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Enhancement as Nothing More than Advantageous Bodily and Mental States

20 May, 16 | by BMJ

Guest Post by Hazem Zohny

Some bodily and mental states are advantageous: a strong immune system, a sharp mind, strength.  These are advantageous precisely because, in most contexts, they are likely to increase your chances of leading a good life.  In contrast, disadvantageous states – e.g. the loss of a limb, a sense, or the ability to recall things – are likely to diminish those chances.

One way to think about enhancement and disability is in such welfarist terms.  A disability is no more than a disadvantageous bodily or mental state, while to undergo an enhancement is to change that state into a more advantageous one – that is, one that is more conducive to your well-being.  This would hugely expand the scope of what is considered disabling or enhancing.  For instance, there may be all kinds of real and hypothetical things you could change about your body and mind that would (at least potentially) be advantageous: you could mend a broken arm or stop a tumour from spreading, but you could also vastly sharpen your senses, take a drug that makes you more likeable, stop your body from expiring before the age of 100, or even change the scent of your intestinal gases to a rosy fragrance.

Would all such changes be instances of enhancement? more…

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…

Nurses Cannot be Good Catholics

31 Mar, 16 | by BMJ

Guest Post by John Olusegun Adenitire

It seems that if you are a nurse you cannot be a good Catholic.  Or, better: if you want to work as a nurse then you might have to give up some of your religious beliefs.  A relatively recent decision of the UK Supreme Court, the highest court in the country, seems to suggest so.  In a legal decision that made it into the general press (see here), the Supreme Court decided that two Catholic midwives could not refuse to undertake administrative and supervisory tasks connected to the provision of abortions.

To be sure, no one asked the nurses to directly assist in the provision of abortions.  The Abortion Act 1967 says that “No person shall be under any duty … to participate in any treatment authorised by this Act to which he has a conscientious objection.”  The Nurses argued that this provision of the Act should be understood widely.  Not only should they be allowed to refuse to directly assist in abortion services: they should also be entitled to refuse to undertake managerial and supervisory tasks if those were linked to abortion services.  The nurses’ employer was not impressed; neither was the Supreme Court which ruled that the possibility to conscientiously object only related to a ‘hands-on’ capacity in the provision of abortion services.

In a recent paper in the JME (available here) I have argued, albeit only indirectly, that this decision is only half-correct.  Nurses and other medical professionals have a human right to object to the provision of a wide range of services which they deem incompatible with their conscience.  I say that the decision of the Supreme Court is only half-correct because the Court explicitly avoided investigating the possibility of the nurses’ human right to conscientious objection.  Under the Human Rights Act, individuals have a right to freedom of conscience and religion.  That right may, in appropriate circumstances, entail the right for nurses to object to being involved in administrative and supervisory duties connected with abortion services.  If you ask me how the Supreme Court avoided having to consider the nurses’ human right to freedom of conscience and religion I couldn’t tell you.  I bet neither could any of the Law Dons at Oxford.

I realise that by appealing to human rights I am not necessarily making the nurses’ case any more deserving of sympathy that it already is(n’t). more…

Thumbs Up for Privacy

30 Mar, 16 | by Iain Brassington

“Hey, Iain,” says Fran, a Manchester alumna, “What do you make of this?”  I won’t bother rehearsing the whole scenario described in the post, but the dilemma it describes – set out by one Simon Carley – is fairly easily summarised: you work in A&E; a patient is rolled in who’s unconscious; there’s no ID, no medic alert bracelet – in short, nothing to show who the patient is or what their medical history is; but the patient does have an iPhone that uses thumbprints as a security feature.  And it might be that there’s important information that’d be accessible by using the unconscious patient’s thumb to get at it – even if it’s only a family member who might be able to shed some light on the patient’s medical history.

It’s a potentially life-or-death call.  Would it be permissible to hold the phone to the patient’s thumb?

For those who think that privacy is a side-constraint – that is, a moral consideration that should not be violated – the answer will be obvious, and they’ll probably stop reading around about… NOW.  After all, if you’re committed to that kind of view, it’s entirely possible that the question itself won’t make a great deal of sense (tantamount to “Is it OK to do this thing that is plainly not OK?”), or at least not be worth asking.  But I don’t think that privacy is a side-constraint; I’m increasingly of the opinion that privacy is a bit of an iffy concept across the board, for reasons that needn’t detain us here, but that might be implied by at least some of what follows.  In short, I think that privacy is worth taking seriously as a consideration, but it’s almost certainly not trumps.  At the very least, that’s how I shall handle it here.  (Note here that the problem is one of privacy, not – as the OP has it – confidentiality; it’s a question about how to get information, rather than one of what you can do with information volunteered.  A minor quibble, perhaps, but one worth making.)  Even if I’m wrong about privacy in general, the question still seems to be worth asking, if only to confirm that and why it should not be violated. more…

Autism, Mental Illness, Euthanasia and the WaPo

5 Mar, 16 | by Iain Brassington

There was a piece in the Washington Post the other day with a striking headline: Where the Prescription for Autism can be Death.

Normally, if we’re saying that the prescription for x is y, we mean to say that y is being suggested as a treatment for x.  Painkillers are the prescription for a bad back, a steroid cream the prescription for eczema, and so on.  Even if you find that phrasing a bit clunky, “prescription” implies the recommendation of a medical expert.  On that basis, the implication here is that somewhere in the world, doctors are seeing patients, diagnosing autism, and saying, “I wonder if the best thing would be to kill you”.  That would be uiruite a Big Deal.

The place in question is Holland.  But a quick look at the article shows – surprise, surprise – nothing of what’s hinted at in the headline.  Here’s the opening few sentences, edited slightly for formatting:

In early childhood, the Dutch psychiatric patient known as 2014-77 suffered neglect and abuse.  When he was about 10, doctors diagnosed him with autism.  For approximately two decades thereafter, he was in and out of treatment and made repeated suicide attempts.  He suffered terribly, doctors later observed, from his inability to form relationships: “He responded to matters in a spontaneous and intense, sometimes even extreme, way. This led to problems.”

A few years ago, 2014-77 asked a psychiatrist to end his life.  In the Netherlands, doctors may perform euthanasia — not only for terminal physical illness but also upon the “voluntary and well-considered” request of those suffering “unbearably” from incurable mental conditions.
The doctor declined, citing his belief that the case was treatable, as well as his own moral qualms.  But he did transmit the request to colleagues, as Dutch norms require.  They treated 2014-77 for one more year, determined his case was, indeed, hopeless and, in due course, administered a fatal dose of drugs.  Thus did a man in his 30s whose only diagnosis was autism become one of 110 people to be euthanized for mental disorders in the Netherlands between 2011 and 2014.

So, then, it’s a story about a man, who happened to be autistic, and who asked a psychiatrist for euthanasia.  After a little to-ing and fro-ing, that request was granted.  There is no reason to believe that this was a case of death being prescribed for autism.  It’s just that he happened to be autistic and to want to die, and a prescription for assistance was provided.  Phrasing is important.

Dutch law on assisted dying is famously liberal; in considering the permissibility of euthanasia for psychiatric as well as somatic illnesses, it is in the minority of the minority of jurisdictions that consider the permissibility of any euthanasia.  I have addressed the question of psychological suffering in relation to euthanasia elsewhere, and shan’t rehearse the details here; suffice it to say, I don’t see any reason in particular to think that mental illness and physical illness should be treated all that differently in principle: more…

Should Doctors Perform “Minor” Forms of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) as a Compromise to Respect Culture?

25 Feb, 16 | by bearp

by Brian D. Earp / (@briandavidearp), with a separate guest post by Robert Darby

A small surgical “nick” to a girl’s clitoris or other purportedly minimalist procedures on the vulvae of young women and girls should be legally permitted, argue two gynecologists this week in the Journal of Medical Ethics. Their proposal is offered as a “compromise” solution to the vexed issue of so-called female genital cutting or mutilation (FGM).

According to the authors, Kavita Shah Arora and Allan J. Jacobs, legally restricting even “minor” forms of non-therapeutic, non-consensual female genital cutting is “culturally insensitive and supremacist and discriminatory towards women.” Discriminatory, apparently, because non-therapeutic, non-consensual male genital cutting (a.k.a. male circumcision) is widely tolerated in Western societies; why shouldn’t women and girls be allowed to participate in — or be subjected to — analogous cultural rites that are important to members of their own groups?

I take issue with the authors’ proposal. In a commentary published in response to their piece (currently available “online first” along with two other commentaries: see here and here), I argue that to allow supposedly minimalist female genital cutting procedures before an age of consent in Western societies would result in numerous ethical, legal, political, regulatory, medical, and sexual problems, creating a fiasco. So problematic, in my view, is the proposal by Arora and Jacobs, that I have prepared a separate online supplementary appendix to expand upon my published commentary, in which I address each of their specific claims and arguments one by one: see here.

Rather than continuing to tolerate childhood male circumcision, and using this as a benchmark for allowing supposedly “minor” forms of FGM, I argue that we should instead be moving in the opposite direction. In other words, I suggest that the time has come to consider a less tolerant stance toward both procedures. As I write in my piece:

“Ultimately, I suggest that children of whatever sex or gender should be free from having healthy parts of their most intimate sexual organs either damaged or removed, before they can understand what is at stake in such an intervention and agree to it themselves.”

In the initial flurry of media coverage of the controversial new proposal by Arora and Jacobs, some commentators have attempted to drive a wedge between male and female forms of non-therapeutic genital alteration by referring to supposedly distinct symbolic meanings (FGM is “all about” controlling the sexuality of women, according to this view, whereas male circumcision is claimed not to be rooted in norms of sexual control), as well as health implications (FGM “has no health benefits,” it is claimed, whereas male circumcision does or at least may).

However, both of these claims are misleading at best, and at worst, downright false, as I (among other scholars who specialize in this area) have argued at length in other contexts: see also here, here, and here. For a short, reader-friendly introduction to the empirical and conceptual problems with these oft-repeated tropes, please see my essay in Aeon magazine, “Boys and Girls Alike.”

This is not the place to re-state my arguments. Instead, interested readers can explore the links above and reach their own conclusions. What I would like to do now is turn to an interesting new commentary on the proposal by Arora and Jacobs by Dr. Robert Darby, a medical historian and expert in male and female genital cutting rituals as they take place across a range of social contexts. His commentary is published below as a guest post on this blog. Please note that its contents should be taken to reflect the views of Dr. Darby, and not necessarily those of the Journal of Medical Ethics, its editors, or anyone else. 

Male and Female Genital Cutting: A Sex-Neutral Approach?

By Robert Darby, Ph.D.

Two contrasting views on female genital cutting (FGC) have been aired in recent weeks. Writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics, two American obstetricians, Kavita Arora and Allan Jacobs, argue that Western societies should tolerate – and doctors should perform – purportedly mild forms of non-therapeutic genital cutting on female infants and girls if the parents so request. In contrast, Ms. Meiwita Budiharsana, a lecturer in public health in Indonesia – where such forms of FGC are very common and increasingly medicalized – argues that the authorities should discourage such practices and that medical personnel should not perform them.

The situation seems rich in paradox. Two doctors from a society that has traditionally abhorred (and in fact criminalised) any form of FGC, believe that certain mild forms should be permitted. At the same time, a health expert from a society where certain mild forms of FGC are the norm believes that this is wrong and that such practices should be opposed.

What is going on here?

In this commentary I would like to focus primarily on the short opinion piece from Ms. Budiharsana. This is partly because Arora and Jacobs’s paper has already received both thoughtful peer commentary as well as heated discussion in the media (and is likely to receive much more); and partly because I think that the paper by Ms. Budiharsana in itself provides an interesting commentary on Arora and Jacobs’s controversial proposal.


The Unbearable Asymmetry of Bullshit

16 Feb, 16 | by bearp

By Brian D. Earp (@briandavidearp)

* Note: this article was first published online at Quillette magazine. The official version is forthcoming in the HealthWatch Newsletter; see


Science and medicine have done a lot for the world. Diseases have been eradicated, rockets have been sent to the moon, and convincing, causal explanations have been given for a whole range of formerly inscrutable phenomena. Notwithstanding recent concerns about sloppy research, small sample sizes, and challenges in replicating major findings—concerns I share and which I have written about at length — I still believe that the scientific method is the best available tool for getting at empirical truth. Or to put it a slightly different way (if I may paraphrase Winston Churchill’s famous remark about democracy): it is perhaps the worst tool, except for all the rest.

Scientists are people too

In other words, science is flawed. And scientists are people too. While it is true that most scientists — at least the ones I know and work with — are hell-bent on getting things right, they are not therefore immune from human foibles. If they want to keep their jobs, at least, they must contend with a perverse “publish or perish” incentive structure that tends to reward flashy findings and high-volume “productivity” over painstaking, reliable research. On top of that, they have reputations to defend, egos to protect, and grants to pursue. They get tired. They get overwhelmed. They don’t always check their references, or even read what they cite. They have cognitive and emotional limitations, not to mention biases, like everyone else.

At the same time, as the psychologist Gary Marcus has recently put it, “it is facile to dismiss science itself. The most careful scientists, and the best science journalists, realize that all science is provisional. There will always be things that we haven’t figured out yet, and even some that we get wrong.” But science is not just about conclusions, he argues, which are occasionally (or even frequently) incorrect. Instead, “It’s about a methodology for investigation, which includes, at its core, a relentless drive towards questioning that which came before.” You can both “love science,” he concludes, “and question it.”

I agree with Marcus. In fact, I agree with him so much that I would like to go a step further: if you love science, you had better question it, and question it well, so it can live up to its potential.

And it is with that in mind that I bring up the subject of bullshit.


Pro-Lifers’ Arguments Might be their Greatest Gift to Pro-Choicers

19 Dec, 15 | by Iain Brassington

Abortion is always going to be a controversial topic.  For what it’s worth, I hold that there’s nothing wrong with it.  That’s me speaking from my habitual non-consequentialist position.  From a more utilitarian perspective, I’m willing to concede that, given the choice between world A, in which abortions happen, and world B, in which they don’t because noone gets pregnant without wanting it, and everyone is perfectly happy to continue with her pregnancy, A is worse.  But A is nevertheless a whole lot less bad than world C, in which women are compelled to continue with pregnancies they don’t want.  In other words, there’s no need or desire for abortion in super-happy-fluffy world, and super-happy-fluffy world is better than the real world – but we live in the real world, and having abortions available makes the real world better than it could be.

I’d like to think that I’m doughty enough to have my mind changed on this, though.  Should someone have a really good argument for the wrongness of abortion, or the overwhelming badness, I’d like to think that I could be persuaded – that I’d let the argument go wherever it takes me.  I think that that’s just intellectual honesty.  It’s just that I have yet to come across an argument that I find persuasive, and I don’t even know what such an argument would look like.

What I can say is that, while I find even the best pro-life arguments unpersuasive, some are worse than others, though.  There’s a guy who keeps posting to the Bioethics Facebook group with links to lamentably bad arguments.  And, of course, there’s the CMF.

On their blog, Philippa Taylor has been getting herself into a tizzy about the recent ruling that Northern Ireland’s very restrictive laws contravene human rights legislation, and suggests that there is a whole range of reasons why the law should not be changed there.

Let’s have a look… more…

Homeopathy, Blacklisting, and the Misuse of Choice

15 Nov, 15 | by Iain Brassington

It seems that homeopathy might at last be facing some serious opposition from within the NHS, with the prospect of its being blacklisted being considered.

There’s any number of people who’ll be entirely on board with that. Homeopathy doesn’t work.  Of course, a lot of medicines turn out not to work, or not to work well.  But the difference between homeopathy and unsuccessful drugs is that the latter are at least more likely to have a plausible mechanism – roughly, one of throwing molecules at other molecules, or coaxing the body to throw molecules at molecules.  Homeopathy doesn’t even have that.  It relies on water having a memory.

At the very best, it contributes nothing. But it does cost money – not much, but more than none, and in the end, the taxpayer has to pony up for it.  Money is being wasted every time the NHS pays for homeopathic treatment, and that looks to be unjust.  (It’s not the most unjust thing in the world, but that’s neither here nor there.  Wrongs are wrongs, even if harms might vary.)

It might even get in the way of effective treatments, if patients use it rather than them.  That might mean that they’re worse off than they could otherwise be.  At the outside, it might mean that they’re a danger to others – they might be spreading illness by dint of not getting treated properly for it.

To that extent, Simon Singh strikes me as being bang on the money: more…

“Our lives are not actually our own”

23 Jul, 15 | by Iain Brassington

Long-term readers of this blog will know that, every now and then, I have a look at the CMF’s blog.  This is largely because of my interest in the ethics of assisted dying, and the blog is actually a pretty good way into developments on the other side of the lines.  There is rarely, if ever, anything new produced that’d move the argument on – but then, those of us who’re sympathetic to legalisation really aren’t doing any better.  It’s become rather a sterile debate.

I do tend to blank out the apologetics; bet every now and again, something catches my eye: a part of this recent post, about the latest attempt to introduce an assisted dying Bill into Parliament, is one such.  There’s a part where Peter Saunders claims that the Sermon on the Mount moved away from a literal take on the prohibition of murder to something more in keeping with the spirit of the law.  This, though, prompts a question for me: why can’t we accommodate a person’s desire to die within the general law against killing?  Might that desire mean that assistance is properly described as something other than murder?  It is tempting to infer from what Saunders says elsewhere that he is at least not too worried about some forms of intentional killing: writing about the Kermit Gosnell story a couple of years ago, his headline noted that Gosnell may face the death penalty – but the body text did not mention that at all, let alone take a position on it.  Yet if all deliberate killing is so straightforwardly wrong, we might expect that killing at least to be noted.  If deliberate killing by means of the death penalty doesn’t raise a peep of objection, then we might wonder why assisting in someone’s death at that person’s behest is more of a worry.

Saunders does have an answer to this query, though: more…

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