Category: Bioethics

Infinite Punishment

Can a society that pours ever more resources into “guard labor” be truly innovative? It turns out that yes, we can:

Philosopher Rebecca Roache is in charge of a team of scholars focused upon the ways futuristic technologies might transform punishment. Dr Roache claims the prison sentence of serious criminals could be made worse by extending their lives. Speaking to Aeon magazine, Dr. Roache said drugs could be developed to distort prisoners’ minds into thinking time was passing more slowly. “There are a number of psychoactive drugs that distort people’s sense of time, so you could imagine developing a pill or a liquid that made someone feel like they were serving a 1,000-year sentence,” she said.

Manipulating the subjective experience of punishment used to depend primarily on external factors, like cell size, terms of socialization, or lighting. An emerging pharma-prison complex could bring a whole new level of efficiency to the guard labor sector. Would our courts recognize such a drug as “cruel and unusual?” Considering the terms of confinement now routinely accepted in the American prison system, that’s anyone’s guess.

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To Define the Beginning of Human Life or Not, That Is the Question

Twice a month I meet with some of my students for a critical reading.  In our last January meeting, we decided to commemorate Roe by re-exploring Judith Jarvis Thomson’s  seminal article A Defense of Abortion. Thomson’s defense of induced abortion by exploring our moral duties in the unrealistic case one found oneself kidnapped and plugged in to a virtuous violinist who is sick and needs one’s kidneys for nine months in order to heal has been highly criticized. Nonetheless, every time I read it or discuss it, I find how enlightening her thought experiment still is, as it confronts us with our set of moral beliefs and its incongrueties with our policy stances. Moreover, it makes me always ponder about our lack of a well-thought and coherent abortion regulating scheme.  But that is a topic for a different post. Today, I would like to concentrate on a related matter that stemmed from my discussion of Thomson’s article with my students.

By the end of our conversation my students and I were inquiring whether it was possible to assert a defense of stem cell research/therapy even taking for granted the right of life of the embryos, as Thomson did in her paper. It seemed obvious for almost all of us that using embryos for those purposes would be considered a blatant deprivation of the embryo’s right to life and an impermissible use of another person’s body; and thus, could not be sustained under Thomson’s argument. So we decided to try to come up with a scenario similar to Thomson’s violinist that could aid us in exploring the moral adequacy of stem cell research/therapy.

An appropriate thought experiment eluded our not so brilliant minds. We did not want to come up with a fallacious and common place thought experiment such as the one of the burning building test  in which one is forced to decide who to rescue first: twenty 8-cell embryos kept in a freezer or a baby in peril. We were not looking to formulate an experiment tilted to one side like the burning building test, in which the “incomplete human character” of the embryo is made self-evident by the “inescapable instinct” to rescue the “actual” human being. However, the truth is that it is quite difficult to come up, in a couple of minutes, with a reasonable possible scenario in which all the circumstances of stem cell research/therapy are replicated in a way that could sensibly help us assess our moral agency.

First, we would need to come up with a scenario in which we have a “human being” in a permanent frozen state (e.g. a cryogenized virtuous violinist) in which the conditions necessary for a successful life require a willing human host that is either related to the cryogenized violinist or has the authorization of his guardian to serve as a host for nine months.  Second, we must come up with a particular circumstance (e.g. a military operation) that would force the guardian of the cryogenized violinist to choose between using the frozen body to help in the recovery of a sick non-cryogenized human being (e.g. a  young Science Nobel laureate) whose only real, feasible and cost efficient chance to a healthy life is using that frozen body at the expense of eliminating all possible chances of an uncertain future life for the cryogenized violinist or leaving the cryogenized violinist frozen for an indefinite period of time and allowing for the sick non-cryogenized Nobel laureate to die. Finally, we would need to come up with the circumstances that led the cryogenized violinist to be treated as a surplus human being and at the same time be treated as the raw materials for the creation of future equally virtuous violinists (e.g. the practice of cloning virtuous musicians).  Furthermore, the example would need to consider the possibility of making the cryogenized violinist for the sole purpose of healing the sick non-cryogenized laureate (e.g. the possibility of the world coming to an end if the Nobel laureate does not find a solution to the problem before he dies from her sickness).

The end result is a very absurd, unrealistic and perhaps too intricate thought experiment.  Yet, exploring the limits of such an experiment may be a possible way to coming up with a defense of stem cell research/therapy even when one grants the right of life of the embryos.  Nonetheless, I would like to pose that the absurdity and illusory nature of these thought experiments suggest that we should face the inevitable: we must delimit when human life begins if we truly would like to come up with a moral/ethical regulation of stem cell research/therapy. This inescapable moral question is more evident when we contrast our legal stances and nation’s practices on issues like torture, war, death penalty, abortion, euthanasia and justification and necessity defenses.  The system is manifestly incoherent.

I do believe that a sensible answer will only come when we legally embrace the fact that life – and by extension human life – exists in a continuum. Law should echo that reality. A coherent and ethical sound system can only arise after we legally recognize that there is a point in that continuum in which life becomes human and that there are different stages before that point in which life is a subject of certain rights but not the same rights a human life is a subject thereof. Laws should define that moment and those stages. There is no moral reason to avoid doing so. As there is no ethical rationale either to treat totipotent, pluripotent, multipotent, oligopotent, unipotent cells, fully developed human beings not capable of living on their own, and born human beings in the same way.  Furthermore, our history and legal system have always made distinctions on how we treat the right to life of human beings based on particular deontological assumptions.

Our inquiry into how to regulate stem cell research/therapy should not be made under the assumption that embryos are in fact human beings and subjects of the same rights. A valid answer to this recent human reality must be based on a rigorous analysis of moral questions such as: 1. When does a life become a human life?; 2. Which type of rights is a non-human life entitled to?; 3. Are there different stages of a non-human life?; 4. Are those stages deserving of a differentiated right treatment?; 5. What are our moral duties to a human life?; 6.  What are our moral duties to a non-human life and it corresponding stages?; and 7. Under which circumstances are we relieved from those duties to human and non-human lives? These questions should be guiding our legislative process regarding scientific inquiries and not biased assumptions as to what constitutes human life.

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Neurocriminology: The Monsters are in the Molecules

Is the brain indeed the prime suspect when it comes to horrific crimes? Does our molecular structure or DNA determine our destiny, for the benevolent best or the malovent worst?

Such questions and others are explored in Dr. Adrian Raine’s book titled The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime (Pantheon, 2013). This mind-opening book by a University of Pennsylvania professor of psychiatry and chairman of the department of criminology is the focus of an online symposium just posted on the Washington Independent Review of Books Gb4yObYARcACwebsite.

To help flesh out some of the instructive and provocative points raised in Dr. Raine’s illuminating book, NYU professor of Clinical Psychiatry Laurence R. Tancredi (who holds MD and JD degrees) and a University of Minnesota law professor Francis Shen (who specializes in neuroscience and the law) wrote commentaries. In the spirit of a free exchange of ideas, Dr. Raine authored a reply. I wrote the foreword to the symposium.

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Why is Reproductive Technology a Battleground in the Abortion Debate?

Caitlin Borgmann has made the convincing argument that incrementalism in the anti-abortion movement developed from the failure of the movement’s initial post-Roe strategy to win the hearts and minds of the undecided. The strategy of equating abortion with murder and vilifying women who have abortions was far too strident to be persuasive and too off-putting to have emotional appeal. The strategy was eventually abandoned in favor of chipping away at Roe by degrees. Incrementalism takes the long view toward outlawing abortion in any form, but its progress, ironically, is asymptotic, 120px-Icsitending toward prohibition without ever achieving it. This is because incrementalism’s objective is to render access to abortion illusory. Even if Roe remains in place, rendering abortion inaccessible will mean that it is legal in theory but not in practice. Although alternatives to incrementalism have appeared in recent years as certain factions within the movement have grown restive, incrementalism remains the primary strategy of the anti-abortion movement today.

The incrementalist strategy now includes arguments for limiting assisted reproduction by raising concerns about its use at all four stages of the cycle of human reproduction: pre-conception, pre-implantation, post-implantation, and even post-birth. Although seemingly an odd direction for the anti-abortion movement to take, it should not come as a complete surprise; after all, the moral status of the embryo has played a major role in the development of the legal regimes that regulate assisted reproduction in other countries, particularly those with strong commitments to Roman Catholicism. Costa Rica, for example, banned IVF entirely for this reason in a law later struck down by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Although their connection may not be immediately obvious, then, abortion and assisted reproduction have a history of intertwinement in the policymaking arena.

An important question remains, though, about what is achievable in bringing anti-abortion sentiments to bear on issues in assisted reproduction. On the surface, there appears to be no clear connection between terminating a pregnancy and pursuing one. Of course, abortion and assisted reproduction are both techniques for managing reproductive life, and it is true that, in some applications, assisted reproduction may result in embryo loss. Hence, calls to regulate embryo disposition (called “adoption” in this context) and embryonic stem cell research make a certain amount of sense. But the claim that embryos have a moral status is not a good explanation for why other areas of assisted reproduction have become attractive battlegrounds for pursuing an anti-abortion agenda: egg donation, sex selection, and intentional parenthood.

It is obvious why the movement decries sex-selective embryo discarding or sex-selective abortion. Less clear is the reason for the movement’s opposition to pre-conception sex-selective techniques. Furthermore, anti-abortion advocates have claimed, respectively, that egg donation harms women and that intentional parenthood in the absence of a genetic connection harms children. Neither of these positions has much to do with abortion. If it is safe to assume that the stances assumed by the anti-abortion movement against assisted reproduction have more to do with banning abortion than with regulating reproduction, it is important for us to inquire into why the movement believes its resources are well spent in this area and what the implications of its activities might be for law and policy.

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Input Knowledge, Output Information, and the Irony of Under the Radar Expansion of IP

Peter Lee’s thoughtful review of Talent Wants to Be Free goes straight to the heart of the issues. Peter describes a “central irony about information” – so many aspects of our knowledge cannot lend themselves to traditional monopolization through patents and copyright that their appropriation is done under the radar,  through the more dispersed and covert regimes of talent wars rather than the more visible IP wars. We’ve always understood intellectual property law as a bargain: through patents and copyright, we allow monopolization of information for a limited time as a means to the end of encouraging progress in science and art. We understand the costs however and we strive as a society to draw the scope of these exclusive rights very carefully. and deliberately. We have heated public debates about the optimal delineation of patents, and we are witnessing new legislative reforms and significant numbers of recent SCOTUS cases addressing these tradeoffs. But patents are only a sliver of all the information that is needed to sustain innovative industries and creative ventures. Without much debate, the monopolization of knowledge has expanded far beyond the bargain struck in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution.  Through contractual and regulatory law, human capital – people themselves – their skills and tacit knowledge, their social connections and professional ties, and their creative capacities and inventive potential are all the subject to market attempts, aided by public enforcement, of monopolization. Peter refers to these as tacit versus codified knowledge; I think about inputs, human inventive powers versus outputs – the more tangible iterations of intangible assets – the traditional core IP, which qualifies patentability to items reduced to practice (rather than abstraction) and copyrightable art to expressions (rather than ideas). Cognitive property versus intellectual property, if you will.

Lee is absolutely correct that university tech transfer and its challenges and often discontent is highly revealing in this context of drawing fences around ideas and knowledge. Lee writes “in subtle ways, Orly’s work thus offers a cogent exposition of the limits of patent law and formal technology transfer.” Lee’s recent work on tech transfer Transcending the Tacit Dimension: Patents, Relationships, and Organizational Integration in Technology Transfer, California Law Review 2012 is a must read. Lee shows that “effective technology transfer often involves long-term personal relationships rather than discrete market exchanges. In particular, it explores the significant role of tacit, uncodified knowledge in effectively exploiting patented academic inventions. Markets, patents, and licenses are ill-suited to transferring such tacit knowledge, leading licensees to seek direct relationships with academic inventors themselves.” And Lee’s article also uses the lens of the theory of the firm, the subject of the exchanges here, to illuminate the role of organizational integration in transferring university technologies to the private sector. I think that in both of our works, trade secrets are an elephant in the room. And I hope we continue to think more about how can trade secrets, which have been called the step child of intellectual property, be better analyzed and defined.

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Who’s Your Daddy?

Perhaps you, like me, sometimes find yourself wondering, “What ever happened to that delightful actor Jason Patric, star of the beloved 1987 film The Lost Boys?” I have a partial answer to that question. He is a biological father who is fighting to become a legal father to a child he shares with an ex-girlfriend. The story is more interesting than it might initially seem because of the way that Patric’s child was conceived.

The child in the middle of this custody dispute is named Gus and his mother, Danielle Schreiber, is Patric’s ex-girlfriend. According to published reports, Patric and Schreiber were not in a relationship when Gus was conceived or born. Patric donated his sperm to Schreiber, in the same way that thousands of men donate or sell sperm each year for infertility treatments for women to whom they have no connection. Schreiber conceived in a doctor’s office. If the two were a married couple and the pregnancy resulted from fertility treatment using the husband’s sperm, there would be no problem with Patric’s claim that he is both a genetic and legal father. But that was not the case here, and their accounts of their post-birth expectations are, unsurprisingly, very different.

Read More

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IRBs and Mission Creep?

I’ve written several times in the past about the intersection of IRBs and the legal academy. (Blogging; Caselaw Research; Zach Schrag interview) Consider this an update in that series.

My university (Temple) has an interesting set of new IRB guidelines. Essentially, Temple’s IRB (for all subjects) is now requiring department head sign-off for all protocols:

“In addition to the PI, every individual listed on the approval route on an IRB submission is required to approve the submission before it can reach the IRB for review. The electronic approval takes the place of a hard copy signature. Department Heads and all research personnel are required to approval Initial Submissions. Individuals can also be manually added to the approval route. Everyone listed on the approval route must view and approve the submission in order for it to reach the IRB. Please see the instructions for Providing Approval in eRA on the IRB’s website.”

When I inquired as to why this regulation was required, I was told that department heads knew the financial health & needs of the institution, and would therefore be able to tell if particular projects’ execution was financially possible.  Because department heads are best positioned to know if research is too expensive (and consequently that human subjects wouldn’t be cared for), IRB review will be denied if they refuse to sign the application. The IRB acknowledged that the regulation was not required by HHS regulations or the common rule, but was essentially a way to improve the quality of the University’s research.

To me this is a deeply problematic requirement. Academic freedom is a slogan which almost always signifies rent seeking. But here, there are significant risks that the IRB could be used as a way to cloak gamesmanship inside of departments.  Imagine that you are on the outs from your boss. She or he can now simply refuse you the right to do research by stating that the department can’t support it.  The IRB enforces that refusal, with its full array of punitive sanctions. What avenue of relief could you possibly have, apart from an incredibly cumbersome university grievance process, or a First Amendment lawsuit against the University?

Ultimately I dropped my objections to the regulation and got sign-off, in large part because I trust the powers that be.  Also, who wants to poke the bear?  But I thought I’d throw it out there to see whether any of you have seen similar regulations, and whether (or not) they’ve been challenged successfully.

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“Brain Spyware”

As if we don’t have enough to worry about, now there’s spyware for your brain.  Or, there could be.  Researchers at Oxford, Geneva, and Berkeley have created a proof of concept for using commercially available brain-computer interfaces to discover private facts about today’s gamers. Read More

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Bones and Genes: Fortune’s Bones Redux

As a follow up to my post last week asking about human dignity, unburied bones and ownership of human cells, here are two related issues that appeared in the Sunday news.

The first item from Sunday’s Baltimore Sun is the belated report of a Reuters story about the controversy over disposition of King Richard III’s newly discovered remains uncovered in a municipal parking lot by the University of Leicester.  The long-lost remains of the King, who died in 1485, were exhumed, and the University was given permission to re-inter the remains in Leicester. But the King’s descendants objected claiming that they were not “consulted … over the exhumation and the license allowing the university to re-bury the King, and [that] this failure breached the European Convention on Human Rights.” They want the body buried in York.

The second item is an op-ed by two medical school academics, Jeffrey Rosenfeld and Christopher E. Mason, that appeared in Sunday’s Washington Post about Association for Molecular Pathology et al v. Myriad Genetics, et al, a case that will be argued in the Supreme Court on April 15th. This is important case that has been mentioned on this blog as recently as last February.  SCOTUS even featured a symposium spurred by the controversy. At issue is whether, on some level, human genes are patentable. Rosenfeld and Mason oppose patenting DNA.  On the other hand, much like the researchers discussing the HeLa cell, the respondents, Myriad Genetics, et al, argue that the issue is much narrower, namely whether the “human” aspect of the specific sequence of isolated human DNA is the result of the efforts of the respondent, and thus patentable. Read More

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Fortune’s Bones: Is There Dignity after Death?

In 1995 Gunther von Hagens presented his Body Worlds exhibit, described as a collection of real human bodies that have been “plastinated” to prevent their decay and make them more malleable. Some of these plastinated bodies were cut open to reveal their inner organs and then positioned in lifelike poses. The exhibit toured the world and was wildly popular.

Body Worlds also generated some criticism. Canadian social scientist, Lawrence Burns, argued that “some aspects of the exhibit violated human dignity.” (7(4): 12-23 Amer. J. Bioethics 2007)  Although touted as an educational experience Burns and others worried that the bodies were being used as “resources to make money from the voyeurism of the general public.” A key concern was that the bodies were denied burial and that this was a dignitary affront. Burns conceded, however, that the concept of human dignity as applied to deceased individuals is unclear.

I started to think about whether there is dignity after death and, if so, what are its parameters, when I read a news article from the New Haven Register, about the skeleton of an enslaved man that was being studied by the anthropology faculty and students at Quinnipiac University prior to burial.

The enslaved man who died in the 1798 (slavery was not abolished in Connecticut until 1848), was named Fortune. At the time of his death Fortune was the human chattel of a Waterbury Connecticut physician who upon Fortune’s death boiled his body to remove the flesh keeping his skeleton to study human anatomy. Fortune’s body remained unburied and was on display as late as 1970 at the Mattatuck Museum where until recently it was still housed. Read More