved is important.

Read the full paper here.

Prostitution, Harm, and Disability: Should Only People with Disabilities be Allowed to Pay for Sex?

17 Jun, 15 | by bearp

By Brian D. Earp


Is prostitution harmful? And if it is harmful, should it be illegal to buy (or sell) sexual services? And if so, should there ever be any exceptions? What about for people with certain disabilities—say—who might find it difficult or even impossible to find a sexual partner if they weren’t allowed to exchange money for sex? Do people have a “right” to sexual fulfillment?

In a recent issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics, Frej Klem Thomsen[1] explores these and other controversial questions. His focus is on the issue of exceptions—specifically for those with certain disabilities. According to Thomsen, a person is “relevantly disabled” (for the sake of this discussion) if and only if:

(1) she has sexual needs, and desires to exercise her sexuality, and

(2) she has an anomalous physical or mental condition that, given her social circumstances, sufficiently limits her possibilities of exercising her sexuality, including fulfilling her sexual needs. (p. 455)

There is a lot to say here. First, in order to figure out the merits of making an exception to a general ban on prostitution (for people with disabilities or for anyone else), we have to start by deciding what to think about the advisability of such a ban in the first place. For, if we don’t think it’s a good idea to begin with (spoiler alert: this is my own view), then we can skip all the talk about making exemptions, and just argue against the ban.

But Thomsen doesn’t pursue that route. Instead, he wants to make a case for an exception. So, he has to try to convince his reader that a general prohibition makes at least some kind of moral and/or practical sense. How does he go about making this argument?


The Moral Desirability of Early Fatherhood

5 Jun, 15 | by Iain Brassington

Guest Post by Kevin Smith

It is well known that the risk of disorders resulting from chromosomal abnormalities, such as Down’s syndrome, correlates with advancing maternal age.  Less widely known is the correlation between the age of fathers and an increased risk of a range of disorders in their resultant offspring, the most prominent of which are neuropsychiatric conditions including schizophrenia and autism.  This is the paternal age effect, the importance of which has recently become clear through a growing body of molecular genetic and epidemiological data.

The paternal age effect results from new mutations occurring in the stem cells from which sperm cells are derived, resulting in an accumulating mutational burden as the male ages.  Genetic abnormalities resulting from these paternal mutations are usually subtle at the molecular level (involving as little as a single nucleotide change), highly heterogeneous, and do not usually result in detectable foetal abnormalities.  Accordingly, the opportunity for prenatal detection of such cases is very limited.  (By contrast, the genetic abnormalities associated with maternal aging typically involve substantive chromosomal aberrations, comprise a relatively restricted range of commonly occurring forms, and frequently produce marked foetal defects; these features ensure that routine screening and testing reveals the majority of such cases prior to birth, permitting termination of affected foetuses.)  Additionally, and again in contrast to genetic aberrations associated with maternal age, paternal de novo mutations are transmitted through successive generations of males, with a concomitant intergenerational accumulation of genetic abnormalities.  Moreover, at least in Western societies, the average age of fatherhood is increasing markedly, a situation that will increase the burden of these mutations.  It follows that the age of potential fathers is of significant ethical importance.

My paper explores the ethical aspects of paternal age, in respect of both individual procreative decisions and societal responsibilities.  I argue inter alia that, somewhat contrary to the commonplace disapproval of young parents, early fatherhood is ethically desirable.  The most immediate practical means to achieve a reduction in paternal de novo mutations and associated genetic disorders would be the promotion of sperm banking amongst young males.

Read the full paper here.

Re-Engineering Shared Decision-Making

22 May, 15 | by Iain Brassington

Guest post by Muriel R. Gillick

When physician-law-professor, Jay Katz, published The Silent World of Doctor and Patient in 1984, shortly after I completed my medical residency, I felt he was speaking directly to me.  He was telling me what kind of physician to be – not the old-school, paternalistic physician who told patients what treatment was best, but rather a physician who participated in shared decision-making.  For the next few decades, I aspired to cultivate patient autonomy by engaging my patients in deciding, with my input, how to approach their medical care.

There were substantial obstacles.  There were cognitive barriers to shared decision-making, as Twerksy and Kahneman brilliantly revealed: whether you spoke of a 60% success rate or a 40% failure rate seemed to matter, even though they were mathematically equivalent, as did the patient or doctor’s most recent experiences.  Then there was the problem of innumeracy, of patients lacking the tools needed to understand probabilities.  There was the challenge of limited health literacy, or inadequate knowledge of the vocabulary and concepts of health and disease.  And there were cultural biases, because patients of various ethnic backgrounds had a world view radically different from the physician’s biomedical model.  But each of those barriers could be surmounted with careful choice of words, better graphs, or cultural sensitivity.  I continued to strive to be a physician who practiced shared decision-making.

But more and more often, I found that patients wanted me to make a treatment recommendation.  It wasn’t that they didn’t want to be involved in the decision-making, or that they couldn’t understand medical jargon, or that they didn’t know what odds ratios were – although sometimes those were issues. The main issue was that the purpose of the prevailing model of shared decision-making was to figure out, when multiple treatment options existed, which one to choose.  It seemed to me that this focus on what was essentially a technical outcome was misplaced. more…

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…

Is Age a Determinant Variable in Forgoing Treatment Decisions at the End of Life?

14 May, 15 | by BMJ

Guest post by Sandra Martins Pereira, Roeline Pasman and Bregje Onwuteaka-Philipsen

Decisions to forgo treatment are embedded in clinical, socio-cultural, philosophical, religious, legal and ethical contexts and beliefs, and they cannot be considered as representing good or poor quality care. Particularly for older people, it is sometimes argued that treatment is aggressive, and that there may be a tendency to continue or start treatments in situations where a shift to a focus on quality of life in light of a limited life expectancy might be preferred. Others argue that an attitude of ageism might prevent older people from receiving treatments and care from which they could benefit, thus resulting in some type of harm and compromising the ethical principles of beneficence and non-maleficence.

When the need to make a decision about treatment concerns an older person at the end of life, physicians need to reflect on the following questions: In this situation, for this person, what is the best course of action? Is this person capable of assessing the situation and making a decision about it adequately herself? What are the preferences of the person? Who needs to be involved in the decision-making process? What will be the consequences of starting or withholding this treatment?

Our study shows that decisions to forgo treatment preceded death in a substantial proportion of older people in the Netherlands, and more often than in younger groups. Also, it shows that compared to the younger age groups, in the older age group differences were more significant when deciding on withholding than on withdrawing a treatment. This is interesting because it suggests that Dutch physicians, especially those caring for older people, assume a palliative culture and approach, thus meeting the relatively more frequent preference older people have of receiving comfort care and not aggressive treatments aiming to prolong life. Moreover, it seems that decisions to forgo treatments among the ‘oldest old’ (i.e., older people aged 80 and above), when compared to the youngest age group, were made more frequently due to a wish of the patient, indicating consideration and respect for the patient’s wishes.

However, with regard to patient participation in decision making, we also saw that most of the patients, regardless of their age, did not discuss the forgoing treatment decision with the attending physician. As our findings indicate, this occurred mostly because the patient was not able to assess the situation and make a decision about it in an adequate manner. This result highlights the need to further implement strategies aiming at implementing advance care planning in practice and in an earlier stage of the disease trajectory.

Finally, based on our study, we cannot assume that any age-related differences in forgoing treatment decisions occur due to an attitude of ageism. On the contrary, our study suggests that care for older people in the Netherlands seems to be focused on providing palliative care, also suggesting a better acceptance that these patients are nearing death. This is particularly relevant for the discussion about the meaning of dying well in older ages, having an impact on older people’s experiences and end-of-life care.

Read the full paper here.

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