This Week in Bioethics

by Matthew Eppinette, CBC Executive Director on September 2, 2016

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1. Can We? Should We?

Our Christopher White this week highlighted two ways in which President George W. Bush’s decision — now 15 years ago — to limit federal funding for embryo destructive stem cell research has been vindicated. First, non-embryonic (aka adult) stem cells have proven to be much more powerful and useful that the debate over embryonic stem cells would have led us to believe. Second, and arguably more important, Pres. Bush took a firm moral stand. Simply because we can do something does not mean that we should. I join with Chris in applauding Pres. Bush for prioritizing “should we?” well over and above “can we?”.

2. The Importance of Hospice

Britain’s Telegraph recently ran an important piece detailing the important work that hospice does. The development of the modern hospice movement is a great benefit to society, one that is perhaps under appreciated. Why?

Until faced with the death of someone close to you, it is easy to look away from the prospect of the end of life.  We are not taught what death actually entails or what happens, or how it happens.  We do not dwell too long on the subject – it remains taboo usually until personal experience shocks us into focusing on the inevitable.

This same reality is a factor in debates over physician assisted suicide as well. If you’re not familiar with hospice care, I encourage you to explore it, and perhaps even consider volunteering with a hospice — volunteers are an indispensable part of hospice care. The more people who are aware of, volunteer for, and participate in hospice, the better off we will be as a society. And the more we will move toward being a society that truly cares for one another.

3. Unpacking India’s New Surrogacy Law

India has passed a new surrogacy law, which is a definite step in the right direction. However, the law is not without limitations, some deeply concerning. A new piece on the #StopSurrogacyNow website details both the positive aspects of this new law as well as several important areas that still need to be addressed. This law is good news, but more work remains to be done.

4. Surrogacy Agencies Packing Up and Moving to Cambodia

Speaking of more work to be done on the issue of surrogacy: in the wake of strong new limits on surrogacy in Thailand, India, and Nepal, surrogacy agencies are now setting up shop in Cambodia. As the article points out, extreme poverty is a factor in all of this. But surely we can think more creatively about ways to alleviate poverty that do not involve women having to rent out their wombs. (The World is Flat 3.0 has some terrific examples of such creative thinking.) The truth, however, is that surrogacy “services” are a multi-billion dollar per year business interested primarily in profits, not the alleviation of poverty. In reality it is an infertility industrial complex. Thus the constant search for “unclear rules and low costs.” The real work of addressing poverty looks far, far different. Do not be mislead. 

5. Brave New World No More?

I’m a huge science fiction fan, and I particularly like dystopian works. Some of my favorite, relatively recent books include Oryx and Crake, Snow Crash, and Anathem. Perhaps the seminal dystopian work, however, is Huxley’s 1932 Brave New World. Indeed, we here at the CBC sometimes use “Brave New World” as a pointer toward the harms caused by the infertility industrial complex and the attitude, often implicit rather than explicit, that the the desires of adults trump the needs of children.

Futurist George Dvorsky argues, however, that the notion of a “Brave New World” is “no longer the terrifying dystopia it used to be.” His position hinges on the idea that Brave New World is really about totalitarian government rather than medicine and technology. The implication is that the dystopia — the nightmarish harm — comes when these things are imposed rather than chosen. So long as they’re chosen, they’re fine.

This argument seems to me to be predicated on a false notion of autonomy. That is, it is built on the idea that each of us is an isolated individual, and our choices and our decisions have no effect on others. But this is clearly and demonstrably untrue, particularly in the realm of biomedical technologies. As but one example, our Anonymous Father’s Day shows that the choice to use a sperm donor has enormous effects on the children born from from it, as well as on their families. 

Yes, totalitarian government figures heavily in Brave New World, which is definitely a product of the times in which is was written. But we cannot so easily dismiss the harms created by the ways in which some of these technologies have come to be used. They remain very real.

This Week in Bioethics Archive

Image by Nicolas Vigier via flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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