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Philosophy

Winston Churchill and the Spirochaetes

29 May, 13 | by Iain Brassington

Did you hear the programme about syphilis on Radio 3 on Sunday?  If not, you can catch up on it here – and I’d thoroughly recommend doing so: it was superb.

One bit in particular caught my attention; it had to do with the use of penicillin to treat the illness during World War II.  (It’s from about 38:40 on the iplayer version.)  Astonishingly, in 1942, more men were out of action in North Africa because of syphilis than because of battlefield wounds.  Obviously, penicillin would be of immense help to both groups; but the problem was that there was not enough of the drug to meet both demands.  Giving it to the wounded obviously had some moral gravity… but so did giving it to the syphilitic: after all, they’d be cured and battle-ready very quickly, whereas the wounded might never be battle-ready again.

You can doubtless see why this might be problematic: more…

Is the NIMH Turning its Back on DSM-V?

9 May, 13 | by Iain Brassington

Thanks to Brian Earp for bringing this release from the US’ National Institute of Mental Health to my attention; it concerns the Institute’s decision to move away from DSM as its diagnostic tool.  DSM has been enormously successful – in terms of having established itself at the centre of psychiatry – but it has been enormously controversial, as well; the NIMH moving away from it is very big news indeed.  Whether the new model that they’re going to be working on will be any better, of course, remains to be seen.

The important bit seems to be this:

NIMH will be re-orienting its research away from DSM categories. Going forward, we will be supporting research projects that look across current categories – or sub-divide current categories – to begin to develop a better system.

One or two things about the statement leap out at me. more…

JME Special Edition on Infanticide and “After-Birth Abortion”

2 May, 13 | by Iain Brassington

It’s going to be a little while before regular blogging resumes here – I’m aiming to get back up to speed in the next 10 days or so – but, in the meantime, the special edition of the JME devoted to The Paper Of Which We Do Not Speak is now out and available here.  Some of the papers are open access; others aren’t.

For better or worse, part of being unable to do much blogging at the moment is that I’m not going to be around much to mod any comments that come in – as I’m sure they will – over the next few days.  Don’t go thinking you’re being blocked: it’s much more likely that I’m marking essays.

Are Biomedical Ethics Journals Institutionally Racist?

25 Mar, 13 | by Iain Brassington

So there’s this letter published in the Journal of Bioethical Inquiry that moots the idea that the top biomedical ethics journals might be institutionally racist.  In it, Subrata Chattopadhyay, Catherine Myser and Raymond De Vries point out that the editorial boards of a good number of journals are dominated by members who are located in the global North – countries officially listed as being high or very high on the development index, with only 1.3% drawn from countries classed as least developed.

Developing World Bioethics has the highest proportion of its editorial board located in the least-developed nations; but even there, the figure is only just over 11%.  On the face of it, this doesn’t look too good, especially given the proportion of the world’s population in general that lives in the poorest countries.  The JME, by comparison, draws 100% of its editorial board members from people located in highly and very-highly developed nations.

Still: this isn’t likely to be the whole story.  Udo Schucklenk – a founding editor of DWB, of course – takes issue with the letter on a number of grounds.  For one thing, he he suggests that Chattopadhyay et al might be performing a sleight of hand with their metrics; by lumping together countries ranked as high and very high on the development index, they’re lumping together the UK, Germany, and the US with Iran, Malaysia, and Jamaica.  Neither Iran nor Jamaica is a classic basket-case economy; but, still, “high” and “very high” development covers a vast range of income levels.  Treating all these countries in the same way obscures that there’s a huge range of locations from which editorial staff may be drawn.

I’ll come back to this in a moment. more…

Gay Conversion “Therapy”: Might the CMF have a point?

5 Feb, 13 | by Iain Brassington

Spoiler alert: Almost certainly not.  But hear me out for a bit.

The Christian Medical Fellowship blog had an article posted yesterday about what it praised as a balanced documentary concerning “sexual orientation change efforts” – gay conversion therapy to you and me – on Radio 4 on Sunday.  Actually, it wasn’t a documentary – it was a short article on Sunday, the station’s religious-affairs-quota-filling hour (go to about 30:50 here), and it’s no more a documentary than is the sports bulletin - and the balance is “BBC balance”, which means giving equal airtime to the fireman and the fire.  But anyway, that’s not what struck me.

Neither am I particularly bothered for the sake of this post about whether or not psychotherapy can make any difference to sexual orientation.  I’ll simply allow, for the sake of the argument, that it can at the very least make a difference to sexual behaviour, and maybe to orientation tout court.

What struck me was a couple of things that Peter Saunders says on his CMF blog post about the use of such “therapies”.  One of the striking things was this: more…

Cochlear Implant: On!

14 Dec, 12 | by Iain Brassington

A few weeks ago, I linked to a post on William Mager’s blog in which he said (a) that he was about to have a cochlear implant fitted, and (b) that he’d write about the experience as it progressed.

I don’t know how many readers of this blog followed the link or subscribed; for those who didn’t, I thought I’d just point you in the direction of the latest update.  In short: the implant was fitted; it was turned on; it was… unexpected.  Not completely pleasant from the word go, and a little odd.  But also… well:

I spent an hour yesterday walking round the house tapping different surfaces with a wooden drumstick. Before, with a hearing aid, I’d have heard these taps simply as a ‘tap’ sound. But I had a eureka moment when I realised that tapping a wooden stick on a wooden surface sounded different in pitch and tone to tapping on a glass surface, or a metal surface. Of course, I knew that was the case – but this was the first time ever, EVER… that I’d actually heard that and been able to distinguish so clearly between the different sounds.

That has to be a little bit magical, doesn’t it?

On the other hand, what he can hear is limited.  And so

[n]ow I’m sitting in a world of silence, punctuated by random, violent bursts of sounds that I’ve never heard or experienced quite in the same way before.

What I’m experiencing now isn’t hearing as I imagined it, or as I’ve known it for the last 30 years. It’s completely different, and it’s making me feel really tired and disconnected from everything. I’m finding it really hard to concentrate, to hold on to a specific thought for a long time. [...]

Most disconcerting of all is the dawning realisation that what I thought I was hearing for the last 30 years of my life wasn’t actually hearing. It was just compressed, distorted garbage noise through a hearing aid. What I’m feeling in my head now is much, much closer to actual sound, but it isn’t sound.

I’m fairly confident in my hunch that being able to hear is on the whole preferable to not being able to hear; though there might be times when not hearing is preferable, being able to do so at least gives you the choice – which raises the intriguing possibility that someone with a device that he could used to switch his own hearing on or off might be, in that sense at least, very well off indeed: better off than someone with no ability to hear and someone with no ability not to.  (In just the same way, having a car is good all else being equal, even if there’re times when walking is preferable, because you have the option of using it.)

But still: it’s worth keeping in mind that the process of restoring – or instilling – hearing isn’t a straightforward leap from position A to more desirable position B.  There’s an ambiguity about it.  Even granted confidence that B is more desirable, we can’t take it for granted.

 

Double Effect in the Halappanavar Case

5 Dec, 12 | by Iain Brassington

In the wake of Savita Halappanavar’s death, a statement was issued by the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference.  The whole thing is available here.  However, I think that a couple of paragraphs is particularly worth picking out:

Where a seriously ill pregnant woman needs medical treatment which may put the life of her baby at risk, such treatments are ethically permissible provided every effort has been made to save the life of both the mother and her baby.

Whereas abortion is the direct and intentional destruction of an unborn baby and is gravely immoral in all circumstances, this is different from medical treatments which do not directly and intentionally seek to end the life of the unborn baby. Current law and medical guidelines in Ireland allow nurses and doctors in Irish hospitals to apply this vital distinction in practice while upholding the equal right to life of both a mother and her unborn baby.

I think that the first of these paragraphs is pretty unexceptionable, and describes something approaching the default setting for medical interventions anyway.  We might want to talk about “reasonable efforts” rather than “every effort”, since the latter does perhaps tend towards the onerous; but the general gist seems OK to me – almost trivially so.

Note, though, how a great deal rides on a distinction between different kinds of pregnancy-terminating procedure (PTP, from now on).  Notably, there’s a line drawn around abortion as a particular form of PTP.  The statement admits that certain PTPs may be permissible: what matters is that there should be no intention to kill.  Thus certain PTPs may be permissible notwithstanding foetal death if that death is not intended.  I take this to mean that, should the foetus survive, permissible PTPs would be those in which there is no sense that the procedure had gone wrong.  Abortion would be the kind of PTP that is impermissible, precisely because the intention is to kill.  (At the extreme, successful delivery is a kind of PTP, too, since it does end the pregnancy – it’s just that it’s the kind of PTP that we celebrate, rather than tolerate.)

Fairly clearly, the Bishops’ statement relies on some form of the Doctrine of Double Effect: the idea that there’s a moral difference to be had between intending some outcome, and foreseeing it.  If the Doctrine holds water, it would provide a way to say that acting in order to shorten a life may have one moral value or require one moral argument, but acting despite a foreseen shortening may have or require another.

Now: put that slightly to one side, but keep it simmering while we look at something else. more…

Modesty, Conscience, and What it Takes to be a Doctor (with a bit of Comedy)

19 Oct, 12 | by Iain Brassington

Two apparently unrelated new and new-ish papers in the JME have caught my eye over the last few days.  One of them is this one: Salilah Saidun’s “Photographing Human Subjects in Biomedical Disciplines: An Islamic Perspective”.  We’ll come to the other in a little while.

There’s a couple of puzzling things about the paper.  One is that I’m not sure what the tone is supposed to be.

It could be a descriptive piece, along the lines of “Look, here’s what Muslims might think about medical photography, and if you’re going to take or use medical photographs, you might want to keep it in mind.”  Of course, it’s by no means certain that all Muslims think alike, or that if (mirabile dictu) they do, it has anything much to do with Islam – but we’ll put that to one side.  Similarly, the fact that some people do think this won’t tell us much about what practical implications there ought to be, beyond keeping it in mind.  It won’t tell us that we ought to adhere to those opinions.  Islamic rules might provide a reason to behave in a certain way; but there might be other reasons to behave in a certain other way - and they might sometimes be more compelling.  I’ll put that to one side, too, though.  As a descriptive paper, it might very well be the sort of thing that’s useful on the wards.

But a descriptive reading won’t explain the passages that appear to have a more normative dimension: more…

Mouse Eggs: A Cool Solution to a First-World Problem?

8 Oct, 12 | by Iain Brassington

The news that Japanese researchers have successfully induced skin cells to behave like viable eggs, which have then been fertilised to create a new generation of mice, may well come to be seen as a scientific milestone.  And if it’s not that, it’s definitely very, very cool.  (The original paper is here.)

Though the research does not necessarily translate into humans, it appears to demonstrate that the genetic material found in every cell in the body can be put to use in the creation of offspring. In principle, this offers infertile women the opportunity to have children that are genetically related, even if they do not have viable eggs of their own: cells from another part of the body could be used and “reprogrammed” to behave as eggs would.  (Putting the procedure to use in humans would be illegal under current UK law, since the synthesised eggs would not be what the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act calls “permitted”.  But the law is, after all, just the law.)

There will probably be concerns raised; but they aren’t obviously any more serious in relation to this technology than they would be in relation to others.

The most obvious concern – and, prima facie, the most powerful – would be about the safety of the procedure were it to be used in humans. more…

Passive Euthanasia: A Cri de Cœur

5 Oct, 12 | by Iain Brassington

Don’t worry: this isn’t another instance of me yammering on about the right to die or the right to induce death.

I’ve recently received a parcel; it contained a copy of this book by Leanne Bell, which happened to fall open at p 204.  On that page, you’ll find this passage:

Active euthanasia involves a deliberate act intended to kill [...].  This is illegal in England and Wales because it satisfies the definition of ‘unlawful killing’ and will therefore either be murder or manslaughter depending on the mens rea (that is, the state of mind) of the doctor at the time.  He is likely to face criminal prosecution, regardless of whether the patient and/or the family requested or consented to it.  By contrast, passive euthanasia involves the withholding or withdrawing of treatment from the patient, i.e. an omission rather than an act, and, in certain circumstances, can be legal. [emphasis mine - IB]

No.  Wrong.  Wrong on two fronts.  Withholding treatment may be an omission, but withdrawing it isn’t.  More importantly, while the active/ passive distinction boils down to one between administration and non-administration, it is simply not true that non-administration is the same as passive euthanasia.

Euthanasia requires the intention to end life based on a motive of beneficence directed at the person who will die.  Neither withdrawing nor withholding treatment indicates the intention to end life.  Only if you’re withdrawing or withholding treatment with the intention that this should end life have you committed passive euthanasia.

There’s a simple test you can run here: When withdrawing or withholding treatment, would it be coherent to hope for the patient’s survival – however miraculous - without further intervention?  It would not be coherent in cases of euthanasia, because you can’t intend that life should end and yet hope that it doesn’t.  It could be coherent otherwise.

Or another version of the same test: If you are considering withholding or withdrawing treatment and the patient does not die, would you see this as contrary to your intention?  If yes, you’re considering passive euthanasia; if no, you aren’t.

Bell is by no means alone in getting PE wrong.  The mistake is all over the place – both in the clinical ethics literature, and in the wider public domain.  I’m not wholly sure where it’s come from, but I suspect it may derive from Rachels having made it in”Active and Passive Euthanasia“, and then a little more explicitly in “Killing and Letting Die“:

Many people believe that “passive euthanasia” – allowing terminal patients to die, rather than pointlessly prolonging their lives – is sometimes permissible; but they also believe that killing patients is always wrong.

I’ve got a lot of time for Rachels, and much of what he says on killing and letting die in these essays is good.  But this is wrong.  Even good essays can have wrinkles in them; and this is a big one.  And if it’s the source of the same mistake being made elsewhere, that’s quite serious. more…

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