This Week in Bioethics

by Matthew Eppinette, CBC Executive Director on August 26, 2016

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1. Telling the Truth in Colorado

Colorado is in the midst of considering whether to approve assisted suicide in their state. Denver NBC affiliate, KUSA (9NEWS), is firm in its commitment to continue calling assisted suicide what it is: assisted suicide. Supporters of assisted suicide prefer that it be called “aid in dying.” But as the station’s political reporter Brandon Rittiman says, “It’s our job to use plain language that’s current and accurate — and that’s what we’ll keep doing.” We applaud their use of clear and truthful language, and call on all media outlets to do the same.

2. The Brave New World Beckons: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

A few weeks ago we mentioned plans by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to lift a moratorium on funding for experiments that involve using human stem cells and tissues in animal embryos. Dr. David Prentice, a scientist, and legislative expert Chuck Donovan have responded to this development by spelling out the possible harms, both short-term and long-term, that might result from such experiments.

The problematic aspect is that when added so early in development, the human cells could end up, well, anywhere in the developing animal. In the worst case, the human cells could end up in gonadal tissue and form human gametes (eggs or sperm) within the animal’s body.

The breeding of new forms of life—human-animal hybrids—could then be in view, or even the development of an animal with a largely human or fully human brain. NIH’s answer to objections like these seems to be to preclude such animals from breeding (this would likely not be 100 percent effective—just ask anyone who has run an animal facility).

. . .

If human-animal chimeras are allowed to be intentionally created for research, the door is also open to reproductive experiments, creating part-human organisms or designer animals to, say, carry out dangerous or degrading tasks human beings do not want to perform. Or donate organs these creations sacrifice for their human betters.

The bottom line is this: the moratorium should be left in place.  

3. Neuroprosthetics: Therapy or Enhancement?

Kernel, a biotech startup in Venice Beach, California, is developing a chip or  “neuroprosthetic” that can be implanted into the brains of people who have suffered damage or injury to their brains. In addition to such therapeutic uses, these same neuroprosthetics could be used to enhance intelligence, memory, or cognition. And enhancement is definitely the long-term goal. This grows out of a concern that humans are able to keep ahead of the rapid growth of artificial intelligence. Such a goal raises a host of concerns: what is the proper role of medicine (healing vs. enhancing), how do we inculcate ethics to artificial intelligence, how do we ensure equality of access to enhancement technologies, indeed how do we ensure basic equality in a world with enhanced humans, and more. To explore the distinction between therapy and enhancement further, see our brief overview of the topic and/or Beyond Therapy, a report by The President’s Council on Bioethics.

4. What about What’s Best for the Child?

In Oregon, a complicated custody battle is going on involving both egg donation and surrogacy. Cory Sause donated her eggs to her boyfriend, Jordan Schnitzer, who used the eggs to have a baby, Samuel, via a surrogate. Cory and Jordan broke up before the baby was born, but Cory wants to be at least somewhat involved in Samuel’s life. Press reports cover the back and forth between the adults in the case, and what each of them wants from this. Little attention, however, is paid to what might be in the best interest of Samuel, who is now eight months old. Sadly, this is far too typical in donor conception and surrogacy cases — adult desires trumping child needs.

5. Great #StopSurrogacyNow News in India

A new surrogacy bill in India seeks to very closely regulate surrogacy in that country. The bill establishes ten parameters that reduce the allowable instances of surrogacy to altruistic surrogacy by a close relative for a couple with proven infertility. While this is not a complete ban, it removes all of the money and restricts it to Indian citizens, which should effectively shut down the surrogacy industry in India. These are important changes that are the direct result of seeing the harms to women and children that surrogacy causes. Our coalition partners in the #StopSurrogacyNow project will have more information on this bill in the coming days. PS — If you haven’t signed their petition, please do so!

Langiappe (a little something extra)

This morning Jennifer and I did our first ever live Q&A, an “Ask Us Anything About #Bioethics.” We had a number of great questions on several different areas of bioethics, and the 20 minute video is archived on our Facebook page and on our YouTube channel. Take a look at either of these. If the Q&A video sparks questions for you, post them in the comments below the video, or look for our next live Q&A, which we are planning for the week of Sept. 12.

This Week in Bioethics Archive

Image by Stew Dean via flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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