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Life and Death

A Hot Take on a Cold Body

21 Nov, 16 | by Iain Brassington

It’s good to see Nils’ post about the recent UK cryonics ruling getting shared around quite a bit – so it should.  I thought I’d throw in my own voice, too.

About 18 months ago, Imogen Jones and I wrote a paper musing on some of the ethical and legal dimensions of Christopher Priest’s The Prestige.  One dimension of this was a look at the legal status of the bodies produced as a result of the “magic” trick – in particular, the haziness of whether they were alive or dead; the law doesn’t have any space for a third state.  The paper was something of a jeu d’esprit, written to serve a particular function in a Festschrift for Margot Brazier.  If I say so myself, I think it’s a pretty good paper – but it’s also meant to be fun, and is clearly rather less serious than most ethico-legal scholarship (or anything else in the book, for that matter).

coldlazarus5

Not quite “Cold Lazarus”, but close enough…

So it’s a bit of a surprise to see relevantly similar themes popping up in the news.  If we’re freezing people in the hope of curing terminal illness in the future, what’s the status of the bodies in the meantime (especially if the death certificate has been signed)?  There’s a load of questions that we might want to ask before we get too carried away with embracing cryonics.

Right from the start, there’s a question about plausibility.  For the sake of what follows, I’m going to treat “freezing” as including the process of defrosting people successfully as well, unless the context makes it clear that I mean something else.  Now, that said, the (moral) reasons to freeze people rely on the plausibility of the technology.  If the technology is not plausible, we have no reason to make use of it.  It wouldn’t follow from that that using it’d be wrong – but since the default is not to act in that way, it’s positive reasons that we need, rather than negative ones.  Neither could we really rely on the thought that we could cryopreserve someone in the hope that the freezing-and-thawing process becomes more plausible in future, because we’d have no reason to think that we’d chosen the right version of the technology.  We can only cryopreserve a person once: what if we’ve chosen the wrong technique?  How would we choose the best from an indefinitely large number of what we can at best treat as currently-implausible ones?

So how plausible is it to put a body on ice, then revive it many years later?  It’s been pointed out by some that we currently do preserve embryos without apparent ill-effect, with the implication that there’s no reason in principle why more developed humans couldn’t be frozen successfully.  However, whole humans are a wee bit more complex than embryos; it’s not at all clear that we can extrapolate from balls of a few cells to entire humans.  Even the admittedly limited experimental evidence that it’s possible to freeze whole organs won’t show us that, since we’re systems of organs.  One can accept that an organ is a system, too; but all that means is that we’re systems of systems – so we’ve squared the complexity.  And, of course, the timescales being considered here are tiny compared with the kind of timescales envisaged in cryonic fantasies. more…

Justice Cryogenically Delayed is Justice Denied?

18 Nov, 16 | by BMJ

Guest Post by Nils Hoppe

Re JS (Disposal of Body) [2016] EWHC 2859 (Fam)

This unusual and sad case concerns a court application by a 14 year old girl, JS.  In 2015 she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer which proved terminal and, at the time of her application, she was receiving palliative care as an in-patient at a hospital.  The other parties involved in the application were JS’s parents, who were acrimoniously divorced.  JS had no direct contact with her father after 2008.

Knowing that she would soon die, JS carried out online research into commercial cryogenic preservation techniques, defined in the judgment as “the freezing of a dead body in the hope that resuscitation and cure may be possible in the distant future”.  Such techniques are not uncontroversial, being regarded with scepticism by the majority of the medical and scientific community.  They are also not cheap: the judgment describes the costs associated with the basic cryopreservation package as being in the region of £37,000, or, as Mr Justice Peter Jackson put it, “about ten times as much as an average funeral”.

Of most significance to the court application was the fact that the proposed procedure required the cooperation of the hospital in which JS was a patient.  This concern was described in the following terms by the judge:

The body must be prepared within a very short time of death, ideally within minutes and at most within a few hours.  Arrangements then have to be made for it to be transported by a registered funeral director to the premises in the United States where it is to be stored.  These bridging arrangements are offered in the UK for payment by a voluntary non-profit organisation of cryonics enthusiasts, who are not medically trained.  Evidently, where the subject dies in hospital, the cooperation of the hospital is necessary if the body is to be prepared by the volunteers.  This situation gives rise to serious legal and ethical issues for the hospital trust, which has to act within the law and has duties to its other patients and to its staff. (at paragraph 12)

JS, described as bright, intelligent and articulate, decided that she wanted her body to be cryopreserved after her death.  Her mother supported this wish: her father did not initially, though his views changed.  By the time the matter went to court, JS’s father was prepared to agree to what she wanted, subject to certain conditions, including that he be permitted to see her body after her death (which was objectionable to JS), and that he not be financially liable for the cryopreservation process.

In these circumstances, Mr Justice Peter Jackson was asked to make an order permitting JS’s mother to make arrangements for the cryopreservation of JS’s body after her death and, conversely, preventing her father from intervening.  In doing so, he considered a range of legal and ethical issues.

The whole concept of halting decay after death in order to wait for a miracle cure is predicated on the potential for future scientific progress.  At the same time, it was clearly right for Mr Justice Peter Jackson to work on the basis of science as it stood at the time the matter came before him.  The cessation of the JS’s life is, in the current scientific context, irreversible and fulfils the criteria we use to diagnose death in a legally meaningful way.  The question of what is then done with her body is at this stage of secondary importance only.  She may request to be interred in a family tomb, be incinerated, or donate her body for scientific purposes.  In this case, she would like to be cryopreserved.  The court ought to only engage with this issue in detail if the proposed use of the body after death raises issues which touch on public morals, such as Lord Avebury’s memorable attempt to bequeath his body to Battersea Dogs’ Home, or Jeremy Bentham’s installation as an autoicon.  Her wish to place a very expensive bet on an unknown future technology becoming available is her business alone and may even be a fully acceptable, if unusual, desire with which a court ought not interfere.  Her bet also extends to that new technology permitting her successful resuscitation.  It extends to her mental faculties surviving the procedure so she can meaningfully engage with her surroundings post-resuscitation.  And it also extends to a cure having been found for the condition which caused her first ‘death’.

Any one of these bets is so risky as to be legitimately thought of as unlikely.  In sum, they are sufficiently unlikely to not raise a significant problem in the proceedings before Mr Justice Jackson: If he thought that her death was, on the balance of probabilities, reversible at a future point in time, would he be entitled to decide this issue on the basis that she is dead?  Most jurisdictions, including England and Wales, are clear that the death of the individual must be ‘irreversible’ to be normatively meaningful.  Where this is the case, what is done with the body afterwards is very much a matter for the concerned individual and her family.  There is only a reserve right for public institutions to intervene if the proposed use is deemed so inappropriate as to negate her right to decide what to do with her body after her own death.

Indeed, where the discussion at some point centres upon what the best interests of JS are it seems clear that it must be ever so slightly more in her interest to preserve an opportunity of resurrection, albeit enormously remote, than it is to be interred and decay irreversibly.  It seems clear that there is very little sensible argument which would allow the Court to deny her final wish.  The mere fact that we feel the promises made by the cryopreservation industry amount to a most grievous form of quackery is insufficient to justify an interference, just as we do not have to like or agree with the reasons why adherents to some religions used to refuse blood transfusions.

The Court was required to work on the basis of what is scientifically possible at this point in time, and be agnostic as to any future developments.  Mr Justice Jackson did so, and he did so with commendable sensitivity to the subject matter before him.  The decision is the right one to reach.  The theoretical question of what becomes of all those cryopreserved in facilities across the world if technology advances to the point where they can effectively be rescuscitated remains for another time.  But there is an exciting point here: unless the law is changed ex ante, cryopreservation companies will suddenly have custody of hundreds of comatose patients, rather than dead bodies – with all of the entailing legal and moral obligations.

Victims, Vectors and Villains? Are Those Who Opt Out of Vaccination Morally Responsible for the Deaths of Others?

11 Oct, 16 | by miriamwood

Guest Post by Euzebiusz Jamrozik, Toby Handfield, Michael J Selgelid

Re: Victims, vectors and villains: are those who opt out of vaccination morally responsible for the deaths of others?

Who is responsible for the harms caused by an outbreak for vaccine preventable disease?

Are those who opt out of vaccination and transmit disease responsible for the resultant harms to others?

Suppose that health care systems make vaccines widely available and easily affordable–but some choose not to be vaccinated, resulting in an outbreak. If the outbreak only affected those who could have been safely and effectively vaccinated, but nonetheless opted out, then we might say that those who become infected consented to the risks involved and are thus responsible for their own illness. What should we think, however, about scenarios where harm occurs to those who cannot be safely or effectively vaccinated – e.g. vulnerable groups such as infants and the immunosuppressed? These groups are often at the highest risk of severe harm, and depend upon herd immunity (resulting from high vaccination rates) to protect them from vaccine-preventable infections. Members of such groups bear the burden of others’ freedom to opt out of vaccination, and this can cost them their lives. In 2015, for example, an immunosuppressed woman died in the United States during a measles outbreak made possible by a lapse in local vaccination rates[1].

Our recent article in the Journal of Medical Ethics argues that imposing risks of infection on others without good justification is morally blameworthy–and that individuals who opt out of vaccination are thus morally responsible for resultant harms to others. In defence of this thesis we address numerous important questions, and our answers may have significant implications for public health policy.

more…

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…

Our Special Treatment of Patients in a Vegetative State is a Form of Cruel and Unusual Punishment

23 Sep, 16 | by miriamwood

by Professor Dominic Wilkinson, @Neonatalethics
Professor of Medical Ethics, Consultant Neonatologist

Our society has good reason to provide special treatment to people with severe brain injuries and their families.

But our current “special treatment” for a group of the most severely affected people with brain injuries leads to devastating, agonising, protracted and totally preventable suffering.

Consider the following cases:

Case 1. Sally has severe progressive dementia. She is no longer able to communicate, and does not recognize any of her family members. Sally had previously spoken with her family and told them that if she were ever in such a state and not likely to improve, that she would not want to be kept alive artificially. Sally’s doctor has been called to her nursing home because she has pneumonia. Although the infection could be treated with antibiotics, the doctor and family together decide not to. Sally dies a few days later.

Case 2. Sandra has suffered a severe head and spinal injury in a car accident. She has been in intensive care for several weeks, but there is no sign of improvement. Her brain scans show extensive damage, and it is likely that if she survives Sandra would be severely disabled. Sandra had previously spoken with her family and told them that if he were ever in such a state and not likely to improve, that she would not want to be kept alive artificially. Although Sandra could be kept alive for some time if treatment continues, the doctors and the family together decide to stop life support. Sandra dies a few minutes later.

Case 3. Susie suffered a severe brain injury months ago. She was left in a vegetative state. She has no response to those around her. Susie had previously spoken with her family and told them that if she were ever in such a state and not likely to improve, that she would not want to be kept alive artificially. Susie’s family wish to stop the artificial feeding that is keeping her alive, but her doctor explains that a decision would need to be made by the courts. There are long delays before and during the court application procedures. Four years after her brain injury, the court authorizes withdrawal of artificial feeding. Susie dies some days later.

These cases are fictional, though the last one (Susie) is based on a real case (Miss S), which went to the Court of Protection in England and Wales earlier this year. In the real case, a set of avoidable factors meant that decisions were delayed for more than three and a half years. An important paper, released today in the Journal of Medical Ethics, analyses the cause and consequences of the delays. The paper describes in vivid detail the distress and desperation of Miss S’s family.

more…

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…

Are Doctors Who Know the Law More Likely to Follow it?

17 Aug, 16 | by miriamwood

Guest Post by Ben White and Lindy Willmott, Australian Centre for Health Law Research

This was the question we considered in a recent JME article about the role of law in decisions to withhold or withdraw life-sustaining treatment from adults who lack capacity. The short answer is ‘yes’. The longer answer is also ‘yes’ – although our results suggest that doctors may be acting in a way that complies with the law but not doing so because of the law.

Our article, which is part of a wider project, reports on survey results from 649 doctors from New South Wales and Victoria (Australia’s two most populous States). The doctors surveyed were from the seven specialties most likely to be making end-of-life decisions: emergency, geriatric, palliative, renal and respiratory medicine, medical oncology, and intensive care. We asked these doctors questions to determine their legal knowledge and we also asked them to respond to a scenario where following the law (by respecting an advance directive) conflicted with a more clinically oriented approach.

Compliance with the law was low with only 32% of doctors following the advance directive. Of interest was that doctors who knew the relevant law were more likely to comply with it and follow the advance directive than those doctors who did not know the law. Initially we thought that this could indicate that legal knowledge might lead to legal compliance. However, we then examined the reasons doctors gave for decision-making and also the factors they relied on to understand whether law was seen as important or not by doctors in their deliberations.

more…

The Challenge of Futile Treatment

29 Jul, 16 | by Iain Brassington

Guest Post by Lindy Willmott and Ben White

For decades, researchers from around the world have found evidence that doctors provide futile treatment to adult patients who are dying.  Some discussion of this topic has turned on matters of definition (see our recent contribution to this debate), with a broader concept of “perceived inappropriate treatment” being favoured by commentators more recently.  However, this debate skirts the fundamental issue: how can treatment that may prolong or increase patient suffering, waste scarce health care resources, and cause distress to health care workers still occur in hospitals around the world?  In other words, in these days of overworked doctors and underfunded healthcare systems, how is this still an issue?

Some research has tackled this although it has tended to focus on doctors operating in intensive care units and there has been very little research which looks at the reasons given by doctors from a range of specialties about why futile treatment is provided at the end of life.

Our study, undertaken by a team of interdisciplinary researchers, explored the perceptions on this topic of doctors, from a range of specialities, who are commonly involved with treatment at the end of life.  We interviewed 96 doctors at three hospitals in Queensland, Australia, from a range of specialities including intensive care, oncology, internal medicine, cardiology, geriatrics, surgery, and emergency.  Doctors reported that doctor-related and patient-related factors were the main drivers of futile treatment, although reasons relating to the institutional nature of hospitals were also important.

We found that doctor-related reasons were important in the provision of futile end-of-life care.  Many doctors reported attitudes of their colleagues that reflect a cultural aversion to death.  Doctors saw themselves as trained healers who viewed every death as a failure, and pursued a cure rather than appropriate palliative treatment for dying patients.  Doctors described wanting to help the patient and not give up hope that a treatment might provide some benefit.  They also said they wanted to satisfy patients, families, and medical professionals themselves that everything possible had been done, due to both emotional attachment to the patient and fear of the legal consequences of refusing demands for treatment.  They also admitted to providing families and patients with a smorgasbord of treatment options as a means of avoiding uncomfortable conversations about dying.  Doctors’ personalities, religious backgrounds, and their own experiences with death and dying were also said to contribute to the giving of futile treatment. more…

Special “Editor’s Choice” Issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics Now Online

28 May, 16 | by bearp

by Brian D. Earp / (@briandavidearp)

On behalf of the Journal of Medical Ethics, I am excited to announce the publication of a special “Editor’s Choice” issue, now online at the journal website. In a rare turn for the journal, the entire issue made up of “Editor’s Choice” papers, with invited (peer-reviewed) papers from both up-and-coming and established scholars.

Editor-in-Chief Professor Julian Savulescu explains the significance of the issue: “Our self-imposed brief was to concentrate on excellent but less well-known scholars from a variety of perspectives, especially those who are young and up and coming, alongside some more established contributors.”

Although no particular topic assignment was given, Professor Savulescu remarks that “it is interesting that [the] contributions aggregate naturally around four perennial clusters: the concept of the good life, end of life, public health and new technologies (enhancement/selection).”

Here are some highlights from each contribution to the issue: more…

China’s Terrible Transplant Secret

9 May, 16 | by BMJ

Guest Post by Wendy Rogers
Earlier this year, a Malaysian politician, Datuk Bung Moktar Radin, travelled to China to receive a kidney transplant.  The details are scanty. There is no mention of the source of the kidney that the Malaysian MP received.  Reports of foreigners travelling to China for transplants rarely make the media, yet they may be an important link in trying to untangle the secrets of China’s secretive transplant system.

Back in the early to mid-2000s, Chinese hospitals brazenly advertised on the internet for foreign customers, offering kidney, liver and heart transplants with astonishingly short waiting times of 2-4 weeks.  In contrast, patients in countries like Australia, the UK, and the US typically wait years, with many dying before an organ becomes available.  Despite initial denials, Chinese officials eventually admitted that virtually all their organs were sourced from executed prisoners.  Using executed prisoners as organ donors is uniformly considered unethical because of concerns that prisoners may be manipulated or coerced rather than being genuine volunteers.  Voluntary donation is at the heart of most transplant programs world-wide, although there are exceptions.

Violating this ethical principle by selling organs from executed prisoners to foreign (and Chinese) patients might seem enough to make China a pariah in the international transplant community.  But this is only one part of China’s terrible transplant secret. Reputable international investigators have gathered evidence that Chinese prisoners of conscience, mainly Falun Gong practitioners, Uyghurs, house Christians and Tibetans, are murdered for their organs.  Falun Gong practitioners, who make up the bulk of the millions of Chinese citizens in “re-education through labour (laojiao)” camps, are subject to medical tests to examine the health of their transplantable organs.  This process creates a living organ bank where foreign patients and wealthy Chinese citizens can be matched to potential donors, who are then killed on demand so that their organs can be transplanted. This reverse matching process guarantees a suitable organ within a very short waiting period. more…

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