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Public Health

Does Female Genital Mutilation Have Health Benefits? The Problem with Medicalizing Morality

15 Aug, 17 | by bearp

By Brian D. Earp (@briandavidearp)

Please note: this piece was originally published in Quillette Magazine.

 

Four members of the Dawoodi Bohra sect of Islam living in Detroit, Michigan have recently been indicted on charges of female genital mutilation (FGM). This is the first time the US government has prosecuted an “FGM” case since a federal law was passed in 1996. The world is watching to see how the case turns out.

A lot is at stake here. Multiculturalism, religious freedom, the limits of tolerance; the scope of children’s—and minority group—rights; the credibility of scientific research; even the very concept of “harm.”

To see how these pieces fit together, I need to describe the alleged crime.

* * *

The term “FGM” is likely to bring to mind the most severe forms of female genital cutting, such as clitoridectomy or infibulation (partial sewing up of the vaginal opening). But the World Health Organization (WHO) actually recognizes four main categories of FGM, covering dozens of different procedures.

One of the more “minor” forms is called a “ritual nick.” This practice, which I have argued elsewhere should not be performed on children, involves pricking the foreskin or “hood” of the clitoris to release a drop of blood.

Healthy tissue is not typically removed by this procedure, which is often done by trained clinicians in the communities where it is common. Long-term adverse health consequences are believed to be rare.

Here is why this matters. Initial, albeit conflicting reports suggest that the Dawoodi Bohra engage in this, or a similar, more limited form of female genital cutting – not the more extreme forms that are often highlighted in the Western media. This fact alone will make things rather complicated for the prosecution.

The defense team has already signaled that it will emphasize the “low-risk” aspect of the alleged cutting, claiming that it shouldn’t really count as mutilation. It is, after all, far less invasive than Jewish ritual male circumcision, which is legally allowed on minors in the US, no questions asked.

Based on this discrepancy, if attorneys for the Bohra can show a gendered or religious double standard in existing law, the ramifications will be not be small. Either male circumcision will have to be restricted in some way, or “minor” forms of FGM permitted. The outcome either way will be explosive.

I will dig into the male-female comparison—and explore its legal implications—later on. But the law will not actually be my main focus. Instead, what I’ll suggest in this piece is that the question of health consequences, whether positive or negative, should not exhaust the ethical analysis of these procedures.

There is more to “good” and “bad” than healthy versus unhealthy.

In fact, as the Bohra case will show, there are serious, even dangerous downsides to medicalizing moral reasoning – and to moralizing medical research. On both counts, I argue, at least when it comes to childhood genital cutting, apparently biased policies from the WHO are making things a great deal worse.

* * *

“The tendency today is to roll over and ‘scientify’ everything,” says Julian Savulescu, a philosopher at the University of Oxford. He goes on: “Evidence will tell us what to do, people believe.” But people are getting it wrong. When you reduce your ethical analysis to benefit-risk ratios, you miss important questions of value.

more…

Can We Trust Research in Science and Medicine?

26 Jul, 17 | by bearp

By Brian D. Earp  (@briandavidearp)

Readers of the JME Blog might be interested in this series of short videos in which I discuss some of the major ongoing problems with research ethics and publication integrity in science and medicine. How much of the published literature is trustworthy? Why is peer review such a poor quality control mechanism? How can we judge whether someone is really an expert in a scientific area? What happens when empirical research gets polarized? Most of these are short – just a few minutes. Links below:

Why most published research probably is false

The politicization of science and the problem of expertise

Science’s publication bias problem – why negative results are important

Getting beyond accusations of being either “pro-science” or “anti-science”

Are we all scientific experts now? When to be skeptical about scientific claims, and when to defer to experts

Predatory open access publishers and why peer review is broken

The future of scientific peer review

Sloppy science going on at the CDC and WHO

Dogmas in science – how do they form?

Please note: this post will be cross-published with the Practical Ethics blog. 

Re: Nudges in a Post-truth World 

19 Jul, 17 | by bearp

Guest Post: Nathan Hodson 

In a recent article in the Journal of Medical Ethics, Neil Levy has developed a concept of “nudges to reason,” offering a new tool for those trying to reconcile medical ethics with the application of behavioural psychological research – a practice known as nudging. Very roughly, nudging means adjusting the way choices are presented to the public in order to promote certain decisions.

As Levy notes, some people are concerned that nudges present a threat to autonomy. Attempts at reconciling nudges with ethics, then, are important because nudging in healthcare is here to stay but we need to ensure it is used in ways that respect autonomy (and other moral principles).

The term “nudge” is perhaps a misnomer. To fill out the concept a bit, it commonly denotes the use of behavioural economics and behavioural psychology to the construction of choice architecture through carefully designed trials. But every choice we face, in any context, already comes with a choice architecture: there are endless contextual factors that impact the decisions we make.

When we ask whether nudging is acceptable we are asking whether an arbitrary or random choice architecture is more acceptable than a deliberate choice architecture, or whether an uninformed choice architecture is better than one informed by research.

In fact the permissibility of a nudge derives from whether it is being used in an ethically acceptable way, something that can only be explored on an individual basis. Thaler and Sunstein locate ethical acceptability in promoting the health of the person being nudged (and call this Libertarian Paternalism — i.e. sensible choices are promoted but no option is foreclosed). An alternative approach was proposed by Mitchell: nudges are justified if they maximise future liberty. Either way the nudging itself is not inherently problematic.

Detailing the relevant psychological research, Levy outlines how our responses to new information are influenced by our understanding of the source. Does the source stand to benefit from persuading us? Does the source wish us good or ill? These are classified as Messenger factors in the Behavioural Insights Team’s1 MINDSPACE classification.

Levy goes on to show how sensitivity to these factors makes evolutionary sense and as such constitutes part of our subconscious reasoning. Nudges that promote appropriate sensitivity to the factors, then, do not subvert our rationality; they apply or appeal directly to it.

There is huge scope within Levy’s grouping of nudges for interventions that do not threaten autonomy. For example the “N” in MINDSPACE stands for “norms.” An attuned sensitivity to group norms is adaptive in the same way as are messenger factors. But there is another group of nudges that actively promote autonomy.

The challenges to healthcare and wider society in this purportedly post-truth era demand improved quality of public debate and individual deliberation, and nudges can help. Building on Mitchell’s notion that nudges can be good if they increase future liberty and taking a rich conception of autonomy maximised through reflection and rationality, we could conceive of nudge-based policies which maximise current autonomy.  more…

Not Just About Consent: The Ethical Dimensions of Research Methodology Knowledge in IRBs

15 Jun, 17 | by bearp

Guest Post: Sarah Wieten

The recent article, “Some Social Scientists Are Tired of Asking for Permission” in the New York Times inspired a great deal of debate about the role of institutional research ethics board (IRB) oversight in social science, which some argue is in most cases unlikely to involve significant harm to participants.

While the role IRBs play in sociological research is being re-examined, the importance of IRB oversight for medical research was not similarly called into question. But what exactly does IRB oversight in medical research involve? Should these groups be content with assuring that patients and participants in medical research have provided informed consent? Or do they have wider duties? What is the relationship between methodologically rigorous science and ethical science?

The approval of research projects by IRBs is an integral part of the conduct of research in universities. IRBs ensure that all research follows key ethical guidelines and is pursued for good reason, and in doing so, they aim to keep patients and participants out of harm’s way. IRBs are important gatekeepers of institutional research, and serve as a check on the work of scientists, physicians, and others who are pursuing new knowledge.

We would assume then, that people serving on IRBs have a clear understanding of relevant research design. That way, they can check the research for ethical issues stemming from the methodology. They can also make sure that methodologically poor studies do not proceed, as this would be an unethical waste of resources (and would put participants at risk without a reasonable prospect of gaining reliable knowledge in exchange).

more…

“NOW’s interest in pharmaceutical gender equity seems to have disappeared with its funding.”

15 Jun, 17 | by Iain Brassington

There’s a remarkable piece on the Hastings Center’s blog by Alycia Hogenmiller about a drug called Addyi.  Addyi is a drug that doesn’t work to treat a condition that doesn’t exist, pushed by campaigners who are actually industry shills.

Sprout Pharmaceuticals, run by Cindy and Robert Whitehead, was determined to obtain regulatory approval for flibanserin (Addyi), an antidepressant-turned-aphrodisiac that had already twice failed to gain approval by the FDA.  To create this fake feminist campaign, Sprout hired Blue Engine Media, a PR firm that created a sham organization called Even the Score. The campaign hired two feminists: a former director of the FDA Office of Women’s Health, and the former president of the Women’s Research and Education Institute – both well-known to women’s groups.  Even the Score recruited and paid consumer advocacy groups to pressure the FDA into approving flibanserin for Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder – a condition previously created by industry to sell another drug.

I want to know more about those people hired.  What were they thinking?  What did they think they were doing?  What weren’t they thinking?

It’s sad to see advocacy groups become mouthpieces for pharma.  It is even sadder when those mouthpieces are feminist groups that should be protecting the interest of women but instead are protecting a company’s bottom line.  Every single one of the advocacy groups that don’t take money from pharmaceutical companies opposed Addyi’s approval and use.  For example, the National Women’s Health Network, the Jacobs Institute for Women’s Health, the National Center for Health Research, the Reproductive Health Technologies Project, and the New View campaign all publicly opposed the drug before and after approval.  “This decision to approve flibanserin is a triumph of marketing over science,” said Cindy Pearson, head of the National Women’s Health Network.

[…]

Addyi was never a true symbol for gender equity.  The drug doesn’t work well and was never safe.

Just roll back a bit…

Every single one of the advocacy groups that don’t take money from pharmaceutical companies opposed Addyi’s approval and use.

Whoa.

Several lessons can be learned from the story of Even the Score.  First, don’t trust, support, or listen to purported consumer advocacy groups that take money from pharmaceutical companies.

D’ya reckon?

Go and read the whole thing.  It’s astonishing.

The conference in respect of which the post is written looks good, too.

Appealing to the Crowd: Ethical Justifications in Canadian Medical Crowdfunding Campaigns

8 Jun, 17 | by miriamwood

Guest Post: Jeremy Snyder
Paper:Appealing to the crowd: ethical justifications in Canadian medical crowdfunding campaigns

Medical crowdfunding is a practice where users take advantage of the power of social networks to raise funds related to medical needs from friends, family, and strangers by sharing fundraising appeals online. Popular venues include GiveForward, GoFundMe, and YouCaring, among others. This practice appears to be growing in terms of the number of active campaigns, the amount of money raised, and its visibility. An analysis of five crowdfunding sites found that in 2015 41% of all fundraising campaigns were for medical needs.

Medical crowdfunding has not received a great deal of scrutiny from ethicists or other academics. We are interested in a number of questions related to medical crowdfunding, including determining what reasons are given by campaigners for potential donors to contribute to their campaigns. In order to answer this question, we recorded and analyzed the language used in 80 medical crowdfunding campaigns, focusing on campaigns by Canadians.

We found that the reasons given for donating can be broken into three groups. First, campaigners used personal appeals to encourage giving, focusing their attention on friends and family members who already knew the recipient. This personal connection to the recipient was often framed as creating a reason to give, such as that “we should gather around them as one big family and help as much as possible.” These appeals can be linked to the ethics of care and relational ethics. Second, the depth of the recipient’s need and resulting positive impact of donations were framed as creating reasons to give. These arguments echo justifications found in the duty of beneficence and utilitarian thinking. Finally, campaigners argued that donors should contribute as a way of giving back to recipients who had helped others. These campaigns made the point that the recipient’s generosity created a community debt where “now it’s our turn to help.” In this way, the values of fairness and reciprocity were represented in these campaigns.

more…

How to Keep HIV Cure-Related Trials Ethical: The Benefit/Risk Ratio Challenge

20 Feb, 17 | by bearp

Guest Post by Nir Eyal

Re: Special Issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics on the ethics and challenges of an HIV cure

For most patients with HIV who have access to antiretroviral treatment and use it properly, that treatment works well. But the holy grail of HIV research remains finding a cure. Sometimes that means a literal, sterilizing cure that would remove HIV from the body. But increasingly the aim is to find a mere functional cure that would send HIV into sustained remission during which antiretrovirals would be unnecessary.

Early successes in cure-related research, most notably the apparent cure of ‘Berlin patient’ Timothy Brown, prompted the International AIDS Society and the US National Institutes of Health to declare cure-related research a high priority. Recent successes in animal models have re-kindled hopes, and cure-related research is ongoing.

But there is a catch. Many of the early-phase cure-related studies that are currently planned or under way carry risks that are either very high or hard to quantify. These risks come from toxicity (e.g., of stem cell transplantation in an immunocompromised population), necessary interruptions to antiretroviral treatment (either short ‘pauses’ or intentionally longer breaks), or invasive physical exams. They affect study subjects and, sometimes, third parties like sexual partners or foetuses.

While high or unknown risks are a mainstay of early-phase trials in areas like cancer research, cure study participants typically have a safe and efficacious alternative to those risks: remaining on antiretrovirals. Can we justify asking patients who are doing well on antiretrovirals to accept the risk and uncertainty of many HIV cure-related trials? If we cannot, we might need to give up on the hope of curing HIV, or of achieving controlled remission.

These ethical questions about HIV cure-related trials were first raised by an activist, then asked again and again. They also arise in human subject research beyond HIV cure-related studies: what should we do when it is hard to keep a socially-important study beneficial in prospect to study participants? Are we ever permitted to compromise the individual’s objective interests in the pursuit of collective goals? What are legitimate ways of pre-empting this dilemma? The entire February 2017 issue of Journal of Medical Ethics is dedicated to clarifying and trying to answer these questions.

After an introduction, the journal issue provides a background by leading HIV-cure related researchers Dan Kuritzkes and Kenneth Freedberg and Paul Sax, as well as myself, a philosopher. Articles by legally-trained bioethicists Rebecca Dresser and Seema Shah and philosopher Caspar Hare suggest ways to quantify and mitigate risks to participants of cure-related studies. Contributions by philosopher Lara Buchak, bioethicist and lawyer Emily Largent, and AIDS activist David Evans assess how much the potential benefits to study participants, ranging from the remote hope of being cured through financial incentives to the satisfaction of having helped others, can legitimately offset any remaining risks. Legally-trained bioethicist George Annas and philosopher Danielle Bromwich explore how much participants’ fully informed consent can count as ample protection in cure-related studies, and when that consent counts as full. Philosophers Dan Wikler, Nick Evans (with first author public health expert Regina Brown), Rahul Kumar, and Frances Kamm assess when, if ever, the potential public health benefits of research—e.g., finding a cure for HIV—can warrant placing individual study participants at high net risk. An afterword asks how these investigations should affect future directions in research ethics.

Many contributions agree that myriad ways exist to justify studies that, at least on the face of it, run counter to the best medical interests of candidate participants. Furthermore, one need not be a utilitarian to argue as much. Even so-called contractualist ethicists such as Rahul Kumar can justify such studies, provocative though they may be for current culture in clinical study oversight. That culture, these articles suggest, is hard to defend from a wide spectrum of ethical theories.

——–

NOTE: This post will be cross-published at BMJ Opinion.

Politicians, Delusional Managers and the Future of the NHS: Have NHS Leaders Failed to “Speak Truth unto Power”?

11 Jan, 17 | by Iain Brassington

Guest Post by David Lock QC

[NB: This is a slightly longer version of a post that appeared on the BMJ blog earlier today.]

Politicians, delusional managers and the future of the NHS:  have NHS leaders failed to “speak truth unto power”?

This blog is not a rant – well not too much of a rant.  It is an expression of serious frustration about the way the NHS is run and about the willingness of senior NHS managers to become complicit in dishonesty.  It also needs to acknowledge the brave role of some in the NHS – particularly in NHS Providers – who keep telling it as it is and being decried for doing so.

Everyone at the frontline knows the NHS is running on empty.  The more perceptive know that more money for the NHS alone will not improve services for patients.  But – and this is perhaps the unpopular “but” – NHS senior managers ought to accept their share of the responsibility for the present crisis.  The problem is the failure of NHS managers to “speak truth unto power” to those above them and to our political masters for too many years.  Long before Sir Ivan Rogers used the phrase, a 2015 FCO blog explained the centrality of this concept as part of public service as follows:

The UK Civil Service doesn’t have an official motto – but if it did, it would almost certainly be: “speak truth unto power”. It’s a maxim that’s in the blood of good civil servants, even if they know that it won’t make their lives any easier. The best politicians learn to cherish civil service advice which points out the flaws in their arguments. The worst surround themselves with sycophants who create a micro-climate which wraps a warm embrace around their worst tendencies.

But, this principle appears respected in the breach in the NHS.   The £22bn efficiency challenge came out of nowhere and yet became an article of faith.  Of course, it has not been delivered and was never going to be delivered, but the planning process has continued in a parallel universe where no one has the courage to say “Actually this is nonsense – a public service has never delivered these efficiency savings and the NHS will not do so”.  So the fiction is maintained that this is what the NHS has to do by 2020.  But, of course, we are now in 2017 and so there is precious little time to deliver the undeliverable.

Secondly, the fiction is that the present government is putting an extra £10bn into the NHS, as well as promising an extra £350m per week as a Brexit dividend.  The £10bn claim was never accurate.   No set of “true and fair” NHS accounts could ever include the £10bn claim.  The £350m a week claim was made for votes, not for spending.  And yet who in the NHS has held the government to account for either promise? more…

Sex and Other Sins: Public Morality, Public Health, and Funding PrEP

8 Oct, 16 | by bearp

Guest Post by Nathan Emmerich

In the UK, a recent high-court decision[1] has reignited the debate about whether or not Pre-exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) should be provided to those who are deemed to be at high-risk of contracting HIV.[2] Despite the fact that NHS England is now appealing,[3] it was a fairly innocuous decision: having suggested that they were barred from funding PrEP, the court ruled that it would be legal for the NHS to fund PrEP and that they should therefore consider doing so.3

What is less innocuous are debates about whether or not access to PrEP should be publicly funded at all. Whilst individuals report being able to buy a month’s supply online for around £45,[4] the annual cost of the drug to the NHS could be more than £4,000 per patient. Although this may seem a relatively exorbitant expense, it makes economic sense to provide PrEP; doing so could prove to be cheaper than providing treatment[5] to those who would otherwise become HIV positive.

Despite this sound economic rationale, the media, or certain sections of it, have predictably focused on one particular group who are candidates for the drug as they are at higher risk of contracting HIV: homosexuals. In particular, the debate has centred on promiscuous gay men or, to use the academic term, men who have sex with men. This includes individuals who regularly have sex with new partners, as well as those who engage in protected and unprotected group sex.

Perhaps as a result of this focus, the view that public funds should not be used for PrEP[6] seems fairly widespread. But while public acceptance has not yet been fully achieved, the Equality Act (2010)[7] means that it is illegal to discriminate against individuals on the basis of protected characteristics[8] such as sexual orientation.[9] We should, therefore, be concerned that arguments against funding PrEP might be motivated by some degree of homophobia.[10] If this charge is to be answered then we need to consider the arguments for and against the funding of PrEP in more detail.

There are, of course, plenty of other social groups that could benefit from PrEP, including some who are stigmatised, such as sex workers, and others who tend not to be, such as monogamous sero-discordant couples (i.e., a monogamous couple, one of whom is HIV positive and one of whom is not). However, reading the commentary on this issue would seem to indicate that the disinclination to fund PrEP is not applied equally. Thus, providing PrEP to hetero- or homo-sexual couples seems to attract support, but this is not extended to those whose sexual practices involve promiscuity.

As such, it would seem the opprobrium at work in this matter is primarily directed at non-monogamous ‘lifestyles’ and with sexuality playing a secondary role.

more…

A World Without Bioethicists? On Sally Phillip’s “A World Without Down’s”

8 Oct, 16 | by bearp

Guest Post by Nathan Emmerich, Queen’s University Belfast

On Wednesday night, BBC2 broadcast a documentary entitled ‘A World Without Down’s Syndrome?’ Even if you did not see the programme itself, you may have heard about it on the radio, read some of the commentary published over the past week, or spotted it on Twitter under the hash tag #worldwithoutDown’s. In my case, it was the presenter Sally Phillips’s appearance on Frank Skinner’s On Demand, that first drew my attention to the programme. There, Phillips talks about Peter Singer’s appearance on HARDtalk (in which he discusses related issues) and – whilst she is hardly alone in doing so – I felt that she misunderstood what Singer has to say. As a result I intended to watch the documentary to see which bioethicists appeared and if their views were represented accurately.

Despite the programme consisting of Phillips speaking with various people involved with questions re: testing for Down’s Syndrome – including doctors, scientists, individuals with the syndrome and their parents, those who run support groups and one brave women who had terminated a pregnancy following a positive test for Down’s – she did not actually speak to a bioethicist or, indeed, explicitly discuss any bioethical ideas.* Thus, whilst one could think that this documentary was about a bioethical issue – prenatal testing and screening for Down’s Syndrome – there was not any real discussion of the matter from a bioethical perspective.

more…

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