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Shameless self-publicity

What should we Think about Belgium’s Child Euthanasia Law?

15 Feb, 14 | by Iain Brassington

With any luck, the nuts real-world work schedule of the past few months* will begin to ease in a few days, so I should be able to start blogging more frequently soon; but I thought I’d take a moment out from writing jurisprudence lectures to do some thinking out loud about Belgium’s recent change to its euthanasia law, which legalises it for children.  This is partly because it’s interesting in its own right, and partly because I’m debating it on Radio 4’s Sunday programme this week.  I’ve drafted this post before the interview’s recorded, but I’m not publishing it until after (though before the broadcast); let’s see how my thoughts here pan out on air…**

For reference, the text of the law is available here in French, and here in Dutch – thank goodness for A/S levels.  A decent précis provided by AP is hosted here; and Christian Munthe has an unofficial translation here.

OK: so, what should we think about it? more…

Genes and Confidentiality: Tricky!*

22 Nov, 13 | by Iain Brassington

A couple of weeks ago, the D–ly M–l** asked me to comment on the Personal Genome Project‘s call for 100 000 volunteers who’d be willing to have their DNA sequenced so that it could be correlated with their health records and used as a tool for research.  As it happens, my peals of wisdom never made it into print, but here’s an expanded version of the things I said.

First up, this project is superficially similar to that undertaken by the UK Biobank.  The idea behind both is that, since many illnesses have a genetic component to them, understanding those illnesses fully will require doing genetic research.  Sometimes that will be on cells in a lab; sometimes it’ll be population surveys.  Often, the idea will be to learn as much as we can about individuals’ genomes, and then to keep track of their health over a prolonged period.  If, across the population, we notice a correlation between a given gene and a given illness, the hope would be that we could work out more effective treatments.  Insofar as participating in this project might help with research into things like cancer, it’s tempting to think that it’s admirable – some even argue that participation in medical research is a moral duty (though others disagree: to and fro and to and fro***; cf this and this and this).

However, there are also moral problems to consider. more…

Emmerich on Fitness to Practise

30 Jul, 13 | by Iain Brassington

Having asked out loud whether anyone could explain a couple of odd FtP decisions, I got this from Nathan Emmerich, offering sociological pop at an answer… 

Iain wondered if anyone could explain the morality that underlies a couple of recent Fitness to Practise decisions made by the GMC.  Well, more accurately he wondered if anyone could explain the “public perception” or “public confidence” aspect of the GMC’s Fitness to Practice guidelines.  Never one to shirk a challenge, I thought I would give it a go…

The first thing to note is that one has to change, or perhaps expand, the terms of the debate.  As a discipline applied philosophical bioethics tends to focus on “ethics”, “ethical reasoning” and codified rules over what I (and some others) would call “morality”.  For our present purposes the starkest way to express the idea is by appeal to the historical morality of the UK medical profession, which used to be based on the idea of the British gentleman of a certain class and standing (and, obviously, race and gender).

This morality was uncodified – it had no explicit ethics.  Indeed, more than this, it was held to be uncodifiable both in principle and as a matter of morality.  It was thought it would be wrong to codify gentlemanly (medical) morality as to do so would open the way to, first, individuals who merely followed rules rather than being the correct sort of persons or having the right character.  Second, it would lead to people who did not have the right character or standing attempting to second-guess the decisions of medical professionals or gentlemen.  Such a thing was, of course, intolerable.

There is no denying that there was a lot wrong with this ‘moral culture’, and a range of factors has been influential in the modification of medical morality from this historical position to the one we have today.  However, “medical morality” has vanished completely, indeed, it is impossible for it to do so: the medical profession (indeed any profession or cultural group) has some underlying moral ethos.  Some cultures, like modern medicine, may also have explicitly stated ethical codes and guidelines that may be more or less in line with the underlying moral culture.  Nevertheless the moral culture itself is not obviated by these codes.  Indeed it underpins the existence and application of any such formally stated ethics.

The problem here is that no rule contains the principles of for its own application.   more…

Canadian Ban on Assisted Suicide “Unconstitutional”

18 Jun, 12 | by Iain Brassington

A Court in British Columbia has ruled that the law against assisted suicide (AS) in Canada cannot be reconciled with the country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms - notably item 7 -

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.

- and item 15 -

Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

The full ruling is available here (H/T to Ophelia Benson for the link): it’s long, and I’ve not had a chance to read it, so contributions in the comments below this post would be welcome.  From what I can tell, the decision is still liable to go to appeal, so it might yet turn out to be a false start; but it’s highly notable nonetheless.

Though I’ve made no bones here about my broad support for the legalisation of assisted dying, both as assisted suicide and euthanasia, I do wonder if in this case some of the judge’s reasoning may be a bit iffy.   more…

A Small Solution for a Big Problem?

28 Mar, 12 | by Iain Brassington

BioNews asked me to write something about Matthew Liao, Anders Sandberg and Rebacca Roache’s paper on engineering humanity to minimise global warming.  I’d been meaning to for a while, so this was the prod I needed.  Anyway: my take on their paper is here; but I thought I’d also reproduce it on this blog.  What follows is the version I submitted; it’s substantially the same, save for a few tweaks that BioNews made to conform with their house style.  (They didn’t like the Latin…)  I am massively grateful to the student who made the point about small people taking more steps to get anywhere.  I’d also like to think that the idea of making people smaller led me to Lilliput, thence to Gulliver, thence to the voyage to Laputa.  It didn’t.  I’m not that clever.  Laputa made its appearance quite unbidden.  But – hey, it works.

 *     *     *     *     *

There’s a part of Gulliver’s Travels where Gulliver visits the grand Academy at Lagado, wherein one of the academicians is trying to derive sunbeams from cucumbers.  It’s tempting to wonder at first glance whether there’s something of the Academy to Liao, Sandberg and Roache’s proposed strategy for combating climate change: that we could engineer humanity to be less of a drain on the environment.  Their paper, “Human Engineering and Climate Change” (forthcoming in Ethics, Policy and the Environment, with a pre-publication version here), has already attracted a reasonable amount of media interest, and it’s not hard to see why.  The headline proposal is that we could engineer people to be smaller, on the grounds that smaller people require less food and fuel: a population that is smaller on the whole would have less environmental impact.  (A small part of this – and I’m genuinely fond of this idea – is that heavier people wear out shoes and carpets more quickly, so are more resource-hungry.  On the other hand, as one of my students has pointed out, short people take more steps to get across the room; the carpet might actually suffer more.  Moreover, a small person has a greater surface-to-volume ratio, and so would lose heat more quickly, possibly requiring more central heating and more food.) more…

Is Bird Flu Research a Security Risk?

21 Dec, 11 | by Iain Brassington

A story that has had a little airtime on the news over the last 24 hours or so concerns requests by US officials that details of research into a bird flu variant be held back from publication on the grounds that it might be of use to terrorists:

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity recommended that the “general conclusions” be published but that final manuscripts not include details that “could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm”.

The BBC’s health news blog reports that

Professor John Oxford from Barts and the London School of Medicine [says], “They should definitely publish. The biggest risk with bird flu is from the virus itself. We should forget about bio terrorism and concentrate on Mother Nature.”  [He and Prof Wendy Barclay from Imperial College London] agree that the influenza virus would make a pretty poor bioterrorist weapon, unless your aim was to spread the infection across the world. Influenza has no respect for borders, so introducing a virus in one country would inevitably spread it globally.

But Michael Parker, Professor of Bioethics and Director of the Ethox Centre at the University of Oxford, disagrees.  ”The position that everything should be published is not tenable. There must be some scientific information which contains an immediate threat to public safety if it fell into the wrong hands.”

Parker’s worries reflect those articulated by Tom Douglas and Julian Savulescu in the JME a little while ago; they argued that synthetic biology raises significant new ethical problems, not least because of the potential for “dual use”.

I have to admit that I have yet to be convinced by the biosecurity worries.   more…

Assisted Dying for the non-Terminal

14 Apr, 11 | by Iain Brassington

I’m a bit behind the curve with this, but I thought it worth noting the story of Nan Maitland, who recently travelled to Dignitas* at the start of March.  She was suffering from arthritis – which, though painful, is a long way short of a terminal illness.  (Her story is reminiscent of Robert and Jennifer Stokes.)

Maitland’s decision was – predictably – not supported by Care not Killing, whom The Guardian reported as saying that

the case demonstrated “a shifting of the goalposts” by pro-rights campaigners and would place pressure on vulnerable people to end their lives if they felt they were a burden. “It’s a very scary situation that not very severely disabled people could, at the drop of a hat, opt to kill themselves, and [Maitland's case] shows a ramping-up by campaigners,” said a spokesman. “Many people have to live with arthritis. It does expose the lie that only people who are terminally ill will be affected by changes in the law.”

Perhaps more suprisingly, Dignity in Dying also spoke against Maitland’s decision:

“We don’t think that you could faithfully have in law assistance for someone who wasn’t terminally ill. Then you’re making judgements about quality of life, not quality of death.” She said their work was to improve the experience of death for those “where it was an inevitability”.

I think that both organisations are wrong. more…

Project Prevention? Well, since you asked…

21 Oct, 10 | by Iain Brassington

So the Guardian got in touch to see if I’d be able to contribute a Comment is Free column on Project Prevention, which has just started operating in the UK.  For one reason or another, I didn’t get the email until the deadline had passed; but since I was planning on saying something about PP here anyway, this is roughly (word-limits notwithstanding) what I would have said.  Warning: it’s long - I may have gone off on one…

For those not in the know, Project Prevention is an American organisation – well, more of a family outfit – that (according to its website) aims to raise

public awareness to the problem of addicts/alcoholics exposing their unborn child to drugs during pregnancy.  Project Prevention seeks to reduce the burden of this social problem on taxpayers, trim down social worker caseloads, and alleviate from our clients the burden of having children that will potentially be taken away.

The organisation is controversial, though, because it does more than raise public awareness: it offers money to addicts of one sort or another in return for being sterilised: more…

Bless my cotton socks, I’m in the news…

15 Sep, 10 | by Iain Brassington

Footage of the oral evidence given to the Scottish Parliamentary Committee investigating the End of Life Assistance Bill.  Starring… um… me.

Sporting Chances and the Justification of Surgery

16 Jul, 10 | by Iain Brassington

There’s an interesting story on the front page of the Manchester Evening News about an 11-year-old who has asked that her right leg be removed so that she has a better chance of becoming a paralympian. more…

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