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Gaia Doesn’t Care where your Baby Comes From

25 Jul, 14 | by Iain Brassington

Guest Post by Dominic Wilkinson, Associate Editor, Journal of Medical Ethics

In a provocative paper published today in the Journal of Medical Ethics, US theologian Cristina Richie argues that the carbon cost and environmental impact of population growth in the West should lead to restrictions on artificial reproduction.  She points to the substantial carbon emissions that result from birth in developed countries like North America.  Seven percent of the world’s population contribute fifty percent of the world’s CO2 emissions, and children born by in vitro fertilization are likely to be in this seven percent.  Richie argues in favour of a carbon cap on artificial reproduction and argues that IVF should not be funded for women who are “biologically fertile”.

Richie is correct to point to the enormous carbon cost of additional human population. One of the most significant ways that individuals in Western countries can reduce global carbon emissions is by having fewer children. However, her focus on artificial reproduction and on the “biologically fertile” is not justified.

Richie ignores questions about the moral implications of climate change and climate cost for natural reproduction.  She sets to one side “the larger realm of sexual ethics and procreation”.  Yet there are two reasons for thinking that this is a mistake.  First, as Richie notes, “Reproduction-related CO2 is primarily due to choices of those who have children naturally: a huge majority of all births.”  Only 2% of all children born in the UK are conceived by IVF.[1]  Therefore interventions to reduce the number of children naturally conceived will potentially have a fifty fold higher impact on carbon emissions.  Secondly, it is profoundly unjust to apply restrictions to reproduction only on those who are unable to conceive by natural means.  It could be justified to limit the reproductive choices of women because of concern for the environment.  However, if this were justified, it would be equally justified to try to limit the reproduction of the naturally fertile and the naturally infertile.  It is ad hoc and unfair to confine our attention to those who must reproduce artificially.

Second, Richie proposes that public funding for IVF be confined to those who are “biologically infertile”, excluding same sex couples and single women.  However, she provides no reason at all for restricting the availability of IVF for these women.  Put simply, the carbon cost of artificial reproduction is exactly the same for a woman who is infertile because of endometriosis or polycystic ovary syndrome or because she does not have a male partner.  The only possible reason for making a distinction between biologically infertile and biologically fertile women is because Richie believes that lesbian and single women are less deserving of public funding because of their lifestyle choices.  However, that argument, as problematic and contentious as it is, is completely independent of the question of environmental impact.  The carbon cost of children born to gay couples is likely to be exactly the same as the carbon cost of children born to women with endometriosis.

The carbon cost of additional births might well be sufficiently important for the state to justify limiting reproductive freedom.  However, if the state is going to interfere in couples’ decisions about whether to have children or the number of children that they have, it should do so fairly and equally.  Carbon caps should be applied equally to those who conceive naturally and those who require artificial reproductive treatment.  They should not be used as a way to discriminate against those who are single or gay, or have some other ‘undesirable’ characteristic.



ARTs in a Warming World

25 Jul, 14 | by Iain Brassington

There are some people who disagree, but we can take some things as read: there is such a thing as global climate change, it is at least substantially anthropogenic, and there are moral reasons to try to minimise it.

With that in mind, how should we think about reproductive technologies?  These are techniques whose intent is to create humans, and – presumably – those humans will have an environmental impact.  This is a question that Christina Richie confronts in her paper in the JME:

The use of ART to produce more human-consumers in a time of climate change needs to be addressed.  Policymakers should ask carbon-emitting countries to change their habits to align with conservation.  And though all areas of life – from transportation, to food, to planned technological obsolescence – must be analysed for ecological impact, the offerings of the medical industry, especially reproductive technologies, must be considered as well.

One of her suggestions is of carbon-capping for the fertility industry; she’s more reluctant to suggest a moratorium on the use of ARTs.  But she does suggest thinking quite seriously about who should get access to fertility treatment.  After all, she points out, fertility treatment is unlike other medical treatments in a number of ways.  Not the least of these is that someone whose life is saved by medicine will go on to have a carbon footprint bigger than it might have been – but that’s not the intention.  The whole point of fertility treatment is to create new humans, though – and therefore the treatment has not just a footprint, but a long-lasting carbon legacy.

I wonder, actually, whether the argument could be radicalised. more…

Consigned to the Index

28 May, 14 | by Iain Brassington

There’re probably times when all of us have had a solution, and just had to find a problem for it.  It’s an easy trap; and it’s one into which I suspect Gretchen Goldman may have fallen in an article in Index on Censorship about scientific freedom and how it’s under threat from disputes about Federal funding in the US.  No: I’m not going to be arguing against scientific freedom here.  Only against a certain use of the appeal to scientific freedom in response to a particular problem. First up, let’s note the points on which Goldman may well be correct.  She notes that the disputes in the US about federal funding that have led to big cuts and a short-but-total government shutdown are very bad for science.  She points out that political machinations even meant that researchers working in government-funded areas couldn’t access their emails.  This had direct and indirect consequences, all of which were pretty undesirable.  For example,

[m]any government scientists were not allowed to access email, much less their laboratories. One scientist noted that his “direct supervisor … confiscated all laptop computers on the day of the shutdown”.

Without access to work email accounts, federal scientists were also prevented from carrying out professional activities that went beyond their government job duties. Several scientists pointed out that their inability to access emails significantly slowed down the peer-review process and, therefore, journal publication.

In the wider sense, to have science and funding bodies that are vulnerable to political shenanigans isn’t good for science, and is probably not good for humanity.  You don’t have to think that research is obligatory to think that it’s often quite a good thing for science to happen all the same.  And shutdowns are particularly bad for students and junior researchers, whose future career might depend on the one project they’re doing at the moment; if a vital field trip or bit of analysis or experiment is liable to get pulled at almost any moment, they don’t have a reputation yet to tide them over.

So far, so good.  However, things are iffier elsewhere. more…

While We’re Talking about Ambiguous Sex

16 May, 14 | by Iain Brassington

So: what is one to make of Conchita Wurst?  I’ve not heard the song that won Eurovision this year, but I’m willing to bet that the world would be a better place if every entrant had been thrown into the Køge Bay before a single note was struck.  But that might just be me.


Conchita Wurst. Wurst. Geddit? Wur… Oh, suit yourself

Writing in the TelegraphBrendan O’Neill has other concerns.  Why, oh why, oh why can’t people just use the pronoun “he” when referring to Wurst?  Wurst was born a man; therefore the male pronoun is more appropriate.  (He’s never one to duck the important issues of the day, is Bren.)  “Did everyone overnight transmogrify into a Gender Studies student and imbibe the unhinged idea that gender is nothing more than a ‘playful’ identity?” he asks.  More: the fact that people refer to Wurst with the feminine pronoun is a symptom of what he calls “today’s speedily spreading cult of relativism”, and allowing people to choose their identity is “narcissistic”.

Now, let’s just ignore for the moment that Conchita Wurst is a character, and so it makes perfect sense to call her “her” in just the same way that one might use “her” to refer to Dame Edna Everage.  (Thanks to someone I don’t know on Facebook for making that analogy – it’s a good ‘un.)  O’Neill sort-of-acknowledges that, but he doesn’t let that minor point get in the way of a more general rant against people preferring to be referred to by one pronoun rather than another.  For example, he takes this swipe at Chelsea Manning:


Oh, and while we’re talking about media hype…

1 Apr, 14 | by Iain Brassington

… there’s this, from last week’s Independent:

Thousands of unborn foetuses incinerated to heat UK hospitals

The bodies of more than 15,000 unborn foetuses have been incinerated in the UK, an investigation has found, with some treated as “clinical waste” and others burned to heat hospitals.

The practice was carried out by 27 NHS trusts, with at least 15,500 bodies burned over the last two years alone.

Ten of those trusts admitted to burning more than 1,000 sets of remains along with other hospital rubbish, while two said they were incinerated in “waste-to-energy” furnaces that generate energy used to power and heat hospitals.

Gasp!  One kind of human tissue is disposed of in the same way as other kinds of human tissue!

From the tone of the reporting, one would only be mildly surprised to find people employed to encourage abortions in order that hospitals can save money on fuel.

Except that that’s nonsense.  If clinical waste is incinerated in waste-to-heat plants, it doesn’t follow that it’s being incinerated to provide heating; rather, it’s that the heat from the incinerator is captured and put to use, rather than being wasted.  For sure, the physics is the same; but the emphasis makes a heck of a difference.  (And, as PZ points out, for abortus* to be an effective fuel would require them to be “the most energy-dense substance in the world”.)  So what we actually have is a situation in which an abortus is incinerated.

And the problem with that is…?


Well, I’m sure there must be one, because health minister Dan Poulter is reported as describing the practice as “totally unacceptable”, and Poulter is an honourable man.

Actually, there is a few things that might strike us as questionable – though as we’ll see, the fact that something prompts a question doesn’t really tell us much, since some questions can be answered easily.   more…

Who’s the SilLIer?

30 Mar, 14 | by Iain Brassington

It’s funny how things come together sometimes.  A few months ago, I mentioned a slightly strange JAMA paper that suggested that non-compliance with treatment regimes should be treated as a treatable condition in its own right.  The subtext there was fairly clear: that there’s potential scope for what we might term “psychiatric mission-creep”, whereby behaviour gets seen as pathological just if it’s undesirable and can be changed with drugs.  I was reminded of this by a couple of things I found last weekend.

I was avoiding work by pootling away on the internet, and stumbled across a couple of things.  This - an article about American politics that notes the use of psychiatry as a means of social control – was one of them:

[In 1980] an increasingly authoritarian American Psychiatric Association added to their diagnostic bible (then the DSM-III) disruptive mental disorders for children and teenagers such as the increasingly popular “oppositional defiant disorder” (ODD). The official symptoms of ODD include “often actively defies or refuses to comply with adult requests or rules,” “often argues with adults,” and “often deliberately does things to annoy other people.”

Many of America’s greatest activists including Saul Alinsky [...] would today certainly be diagnosed with ODD and other disruptive disorders. Recalling his childhood, Alinsky said, “I never thought of walking on the grass until I saw a sign saying ‘Keep off the grass.’ Then I would stomp all over it.” Heavily tranquilizing antipsychotic drugs (e.g. Zyprexa and Risperdal) are now the highest grossing class of medication in the United States ($16 billion in 2010); a major reason for this, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2010, is that many children receiving antipsychotic drugs have nonpsychotic diagnoses such as ODD or some other disruptive disorder (this especially true of Medicaid-covered pediatric patients).

For some reason, I had foxes on my mind as well, and so I entered the word “Fox” into google; and I should have known that it’d provide lots of hits for the US TV conglomerate.  One story that came up on the search had to do with a twitter account called @LIPartyStories.  This was apparently a feed that would repost pictures sent from its teenage followers of themselves in various states of intoxication and déshabillé.  So far, so straightforward: the day that teenagers stop getting drunk and doing stupid things at parties is the day that the world will stop turning.  Granted, when I was young, we didn’t post stuff online – but if the internet had been around, we probably would have.  Kids do daft stuff; they sometimes regret it; then they grow up, and do daft stuff less.

Keith Albow, a Fox pundit, doesn’t see it quite like that: more…

Identity and IVF

11 Jan, 14 | by Iain Brassington

It’s good to see that Stephen Latham is blogging again after a short hiatus; and he’s come back with a really thought-provoking post on IVF and problems of identity.

The background is this: apparently, there is evidence that children conceived by IVF are at an elevated risk of health problems compared to kids conceived naturally:

Compared to spontaneously-conceived singletons, singletons from assisted conception were almost twice as likely to be stillborn, more than twice as likely to be pre-term, almost three times as likely to have very low birth weight, and twice as likely to die within the first four weeks after birth. Outcomes varied by type of assisted conception. Very low and low birth weight, very preterm and preterm birth, and neonatal death were “markedly” more common in births from IVF and, to a lesser degree, in births from ICSI. Use of frozen embryos elminated the risks of ICSI, but not of IVF. But frozen embryos also had increased risk of macrosomia.

This is the paper that Stephen mentions; but it’s not the only one to report potential risks associated with IVF.  A rather kneejerk response to this is to go “Eeeep!  This means that IVF is dangerous, and we’re harming kids by conceiving them by this method”.  (I suspect that there’s an element of that in posts like this – though admittedly if that element is there, it’s being deployed merely as a part of a wider attack on IVF, motivated for different reasons.)  But, of course, kneejerk reactions are rarely all that morally insightful, and the conventional response to concerns about IVF is rather more sanguine.

Borrowing heavily from Parfit, the standard response is this: each of us is reliant on a particular egg and a particular sperm having fused in a particular way.  Had that been different, we would not have come into being.  A month later, and it’d’ve been a different egg; and it could easily have been a different sperm cell.  Any resultant child would be related to us only in the same way as a sibling – except that it wouldn’t be our sibling, because we wouldn’t be there.  This indicates that, if IVF represents a child’s only chance of coming into existence – and it probably is – it is hard to say that the child has been harmed or wronged thereby.  There may be a qualification to add, along the lines that should the child’s life be so bad that non-existence would be preferable, existence may be a harm; but that kind of outcome is probably hyperbolic in practice.  An elevated risk of any congenital characteristic is therefore unlikely to count as a harm.

So, as Stephen points out, we can ask a question: more…

Welcome to Britain.

30 Dec, 13 | by Iain Brassington

It having been a long time since my last post, and this being the season of good-will, I wasn’t going to comment on the government’s new policy of charging migrants for A&E services.  Noone needs that kind of spleen on a dreich Monday; besides: I’ve got a PhD thesis that needs assessing, and a bathroom floor that I’ve been meaning to re-lay all year – all manner of better uses of my time.

Still, there’s a couple of things that merit comment.  First, there’s this, from the Government’s press-release:

We know that some people are abusing the system by coming into the country early enough to have one or more antenatal appointments before giving birth on the NHS – without the intention to pay.

I love a good vague statistic.  “Some” people.  There’s nothing offered about how many that amounts to.  Presumably, it’s more than one, but fewer than everyone.  Beyond that, though… well…  The phrase “some” just isn’t very useful when it comes to making judgements about anything – as waitresses (and diners) can attest.  But still, I’m willing to concede that “some” indicates a positive integer, and that there is therefore some measurable impact on expenditure arising from such people.  This doesn’t tell us whether it’s expenditure at a level that should bother us.  The DoH press release offers some illumination on this point: more…

Drug Legalisation in Uruguay: Opening up Pandora’s Box

8 Aug, 13 | by BMJ

Guest post by Melissa Bone, University of Manchester

Uruguay is poised to become the first country in the world to legalise and regulate the sale of cannabis for recreational use.  On the 31st July 2013 a draft bill legalising cannabis was passed by members of Uruguay’s lower house of congress, where 50 out of a possible 96 MPs voted in its favour.  If approved by the senate as is expected then the government will legally control the production, distribution and sale of cannabis.  The bill allows for each Uruguayan household to cultivate up to 6 cannabis plants.  Alternatively, residents could join a co-operative which would be licensed to grow up to 99 plants.  Private firms will be able to produce cannabis as well, but they will be required to sell it to the government, who will in turn sell it to consumers through pharmacies.  Only Uruguayan citizens will be able to purchase cannabis; they can purchase up to 40g per month (minors will be excluded).  Driving while under the influence will remain a crime.

Many commentators recognise that Uruguay has taken this bold step due to the devastation that’s wreaked by the so-called “war on drugs”.  This phrase was first coined by President Nixon in1971, and it is widely employed on both sides of the drug legalisation debate to describe a global position that prohibits the possession, production, and sale of certain psychoactives, all of which are listed in the UN drug conventions.  Advocates of drug reform often use the phrase to expose the aggressive and militant tactics which are used in producer countries especially, in an attempt to restrict the production and trade of illicit substances.  For instance, the Latin American region has the highest murder and drug-related violence rates in the world, drug cartels have infiltrated and corroded various positions of power, infamous aerial fumigation operations have destroyed farmer’s livelihoods, and this along with numerous other human rights abuses provides the backdrop for Uruguay’s brave decision.

Predictably, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), a committee tasked with ensuring compliance to the UN drug conventions, doesn’t quite see it this way. more…

Say twenty hail Autonomy’s and reflect on what you have done – bioethicists as having some, but not priestly authority.

17 May, 13 | by David Hunter

Nathan Emmerich, occasional commentator here at the JME blog has recently published an interesting piece in the Guardian which argues against us taking bioethicists as having a particular type of expertise. While I enjoyed and agree with much of what he argues I do have a couple of quibbles – in particular I worry that the emphasis on inclusiveness and democracy could in effect lead to the exclusion of the bioethicist, which I think would be a mistake.

The type of expertise he argues against bioethicists having is basically what I will refer to as authoritative expertise – someone who has authoritative expertise in a particular field ought to be deferred to when there is a disagreement – their opinion is “better” than ours as lay decision makers. So for example when deciding how long an object is, and whether it will fit in the boot of our car, we ought to defer to the chap with the tape measure, since their measured judgement is better than ours.

I use this example for a reason – Emmerich focuses on knowledge based expertise (no doubt because it is easier to explain to the lay public…) but this isn’t the only form of expertise that warrants some deference there is also expertise which is performative (in this case the act of measuring well). I’m inclined to think that if bioethicists deserve any deference it will be due to their performative expertise, rather than their knowledge.

Emmerich suggests however that bioethicists should not be taken as having authoratative expertise because he thinks knowledge about morality is more like knowledge about aesthetics than knowledge about facts. Hence we ought to give no more weight to the bioethicists opinion about an ethical issue, than we do someone heavily steeped in the Art’s worlds opinion about a piece of modern art – they have a “sophisticated” view but that doesn’t tell me what I should think about the piece.

He thinks bioethicists should conceive of themselves as thinking alongside, working with people to work out what to do rather than telling them what to do. He argues that commenting on the biosciences is particularly dangerous for bioethicists because it is different from medical practice in that its practice isn’t inherently involving ethical decisions – hence he claims bioethicists are tempted to make pronouncements and decide about ethical issues in the biosciences rather than work with bioscientists. As an aside I think this is exactly wrong – I doubt the empirical claim is true (ie that bioethicists proclaim and make decisions more about issues in bioscience than medicine) and I think the process of conducting bioscience does involve constant ongoing ethical decision making – it’s just a different sort of decision making, about the responsible conduct of science and dissemination rather than the treatment of patients. Nonetheless lets leave that aside.

So far so good – I don’t think bioethicists ought to be taken as overwhelmingly authoritative – the most uncomfortable experience I’ve had sitting on an ethics committee was when the committee treated me as a moral expert and simply deferred to my opinion in each case – it took awhile to break them of that. But I disagree with Emmerich about why this is the case. This is in part because I object to the metaethics he is assuming – the reason we find the expert in Art uncompelling is that the general opinion is that there is no truth of the matter when it comes to aesthetic judgements. And presumably Emmerich thinks the same about morality.

I broadly take the same view as Hobbes does here:

Of Man, Being the First Part of Leviathan. The Harvard Classics. 1909–14. Chapter V.

Of Reason and Science
And, as in arithmetic, unpractised men must, and professors themselves may often, err, and cast up false; so also in any other subject of reasoning the ablest, most attentive, and most practised men may deceive themselves, and infer false conclusions; not but that reason itself is always right reason, as well as arithmetic is a certain and infallible art; but no one man’s reason, nor the reason of any one number of men, makes the certainty; no more than an account is therefore well cast up, because a great many men have unanimously approved it. And therefore, as when there is a controversy in an account the parties must by their own accord set up for right reason the reason of some arbitrator, or judge, to whose sentence they will both stand, or their controversy must either come to blows, or be undecided, for want of a right reason constituted by Nature; so is it also in all debates of what kind soever. And when men that think themselves wiser than all others clamour and demand right reason for judge, yet seek no more but that things should be determined by no other men’s reason but their own, it is as intolerable in the society of men as it is in play after trump is turned, to use for trump on every occasion that suit whereof they have most in their hand. For they do nothing else that will have every of their passions, as it comes to bear sway in them, to be taken for right reason, and that in their own controversies, bewraying their want of right reason, by the claim they lay to it.

The point here is that when there is moral disagreement claiming to have the right judgement – the right reason – is like cheating at cards by claiming whenever it is your turn that the trump suit is whichever suit you have the most of in your hand. In other words the dispute is about which reason is right, hence simply saying “mine” does nothing to resolve this. But this view of morality is a bit more complex – I’m inclined to think there is a truth of the matter, it just isn’t easy to access, nor is it easy to show to others. Hobbes solution to the problem of irresolvable disputes is to establish an absolute sovereign who we both agree to defer to, and then we go with whatever they say. I roughly think that is right, with the conditional (that I suspect Hobbes would agree with) that we try to ensure that our absolute sovereign comes out with an answer that is as close to being right as possible. And given the complexity and the difficulty of divining moral truths that deliberation, debate and argument has a better chance of getting the “right” answer than having someone sit by themselves in a room and ponder it.

I think the bioethicist is in a position to contribute something useful to such deliberation, debate and discussion in two ways, both of which require some expertise – even if it is not totally authorative expertise. The first way is this, the bioethicist I assume will have access to more knowledge both about what has been argued in regards to ethical theory and in regards to moves in applied ethics. Knowing these moves can short-cut some discussion and debate by showing paths that will lead nowhere – the implications and consequences of particular arguments. This I think is as useful an input as that of someone who – trained in an empirical discipline – contributes their knowledge of their discipline and its findings to the debate about a particular issue. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, a bioethicist ought I think to have a certain sort of performative expertise. This is an expertise at argument and debate, at critical thinking, questioning assumptions and being aware just how arguments go wrong, in effect this is philosophical expertise.* Is this authoritative? I think at best only partially – largely it gives the bioethicist the authority to suggest that particular lines of pursuit won’t be fruitful. In any case I think philosophical reasoning is inherently democraticising – because of its origins and use in debate and discussion it ought to aim to up skill and inform everyone in the discussion, rather than claim special status – to go back to my man with a measuring tape analogy the good bioethicist tries to provide everyone in the discussion of whether object x will fit in the car boot with a tape measure for themselves.

There is a more general line of argument which can be drawn from Emmerich’s argument against expertise in regards to bioethicists which is an argument against involving “experts” in making bioethical decisions – in effect Emmerich implies that these being decisions by experts, even committees of multiple types of experts is anti-democratic – because it involves having others making moral decisions for “us” when that is actually our responsibility. Now of course a good bioethicist would question the assumption that being anti-democratic is bad, but I’m going instead to suggest that having others decide for you can be, and in this case is, perfectly democratic. Direct democracy is well known to have certain limitations, not the least that the electorate often wants contradictory things for example that given the option people will opt for lower taxes and higher social spending… I suspect that bioethical issues are an area where direct democracy will be unsatisfying – either because of intractable disagreements within the population (think abortion) or because the technical nature of the decision means that predictably decisions will be made that lead to outcomes that few in the population would endorse. In these cases it would seem sensible to agree to establish a group of decision makers (in Hobbesian terms a sovereign) to delegate this decision to. We do this in regards to most political decisions and hence it seems that establishing a public decision making body such as the HFEA can be a perfectly democratic response, as long as it is established in the right way (in this case in a process where it occurs as a result of legislation passed by a duly elected government). Such a body may not have the moral authority of the expertise of knowing the right answer but they are our best bet at getting somewhere close to it, and hence we ought to accept their decision making. Of course Emmerich is right to think that this needs to be a public facing process which should take into consideration public opinion and input from individual members of the public, but these should be taken as no more authoritative than individual expert’s opinions. Otherwise we are in effect allowing the public (or more accurately a tiny unrepresentative vocal bit of the public) claim “right reason”, when this isn’t warranted.

Emmerich identifies a real temptation and danger for bioethicists, it is tempting to act as moral authorities, and broadly speaking illegitimate to do so. But there are dangers in the other direction as well which we need to be wary of as well I’m inclined to think direct democracy worship is no better than the autonomy worship than many current bioethicists practice.

* I am in this piece using a less than inclusive definition of bioethicist – meaning someone who has at least some training in thinking philosophically about ethical issues – this doesn’t have to be formal education of course,and could be self taught,  but the argument I am making depends on bioethicists as having this – those who work simply empirically on issues in bioethics but have no normative engagement (if such a person actually exists) would at least by the standards of this piece not count as a bioethicist. Sorry.
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