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February 28, 2007

The Price(lessness) of Privacy

No-one who has an eye on the spate of reports that every day demonstrate the range and vigor of emerging technologies can doubt that privacy is as good as over – or, to put it another way, that the passive privacy we have taken so much for granted (no-one knows what you are doing as no-one can see you) is soon to be replaced by what could prove the most costly of all commodities: privacy at a price. Think all those movies about the NSA and its capacity to spy on your every move, and double it, triple it, and keep moving up the geometric progression of surveillance 2.0.

This report looks at the new generation of video surveillance; others have updated us on RFIDs. One way and another, those who want liberty and see privacy as essential to its flourishing will have to find a way to carve out a zone around us where intrusions driven by fear of crime, defense against terror, and relentless marketing are held at bay.

Surveillance cameras are common in many cities, monitoring tough street corners to deter crime, watching over sensitive government buildings and even catching speeders. Cameras are on public buses and in train stations, building lobbies, schools and stores. Most feed video to central control rooms, where they are monitored by security staff.

The innovations could mean fewer people would be needed to watch what they record, and make it easier to install more in public places and private homes.

“Law enforcement people in this country are realizing they can use video surveillance to be in a lot of places at one time,” said Roy Bordes, who runs an Orlando, Fla.-based security consulting company. He also is a council vice president with ASIS International, a Washington-based organization for security officials. The advancements have already been put to work. For example, cameras in Chicago and Washington can detect gunshots and alert police. Baltimore installed cameras that can play a recorded message and snap pictures of graffiti sprayers or illegal dumpers.

In the commercial market, the gaming industry uses camera systems that can detect facial features, according to Bordes. Casinos use their vast banks of security cameras to hunt cheating gamblers who have been flagged before.

Miracles Do Happen

This is a wonderful story: An infant apparently died and didn’t breathe for 30 minutes, but then spontaneously came back to life. After surgery, he is none the worse for wear. The moral of the story? It’s Not Over Until It’s Over: Unless It Isn’t Really Over

ESCR Debate is a Controversy About Ethics, Not Science

The media and many scientists treat the ESCR/human cloning debates as if they were scientific in nature, rather than about ethics and philosophy–which cannot be determined by the scientific method. Now, a scientist writing in Nature, of all places, makes the same point. (I take no position on the criticisms of the Bush Administration and do not wish that matter discussed here.):

Nature 446, 24 (1 March 2007) Published online 28 February 2007

Need to distinguish science (good or bad) from ethics
David Campbell: Department of Biological Sciences, 425 Scientific Collections Building, University of Alabama, Box 870345, Tuscaloosa, Alabama 35487-0345, USA

Although I share John Horgan’s concern about the misrepresentation of science by the current US administration and others, expressed in his Book Review of Seth Shulman’s Undermining Science: Suppression and Distortion in the Bush Administration (“Dark days at the White House” Nature 445, 365-366; 2007), he and other commentators need to distinguish clearly between science and ethics in their arguments. It is bad science to claim that reducing environmental protection will not have adverse effects on rare species, for example, but the decision whether we should protect rare species or not is an ethical one.

“With regard to research on embryonic stem cells, I know of no one who denies that there would be at least some scientific insights and medical benefit from such research. However, the real question with regard to stem-cell research is whether the potential medical benefit and scientific knowledge outweigh any harm done to the embryo. The answer depends strongly on the value assigned to the embryo, which is not a scientific question. Thus, instead of being an example of science versus anti-science, this is a case of competing ethical claims. Replacing an advocate of stem-cell research on the President’s Council on Bioethics with someone morally opposed to it reflects support for an ethical position (although the fact that this particular example involved replacing a biologist with a political philosopher does also raise the possibility that science was getting less say).

By invoking science as supporting a particular position on ethical questions, which science cannot directly answer, critics are making an error of logic similar to the one made by the Bush administration itself.

Or to put it another way, to “invoke science as supporting a particular position on ethical questions” is to politicize science, which is to actually corrupt it.

The Dutch Suicide Problem

The Dutch apparently have a real problem with suicidal desires. According to this story, there are nearly 100,000 suicide attempts each year, with about 1,600 resulting deaths. From the story:

The official figures from Statistics Netherlands (CBS) indicate that 1,600 people actually commit suicide each year–a number that has remained stable for a long time. This figure puts the Netherlands at number fifty in the world for incidents of suicide, and somewhere in the middle when compared to the rest of Europe. But the Trimbos institute suspects that the actual figure is much higher, since many suicides in the Netherlands are registered as traffic accidents or industrial accidents.

Ah, but that isn’t the only manner in which the Dutch suicide statistics are skewed. Euthanasia and assisted suicide deaths are also not counted in the suicide statistics. If they were, the number of suicides each year in the Netherlands would exceed 5,000–and even that figure would be low since it is widely acknowledged that the number of euthanasia/assisted suicide deaths each year is dramatically under-reported. Including Dutch euthanasia/assisted suicide statistics in the count–which would make it more accurate–would place the Dutch suicide rate among highest in the world.

HT: Alex Schadenberg

Death Hastened for Organ Donation?

This is a disturbing story in the Los Angeles Times: A doctor is under investigation for overdosing an organ donor with pain medication to hasten his death in order to procure organs. If so, it is a terrible breach of organ donation ethics and a profound act of wrongdoing.

We should not prejudge the case, of course, although the doctor’s lawyer whining that his client wasn’t the only one who did things wrong does not give great grounds for confidence. But let us instead look at the bigger picture.

There are many proposals out there to increase the number of transplantable organs. One is presumed consent. The idea is that society will presume that everyone wants to be an organ donor unless the person explicitly opts out in writing. In other words, rather than filling out an organ donation card, you would be a donor unless you filled out a form stating that you do not wish to be a donor.

Presumed consent might work in a medical milieu unequivocally devoted to the sanctity/equality of human life. But we don’t have that system. Health care, under the influence of the bioethics movement, is now sometimes practiced under the “quality of life” ethic, in which some patients are presumed to have greater value than others.

This being so, presumed consent would not succeed because patients and their families would reasonably worry that what the doctor in the Times story is suspected of doing would become standard procedure. At the very least, presumed consent could, over time, impact the way that very ill or injured patients–particularly those with head injuries–would be cared in a system in which medical personnel perceived that their patients are prospective organ donors.

We should all want there to be more organ donations, of course. But the only ethical way to get from here to there, in my view, is to increase medicine’s devotion to the sanctity/equality of life of all patients. Only then will more people have confidence that their organs will never be perceived as having greater value than their lives.

Post Script: As I published this post, this story was sent to me about a hospital scuffle over the removal of life support from a patient in Singapore, where presumed consent is the law.

The Bioethics Podcast Episode

It looks like it’s the day for podcasts (see The CedarEthics Podcast below), which is a good thing! Episode 041 of The Bioethics Podcast has just been posted. In it, Dr. Joy Riley, Executive Director of the Tennessee Center for Bioethics and Culture (and blogger), conducts a wide-ranging interview with Phillipa Taylor, consultant on bioethics for the London-based organization Care.

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Chinese Scientists Experiment with Remote Control of Animals

Chinese scientists said they have succeeded in an experiment to remotely control the flight of a pigeon with electronic technology. Scientists with the Robot Engineering Technology Research Center of east China’s Shandong University of Science and Technology say they implanted micro electrodes in the brain of a pigeon so they can command it to fly right or left or up or down. (Xinhua News Agency)

State-by-State Guide to Bioethics Laws

Non-profit, public-interest bioethics law firm Americans United for Life (AUL) today releases their legal guide on bioethics issues, Defending Life 2007. The guide contains information on laws—including history, recent activity, and prospects for the future—for each of the 50 U.S. states in the areas of beginning of life, end of life, biotechnology, and rights of conscience. This heavily researched and well organized guide is a valuable resource. Click here to purchase a copy through Amazon.

Media Bias on Display: Attacking Adult Stem Cell Research–The Sequel

I reported earlier on the mainstream media’s jumping to over blow a story of process mistakes made by Dr. Catherine Verfaillie, with regard to the potential that she derived pluripotent adult stem cells from bone marrow. My point was further verified today when the San Francisco Chronicle carried a New York Times piece reporting on the story–again. That’s two stories about an arcane matter involving procedural mistakes that did not affect Verfallies’ conclusions–which were in mouse studies. Can we spell media bias?

Police probe death in organ donation case

Police are investigating whether a Kaiser Permanente transplant surgeon attempted to hasten the death last February of a 26-year-old San Luis Obispo man on life support in order to harvest his organs more quickly. (Los Angeles Times)

India gives birth to lucrative business

Surrogate mothers being outsourced to India add one more chapter to the saga of cheaper “jobs” being transferred to low-cost economies such as India. For now, “hiring” a womb appears to be a win-win situation, both from the cost and quality of medical service. (Asia Times Online)

Epigenetics to shape stem cell future

Everyone hopes that one day stem cell-based regenerative medicine will help repair diseased tissue. Before then, it may be necessary to decipher the epigenetic signals that give stem cells their unique ability to self-renew and transform them into different cell types. (

Bioengineer Advances Survival, Promise Of Adult Stem Cells

MIT researchers have developed a technique to encourage the survival and growth of adult stem cells, a step that could help realize the therapeutic potential of such cells. (ScienceDaily)

Minnesota: Cloning ban built into stem cell research bill

Legislation giving the University of Minnesota permission to use state money on all varieties of stem cell research was revised Tuesday to explicitly bar human cloning. (AP)

Health care in developing countries could beimproved by nanotechnology

“Nanotechnology has the potential to generate enormous health benefits for the more than five billion people living in the developing world,” according to Dr. Peter A. Singer. (Huliq)

Scuffle for organs sparks donor debate in Singapore

As members of Sim Tee Hua’s family sat at his bedside to pray for his recovery, they were horrified to learn that the hospital staff were about to turn off his life-support machine and use his organs for transplants. (Reuters)

As Ethics Panels Expand Grip, No Field Is Off Limits

Ever since the gross mistreatment of poor black men in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study came to light three decades ago, the federal government has required ethics panels to protect people from being used as human lab rats in biomedical studies. (New York Times)

Hospital and Primary Care Docs Need to Talk

There could be a potentially dangerous gap in communication between the doctor that treats you in the hospital and your primary care physician, new research suggests. (HealthDay)

Op-Ed – Storming The Gates Of Secular Babylon

We are approaching the second anniversary Terri Schiavo’s state-sanctioned execution. What was Terri’s crime? Her disability fell below an arbitrary level of 21st century—public acceptability. She bore silent witness to America to be a society of justice, mercy, and love for life. (North County Gazette)

How to Have an Argument

The CedarEthics Podcast is a new audio program by the Center for Bioethics at Cedarville University. The latest is entitled “How to Have an Argument,” and features an over-the-top debate on abortion where we deliberately break all the rules. We then analyze our mistakes and try again, hopefully as a model for respectful dialog on a contentious issue.

You don’t need an iPod to listen – just go to this Web site.

February 27, 2007

More on California Forced Complicity in Assisted Suicide

Some doubts (and aspersions) have been cast about my interpretation of A.B. 374, which I detailed in a Secondhand Smoke post and over at First Things. One commenter called my interpretation “convoluted.” Well, true–but only because of the way the legislation is written.

Here it is again in a nutshell: First: No health care worker or provider can be forced to actually participate in assisted suicide. At the same time, no health care provider or worker who does can be punished for it in any way. Meaning, that if a doctor who visits a nursing home assists the suicide of a resident, even if it is against the policy of that nursing home, he or she cannot have any sanction, nor could the patient be asked to vacate.

Second: Acute care hospitals are expressly permitted to opt out of having assisted suicides performed in their facilities. Since this is a specific category of health care provider, the effect is that no other providers can similarly opt out since they are not given that right in the legislation.

Third: There is a strict construction clause, meaning that the terms cannot be expanded. Hence, only acute care hospitals will be able to opt out of assisted suicides on their premises.

If the authors didn’t want this consequence, all they had to do was permit any health care facility refuse to permit assisted suicides to be conducted on site. This is what H. 44, the Vermont assisted suicide legislation does, to wit:

5294. HEALTH CARE FACILITY EXCEPTION: Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a health care facility may prohibit an attending physician from writing a prescription for medication under this chapter for a patient who is a resident in its facility and intends to use the medication on the facility’s premises, provided the facility has notified the attending physician in writing of its policy with regard to such prescriptions.

California’s legislation contains no such blanket exemption. (I know, I know: There are potential loopholes in the Vermont wording, but let’s leave that be for now.) Hence, if the California legislation passes as is, Catholic nursing homes, in-patient hospices, and other such health care providers would be powerless to prevent assisted suicides from taking place in their facilities.


The Bioethics Poll
Should individuals and/or institutions be allowed to patent human genes?
Yes, with some qualifications

View results

Which area of research should more money be invested in:
Animal-Human Hybrids
Gene Therapy
Reproductive Technology
Stem Cell Research
"Therapeutic" Cloning
None of the above

View results

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your global information source on bioethics news and issues