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Sex-Selection and Abortion: Is there a Problem?

17 Jan, 14 | by Iain Brassington

This is just a quick post, and it’s mainly to draw your attention to a couple of other posts worth reading elsewhere.

A little background: there’s been a minor fuss* in the media over the last few days concerning sex-specific abortion**, after The Independent reported that

[t]he practice of sex-selective abortion is now so commonplace that it has affected the natural 50:50 balance of boys to girls within some immigrant groups and has led to the “disappearance” of between 1,400 and 4,700 females from the national census records of England and Wales, we can reveal.

Now, there’s something a bit fishy about the article even on its own terms: alarm bells should be got ringing by this:

[O]ur deeper statistical analysis of data from the 2011 National Census has shown widespread discrepancies in the sex ratio of children in some immigrant families, which can only be easily explained by women choosing to abort female foetuses in the hope of becoming quickly pregnant again with a boy.

After all, it does seem to reduce to a claim along the lines that “I can’t think of a better explanation than e for phenomenon p, therefore e obtains” – but that tells us far more about the limits of the speaker’s imagination than about the state of the world.  Besides, while there are good reasons to favour the most simple explanation of p, one ought to keep a distinction between the simple and the simplistic.  Bluntly, an easy explanation isn’t any more likely to be true by dint of being easy.  E=mc2 is simple once you’ve derived it, but its derivation isn’t easy.

But how reliable is the Indy‘s analysis anyway?  I’ve not gone through the data myself, but Unity has, and has a couple of really good posts: the first is here, and the followup is here.

They’re very worth the read – but I recommend that you make yourself a good cup of tea before starting them.  They’re looooooong.  I’d be interested to know what others think, though.


UPDATE: There’s even more.  I think Unity’s enjoying himself with this.


* Minor in the sense that it’s been eclipsed by things like Oscar nominations.

** Here’s Christina Odone, for example, blaming it all on feminism.  Surprised?  You could knock me down with a bulldozer.

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…

Some stories, if true,

2 Dec, 13 | by Iain Brassington

just don’t need additional comment:

The Italian woman was sedated and her baby delivered against her will, after Essex social services obtained a court order in August 2012 for the birth “to be enforced by way of caesarean section”.


After the C-section, the woman, who has two other children and is divorced, was sent back to Italy without her daughter. She returned to Britain in February to request the return of her daughter, who is now 15 months old, but was told at Chelmsford Crown Court that she was to be put up for adoption in case her mother suffered a relapse.

UPDATE: Essex CC has a statement here.  Thanks to Nathan Emmerich for the pointer via twitter.

UPDATE 2: There’s a really good analysis at Pink Tape.

UPDATE 3: The judgement about adoption.

UPDATE 4: And the judgement about the caesarian.

From the File Marked “This Can’t End Well”

25 Nov, 13 | by Iain Brassington

… and cross-referenced with the file marked “You Wouldn’t Let It Lie”.

Francesca Minerva has a paper in Bioethics in which she refers – none-too-obliquely – to the furore surrounding The Paper Of Which We Do Not Speak.  Her central claim is that there is a threat to academic freedom posed by modern communications, inasmuch as that a paper in a journal can now attract to the author intimidation and threats.  A case in point would be The Paper.  But, she claims, it’s vital to the academic exercise that people be able to knock ideas around.  This ability is limited by things such as the response to The Paper; academic freedom is therefore threatened.

Yeah, but no.  I think it’s reasonable enough to say that academic progress depends on the free exchange of ideas, and that there should be no sacred cows.  Sometimes conventional ideas turn out to be untenable or flat-out wrong; and we tend to take it as axiomatic that it’s desirable to have fewer wrong ideas.  (I suppose we could imagine a culture that is satisfied with its opinions as they are, and is not bothered by their truth so much as by some other value they might have, such as their ability to promote social cohesion; but I’ll leave such cultures aside for the moment.)  I’d go along with the idea that we shouldn’t back away from controversial claims, on the basis that repugnance is no objection to the truth of a claim; that if a claim’s true, we should accept it as best we can, like it or not; and that if a claim is false, we shouldn’t have cause to fear its articulation, because we can take it that it won’t survive scrutiny.

And I’d agree that some of the responses to the paper – and to Julian’s defence of publication – were indefensible, and that this is so irrespective of the merits or demerits of the paper or the defence.  But not all of them were.  While some were from obvious dingbats and keyboard warriors (Jonolan remains even now the sole occupant of the banned commenters list here – and I rather suspect that he rather enjoys that honour), other responses were from people whom one might think wrong, but whose response was nonetheless worth taking seriously because it was much more considered and at least on the face of it amenable to argument – which is what academic discourse is all about.

Does any of this tell us about threats to academic freedom, though?  I don’t think so. 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…

Call for Participants: Evolution or Revolution? The Biomaterials Property Debate and Changing Ethical, Legal, and Social Norms

14 Nov, 13 | by BMJ

Over the past thirty years, there has been considerable debate over the legal status of human body parts. While the body and biomaterials were traditionally considered to be outside of the realm of property in common law jurisdictions, recent legal decisions have challenged this. There has been a gradual shift towards recognition of some proprietary interests in body parts by the courts. Similarly, while academic opinion originally weighed against according body parts any status as a form of property, the tide has turned increasing to favour (at least) a limited property approach. Although approval of these recent moves is not universal, with regards to property and human biomaterials, this two day workshop will explore the possible foundations and implications of this transformation in legal thinking. It will examine why such a shift has come about, asking whether it has been driven in part by (a) a realisation of the challenges that maintaining a ‘no property’ paradigm presents in the biotechnological age and (b) an evolution in the way that the concept of property is understood as applied to human biomaterials.

The objectives of the workshop are to more…

Aintree University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust v James: Best Interests and Futility under the Judicial Microscope

14 Nov, 13 | by BMJ

Guest post by Daniel Sokol, barrister at 12 King’s Bench Walk / King’s College London.

Eight years after coming into force, the Mental Capacity Act 2005 has finally reached the scrutiny of the Supreme Court in Aintree University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust v James [2013] UKSC 67.

David James was a professional musician, and a family man.  He had three children, three grandchildren, and many friends.  In May 2012, he acquired an infection in hospital which resulted in his admission to the critical care unit.  He was put on a ventilator.  In the following months, his condition fluctuated.  At one point, his heart stopped and he required 6 minutes of CPR.  He later underwent a tracheostomy, and received artificial nutrition and hydration.  Two months after his admission in hospital, he lost the capacity to make decisions about his medical treatment.  In spite of this, Mr James was able to recognise his wife and son, to kiss them, to follow their movements with his eyes, and, on occasion, to smile.  His prospects of leaving the hospital were nonetheless slim.

In September 2012, the hospital sought a number of declarations from the Court of Protection, one of which was that it would be in Mr James’ best interests not to receive certain treatments, including CPR, in the event of his deterioration.  The family disagreed.  They felt he still enjoyed life and that, each time he contracted an infection, he managed to pull through.

The judge at first instance refused to make the declarations.  He did not consider the treatments to be futile or unduly burdensome.

The hospital trust appealed to the Court of Appeal.  By then, Mr James’s condition had deteriorated dramatically.  He was comatose, or semi-comatose, and completely ventilator-dependent.  The Court allowed the appeal and made the declarations.  On 31st December 2012, Mr James suffered a cardiac arrest and died.

Mr James’s widow appealed to the Supreme Court. more…

So THAT’s where I’ve been going wrong…

7 Nov, 13 | by Iain Brassington

Blogging here has been a little sparse for the last few months; I’d like to be able to blame it all on the pressures of work, but this post suggests that it might be otherwise: some combination of not getting up at the crack of dawn, and not smoking, seems to be a factor:

Apparently, Kant had formulated the maxim for himself that he would smoke only one pipe, but it is reported that the bowls of his pipes increased considerably in size as the years went on.

Nietzsche was fond of tea and long walks, which is just another reason to like him.  I’m going to try using that as a reason not to go to meetings: “Sorry: optimal REF performance demands that I go to the edge of a glacier”.  Bound to work, that.

(Via @PsychEthics and @SynFutures on twitter – with some potential irony, given the damage that the internet has done to productivity…)

An Attack of the What-Ifs

25 Oct, 13 | by Iain Brassington

Among the comments to the last post, there’s this from Parmenion59:

So…if a cure for lung cancer is found, and the study has been funded through money from a tobacco company…the BMJ won’t publish said study?
Way to go BMJ.

Hmmm.  At least on the face of it, this looks like an important point – one that deserves a bit of unpacking.  We can begin by distinguishing between responses to this particular point, and responses to the general idea behind it.  First things first.

I’m willing to bite the bullet and admit without worrying too much that the policy of not accepting papers funded by the tobacco industry may mean that some research is not publicised.  There’s a small handful of reasons why I’m willing to do that.  One of them – admittedly the weakest of the lot – is based on the idea that it’s not wholly clear that much tobacco money really is directed at finding a cure for lung cancer, rather than firefighting other research about the detrimental properties of tobacco.  But that, as I say, is weak, based on suspicion rather than anything enormously substantial; and even if the hunch is correct, it’s merely empirical rather than anything conceptual.  Still, even if the hunch is wrong, it shouldn’t matter, because there’re stronger reasons.

One is based around the idea that there’s a special providence in the fall of a pipette – or, put another way, you can’t keep a good truth down.  If something is there to be discovered and is worth the effort, then it’ll be discovered sooner or later; if not by Smith, then by Jones.  And, because scientific progress is invariably a matter of the accretion of the work of several teams, all working independently and making minor discoveries, rather than one heroic person who would be solely responsible for The Cure For Cancer ™, the loss of one paper here and there probably won’t make all that much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. If that’s correct, then the idea that we might lose the cure for cancer is not all that compelling – not one about which we should worry too much.

A final reason is that, as I’ve said before elsewhere, I’m not persuaded that research is obligatory: it’s admirable, but not required by duty.  There’s a range of second-order arguments one might present here, but most relevant has to do with the benefits that research might generate.   more…

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