Bioethics Blogs

To Err is Biotechnological: Reflections on Pew

Deep brain stimulation, image via Wikimedia.

Permit me a brief digression before I comment on the latest Pew Research Center survey of Americans’ attitudes toward biomedical technologies meant to “enhance” human performance.

I am married to a bioengineered man.  Almost three years ago, after having been steadily eroded by Parkinson’s disease for over a decade, my husband Mark Derr braved deep brain stimulation (DBS) surgery.  His incredible surgical team at Johns Hopkins implanted electrodes into his brain and a battery-driven stimulus device in his upper left pectoral, and the results seemed, at the time, nothing short of miraculous.  With a mere incremental upping of the voltage during an initial adjustment session, the DBS instantaneously stilled Mark’s tremulous hand and foot, giving him relief that the standard drugs had only intermittently provided.

Much as DBS has improved his quality of life, Mark is far from cured.  DBS cannot address the muscle stiffness, balance problems, and neurological pain he experiences daily.  And the instrument requires constant attention.  Mark’s days consist of frequent monitoring of his device; his weeks, of periodic adjustments of the voltage; his months, of consultation with his medical minders in Baltimore, where he travels every five months or so for “tweaking.”  His latest technician there told him, “You are your own experiment.” 

Based on direct experience, then, I would advise that heady promises regarding biotechnology should be viewed with a high degree of skepticism. DBS, for example, may eventually get better at addressing Parkinson’s symptoms, but cannot reverse the neuronal damage that lies at the base of the disease.  Many other biotechnological interventions also carry with them an almost guaranteed set of deficits, inadequacies, inconveniences, and risks that are conveniently ignored in the valedictory narratives woven around them. 

More profoundly, Mark both is and is not the Mark he was before DBS, and questions of how identity or even soul are altered by such technologies are only rarely addressed.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.