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Bioethics Blogs

In the Journals – August 2017 by Livia Garofalo

Here is the article round-up for August, put together in collaboration with Ann Marie Thornburg.  There is a special issue section of Social Science and Medicine out this month on Austerity, Health, and Wellbeing (abstracts below). Also of note is a recent ‘Takes a Stand’ statement on the End of AIDS published in Global Public Health by Nora Kenworthy, Richard Parker, and Matthew Thomann. You can take advantage of the article being temporarily free access and on early view here. Enjoy!

 

Cultural Anthropology (Open Access)

Tangles of Care: Killing Goats to Save Tortoises on the Galápagos Islands

Paolo Bocci

If calls to care for other species multiply in a time of global and local environmental crisis, this article demonstrates that caring practices are not always as benevolent or irenic as imagined. To save endemic tortoises from the menace of extinction, Proyecto Isabela killed more than two hundred thousand goats on the Galápagos Islands in the largest mammal eradication campaign in the world. While anthropologists have looked at human engagements with unwanted species as habitual and even pleasurable, I discuss an exceptional intervention that was ethically inflected toward saving an endemic species, yet also controversial and distressing. Exploring eradication’s biological, ecological, and political implications and discussing opposing practices of care for goats among residents, I move past the recognition that humans live in a multispecies world and point to the contentious nature of living with nonhuman others. I go on to argue that realizing competing forms of care may help conservation measures—and, indeed, life in the Anthropocene—to move beyond the logic of success and failure toward an open-ended commitment to the more-than-human.

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.

Bioethics Blogs

Questioning whether genes in human embryos were in fact successfully edited

Nature reports that the editing of a gene in human embryos–reported earlier in August and discussed recently on this blog–has been questioned by a different group of scientists. Read a fuller, general-public-level description here. The questioning scientists doubt a specific claim of the initial work; namely, that a faulty gene in human sperm was edited through a corresponding gene in the human egg fertilized by… // Read More »

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.

Bioethics News

Doubts Raised on Key Points of Nature Paper on CRISPR Gene Editing of Human Embryos

August 31, 2017

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Is it possible that CRISPR gene editing actually didn’t happen in many of the human embryos in that big Naturepaper that made such news a couple weeks back?

Some doubts have emerged that call the main conclusions of the paper into question and argue that more definitive studies are needed to be sure.

An international team of top scientists led by first author Dieter Egli has responded via a preprint on Biorxiv to that Mitalipov team high-profile Nature paper on CRISPR gene editing of human embryos. Egli, et al. raise the possibility that the CRISPR gene editing as reported in the Nature study may actually not have happened, at least not in every case and perhaps not the way the Ma, et al. paper argued it did (via homology directed repair (HDR)-based CRISPR-Cas9 action specifically depending on interaction between normal maternal and mutant paternal chromosomes).

On one level it isn’t so unusual to see a scientific critique of and technical questions raised about a published paper that made splashy news. However, I see this particular case as a striking turn of events because although the new Egli, et al. piece is very collegial and diplomatic, they convincingly lay out a number of rather compelling reasons why the main conclusions of the Ma paper might be incorrect and the reasons why there may not have been CRISPR gene editing in many of the embryos. To be clear, Egli and colleagues don’t seem to be saying the Ma, et al. paper is definitely wrong, but they describe some quite reasonable ways in which the Ma paper could hypothetically have inadvertently reached incorrect central conclusions.

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.

Bioethics Blogs

What can neuroethicists learn from public attitudes about moral bioenhancement?

By Peter Reiner

Dr. Reiner is Professor and co-founder of the National Core for Neuroethics at the University of British Columbia where he is a member of the Department of Psychiatry and the Centre for Brain Health. Dr. Reiner began his research career studying the cellular and molecular physiology of the brain, with particular interests in the neurobiology of behavioural states and the molecular underpinnings of neurodegenerative disease. In 1998, Dr. Reiner became President and CEO of Active Pass Pharmaceuticals, a drug discovery company that he founded to tackle the scourge of Alzheimer’s disease. Upon returning to academic life in 2004, Dr. Reiner refocused his scholarly work in the area of neuroethics, co-founding the National Core for Neuroethics with Dr. Judy Illes in 2007. Dr. Reiner has championed quantitative analysis of public attitudes towards diverse issues in neuroethics including the propriety of cognitive and moral enhancement, the contours of autonomy in the real world, and the neuroethical implications of Technologies of the Extended Mind.

Moral behavior is fundamental to human society. Wherever one goes on the planet, one finds a set of norms that guide behavior, and following these norms is a basic tenet of peaceful coexistence with one’s fellow humans. Despite abundant evidence that the arc of human history trends towards decreased violence (Pinker, 2011), a proxy for moral behavior, scholars have suggested that society might be better off were we to enhance our moral capacities, and that using biological methods to do so is warranted (Douglas, 2008; Persson and Savulescu, 2008). This has engendered a vigorous debate that goes beyond the usual divide between bioconservatives and technoprogressives (Reiner, 2013a); in this arena, even ardent proponents of enhancement technologies have registered dissent (Harris, 2010).

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.

Bioethics Blogs

Are you a person or an animal?

The question in the title may sound like an insult. That is, not as a question, but as something one might say in anger to reprimand someone who misbehaves.

In philosophy, the question is asked seriously, without intention of insulting. A philosopher who misbehaves at a party and is reprimanded by another guest – “Are you a person or an animal?” – could answer, shamelessly: Eh, I really don’t know, philosophers have contemplated that question for hundreds of years.

What then is the philosophical question? It is usually described as the problem of personal identity. What are we, essentially? What constitutes “me”? What holds the self together? When does it arise and when does it disappear?

According to proponents of a psychological view, we (human beings) are persons with certain psychological capacities, such as self-awareness. That psychology holds the self together. If an unusual disease made my body deteriorate, but doctors managed to transplant my mental contents (self-awareness, memories, etc.) into another body, then I would survive in the other body. According to proponents of the rival, animalist view, however, we are animals with a certain biology. An animalist would probably deny that I could survive in a foreign body.

The difference between the two views can be illustrated by their consequences for a bioethical question: Is it permissible to harvest organs from brain-dead bodies to use as transplants? If we are essentially persons with self-awareness, then we cease to exist when the brain dies. Then it should be permissible to harvest organs; it would not violate personal autonomy.

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.

Bioethics Blogs

On Plastic Reason by Tobias Rees by Setrag Manoukian

Plastic Reason: An Anthropology of Brain Science in Embryogenetic Terms

by Tobias Rees

University of California Press, 2016, 352 pages

 

Plastic Reason is an excellent occasion to reflect on the relationship between poetry and science.

One might feel the proverbial contrastive tension in naming together poetry and science, a tension one finds in certain intellectual habits that foreground a distinction between human and non-human sciences, or in postures that romantically juxtapose the supposed freedom and creativity of poetry with the hard realities of science (social sciences included). However, at closer scrutiny, this tension reveals itself as an exciting site of possible conversations, to the extent that one might even end up arguing that there cannot be poetry without science, nor science without poetry. After all, the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) made a forceful case for the necessity of poetry in the “history of human nature,” conceptualizing poetic knowledge as the fundamental articulation of humans’ changing relationship with the world. Vico distinguished poetic knowledge from the sciences of nature, however this distinction was for him historical and relational, not absolute, with the understanding that, whatever humans might be, they could not be thought without both poetry and science.

Rees’s book is foremost an engagement with plastic conceptions of the brain, but as the author wrote me in a recent email exchange, it is also “concerned with a form of poetry.” So I began to read Plastic Reason asking myself what was this form of poetry, and whether the book could provide useful leads to think poetry and science together.

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.

Bioethics Blogs

Françoise Baylis and Carolyn McLeod (eds), Family-Making: Contemporary Ethical Challenges, Oxford University Press, 2014

This fascinating anthology focuses on the question of how we make families, and how bionormative assumptions shape or distort our collective thinking about parenting, children’s welfare, and state obligations to parents and children. The editors are primarily interested in the question of whether parents’ moral responsibilities toward children differ for children produced through assistive reproductive technologies (ART) compared to children brought into the family via adoption. As the editors point out, in the realm of ART, most of the philosophical literature has been focused on parental autonomy and rights to assistance in reproducing, while the adoption literature is almost entirely focused on the protection of children. The anthology does an excellent job of exploring this disconnect, and probing assumptions about moral responsibilities within family-making. Taken as a whole, the chapters explore “whether people should rely on others’ reproductive labour in having children, whether they should ensure that they will have a genetic tie to their children or that their children will have some connection to genetic relatives, whether they should bring a new child into the world at all, whether they should agree to what the government would require of them for an adoption, where they should live if the family they make is multi-racial, at what age they should forgo having children, and the list goes on” (6).

The first section of the book sets the stage with two excellent chapters on the goods of parenting (Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift) and the goods of childhood (Samantha Brennan). The goods of parenting are distinguished from other related goodsintimacy with another adult or friend, friendship with a child, being an uncle, having a pet, etc.

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.

Bioethics Blogs

Talking back to science?

By Stephen Rainey

In June 2017, the European Court of Justice ruled that it was legal for a French citizen to sue a drug company for damages following a vaccination, and an illness. The ruling caused some consternation as it seemed a legal vindication of anecdote over scientific rigour.

This is a dramatic case, not least owing to the position in which vaccines find themselves, post Andrew Wakefield and the rise of the anti-vaxxer movement. Nevertheless, it forms a part of a wider narrative in which scientific activity is not always very open to questions from outside science. This broader theme is worth some scrutiny.

Vaccine injury

Shortly following a vaccination against Hepatitis B a French citizen, JW, found himself in declining health. Soon after the decline began, a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis (MS) was made. Having had no prior personal or family history of such an illness, and having been in good health prior to the inoculation, JW concluded that the injections must have been to blame for his developing MS. His assertion of this was not supported by scientific investigation. Rather, he could think of the vaccination as the only unusual event that preceded closely his sudden, unexpected development of the condition.

The French courts found themselves unable to agree on whether such a basis as this is sufficient to sue a pharmaceutical company. Eventually, the case was sent to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) which ruled,

“…that the temporal proximity between the administering of a vaccine and the occurrence of a disease, the lack of personal and familial history of that disease, together with the existence of a significant number of reported cases of the disease occurring following such vaccines being administered, appears on the face of it to constitute evidence which, taken together, may lead a national court to consider that a victim has discharged his burden of proof.

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.

Bioethics Blogs

Teaching Disability Studies in the Era of Trump by Pamela Block

In spring semester of 2017 we (Pam Block and Michele Friedner) co-taught the graduate course “Conceptual Foundations of Disability Studies.” Though the readings were the same as in previous iterations of the course, the emphasis and tone of the class shifted, not just because of the co-teaching but because we were now teaching in a context in which the rights and lives of disabled people are at increased risk. This essay will focus on one class session devoted to a discussion of how disability studies and eugenics are strikingly intertwined in some ways, and why it is salient and important to think about eugenics in the present moment, especially in relation to the current United States presidency.

Eugenics opens up a way to talk about immigration; traits and qualities of and in people; desirability; deservedness; “good” and “bad” science; and the making of facts. Eugenics comes to mind when we think of silencing and containing nasty women and ejecting bad hombres. While we are not arguing that Trump himself advocates eugenics, we argue that a study of the history of eugenics offers an entry point to considering the emergence of past and present norms and normals, especially in relation to perspectives on bodily variation. We also think that a discussion of eugenics affords different ways of conceptualizing what disability studies scholars Snyder and Mitchell (2010) call “able-nationalism,” (riffing off of Puar’s (2007) work on homonationalism). That is, a discussion of eugenics allows for consideration of how disability—and the values attached to it– is mobilized in different time periods, in the service to the nation.

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.

Bioethics Blogs

We Can and Must Rebuild the Bridges of Interdisciplinary Bioethics

by Darryl R. J. Macer

This editorial is made available on bioethics.net. The editorial along with the target article and open peer commentary is available via tandfonline.com

Although we can argue that bioethics is holistic and found in every culture, and still alive among people of many indigenous communities as well as the postmodern ones, the academic discipline of bioethics as interpreted by many scholars has attempted to burn bridges to both different views and to persons with different life trajectories and training. The bridges between different cultural and epistemological foundations of bioethics have also been strained by the dominance of Western paradigms of principlism and the emergence of an academic profession of medical bioethics.

This editorial reacts to the points made in the article by Lee, “A Bridge Back to the Future: Public Health Ethics, Bioethics, and Environmental Ethics.” This issue of the American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB) includes a number of commentaries on this theme, and challenges readers to reconsider the manner in which they conceive of bioethics, as well as the range of literature and scholars that they consider to as legitimate sources of wisdom. Such a new approach will not only breathe fresh light into the important work of all scholars, students, and teachers, but also offer some fresh references for contemporary policy changes that face us. Let us approach these issues like an ostrich who is taking her head out of the sand after some years of monodisciplinary focus. To be clear, Lee and some others writing here have apparently not had their head in the sand, as the interrelatedness of health and the environment is clear through the examples shared.

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.