All posts filed under: Bioethics

The Hard Problems of Vegetarianism

“We have to speak up on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves,” wrote the famous utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer in Animal Liberation, the book that converted me (and countless others) to vegetarianism more than 10 years ago. You don’t have to buy into Singer’s pain-and-pleasure calculus to find the moral force of his argument compelling: Humans are gratuitously inflicting pain and suffering on intelligent, sentient creatures for no other reason than because they enjoy the taste of their meat, the texture of their skin, or the softness of their fur. They do so even though they know they could, at a small cost to themselves, live without it, and even though they share a virtually universal conviction that it is wrong to cause harm for trivial reasons. And yet, vegans and vegetarians remain a small minority. Almost all of this meat, leather, and fur is being produced in factory farms that deprive animals of most of what would make their lives worth living. Driven by the relentless logic of profit-maximization, we curb the …

The Transhumanist Case for Liberty

Circa 441 BCE, Sophocles set down on papyrus (most likely) his famous “Ode To Man,” a countdown of human masteries: He navigates. He cultivates. He domesticates. He preys on all but is prey to none. He crafts words for thoughts, constructs shelters, and forms states. “He has made himself secure from all but one; in the late wind of death, he cannot stand.” That last line resonates across time and circumstance, faith and culture, the rise and fall of civilizations. What joins us to homo sapiens, past and present, is not merely the fact, but the recognition, that our days are numbered, that our expiration date is real, that we’re careening headlong toward the end of the line. What if it were not so? As I write these lines, scientists, theorists, technicians, entrepreneurs, and even a few kooks are laboring independently toward radical life extension, with an eye on the ultimate prize: the eradication of death. Their approaches vary wildly. From gene-editing, to growing organs for transplant, to 3D-printing nonvascularized tissue, to implanting brain-computer interfaces, …

Diversity, Inclusion, and Academic Freedom: The Case of Gender Biology

Our university recently circulated an email message, the contents of which I found somewhat strange. Or rather, I might have found it strange had I spent the past decade or two in a coma. The message was a carefully worded reflection on how academic freedom can be reconciled with the university’s updated and strengthened policies of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Although it strategically avoided specifics, one might justifiably infer that academic freedom presents some kind of threat to DEI. As I understand it, academic freedom means that what we publish and what we teach need only be judged for relevance and for support by the evidence base. In addition, it now appears that research must be compatible with institutional priorities. Less clear is where exactly these two guiding principles are expected to clash. In an attempt to understand this, I will reflect on a recent experience that may shed some light here. I am a paediatric endocrinologist, with teaching duties in the Department of Paediatrics (cross-appointment in Human Genetics), at McGill University in Montréal. …

Standing on the Shoulders of Ogres

There is neither merit nor justice in the posthumous dishonouring of the eminent biologists Francis Galton, who coined the phrase “nature or nurture,” and Ronald Fisher, who advised that “correlation is not causation.” In a recent article in the Journal of Physical Anthropology, Adam Rutherford, author of How to Argue with a Racist, provides reasons for supporting the recent “de-naming” of Galton and Fisher by various institutions. These reasons are historically inaccurate and morally dubious. Standing on the shoulders of bastards: I wrote a paper about cancel culture, accusations of the erasure of history, on how we deal with great scientists who also held outmoded and baleful views. https://t.co/PKr1KNP3xO pic.twitter.com/gQ9u100R4M — Dr Adam Rutherford (@AdamRutherford) December 18, 2020 The crimes of Galton and Fisher, as vaguely framed by Rutherford, seem to be conducting research on eugenics (inventing “pseudoscience”) and making recommendations about eugenic policy. Rutherford tars Galton with the Nazi brush even though he died 32 years before Hitler came to power in 1933. He argues that eugenics was a causal factor in the emergence of …

Patient Safety and the Medical Omerta

September 17th, 2020 will mark the second anniversary of the World Health Organisation’s World Patient Safety Day, a sign of the progress made in highlighting the risks of iatrogenesis—harm caused by medical negligence or error. The loosely defined patient safety movement grew from the work of the American paediatric surgeon Lucian Leape, and the publication of the 1999 Institute of Medicine paper ‘To Err is Human,’ both of which succeeded in drawing attention to the risk of being inadvertently killed or otherwise mistreated by healthcare providers. The patient safety movement has subsequently called for better detection and investigation of error, and while official UK data estimates up to 12,000 deaths from medical error per year, the voice of the medical profession in these matters has been conspicuously quiet. Inquiryitis Here in the UK, there has been no shortage of healthcare scandals within the publicly funded National Health Service (NHS). The history of public inquiries into the NHS reminds us of the inherent power imbalance between healthcare providers and the public. However, over 130 such inquiries have …

The Myth of Harmonious Indigenous Conservationism

It seems like a long time ago. But only six months ago, pundits had convinced themselves that the great morality tale of our time was playing out in an obscure part of British Columbia. Following on an internal political fight within the Wet’suwet’en First Nation over a local pipeline project, one columnist wrote that “the Indigenous people of Earth have become the conscience of humanity. In this dire season, it is time to listen to them.” In fact, the elected leadership of the Wet’suwet’en had chosen to participate in the controverted pipeline project. The nationwide protests against the pipeline that followed were, in fact, sparked by unelected “hereditary” chiefs who long have received government signing bonuses. It’s unclear how this qualifies them for the exalted status of humanity’s conscience. Yet the whole weeks-long saga, which featured urban protestors appearing alongside their Indigenous counterparts at road and rail barricades throughout Canada, tapped into a strongly held noble-savage belief system within progressive circles. Various formulations of this mythology have become encoded in public land acknowledgments, college courses, …

Moving Away from Meat Means Welcoming the New ‘Flexitarians’

Author and animal-rights activist Jonathan Safran Foer recently argued in a New York Times essay that the COVID-19 pandemic represents a turning point in society’s attitude to eating meat. “Animal agriculture is now recognized as a leading cause of global warming,” writes Foer. “A quarter of Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 say they are vegetarians or vegans, which is perhaps one reason sales of plant-based ‘meats’ have skyrocketed… Our hand has been reaching for the doorknob for the last few years. Covid-19 has kicked open the door.” I agree the pandemic presents the best opportunity in a generation for animal-rights advocates to win over skeptics. But if and when vegetarian and vegan diets become truly mainstream, it will not be for the reasons Foer emphasizes. Foer provides three main rationales for rejecting meat: (1) “We cannot protect our environment while continuing to eat meat regularly,” (2) we can live “longer, healthier lives” without animal protein, and (3) many forms of animal farming are both cruel and unhygienic. These are valid arguments that …

Human Challenge Trials—A Coronavirus Taboo

The idea is as simple as it is apparently repulsive: allow human challenge trials (HCTs) under which “low risk” and healthy young adult volunteers in double-blind studies would be given trial vaccines (or a placebo) and then intentionally exposed to the novel coronavirus. This would accelerate the assessment of the trial vaccine’s safety and efficacy and more generally expand our understanding of this virus in a controlled setting. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 70 vaccines are currently under development, five of which are already moving to clinical trials. Notwithstanding these Herculean efforts, the earliest we can realistically expect a readily available vaccine is in 12 to 18 months. This is in large part due to constraints imposed by traditional vaccine validation methods, which rely on large test groups and chance exposure to the virus by participants to assess the vaccine’s safety and efficacy. HCTs, using a relatively small low-risk group of volunteer participants, could potentially accelerate the release of a safe and effective vaccine by many months. While conducting coronavirus HCTs …

Candace Owens Is Dangerously Misinformed about Vaccines

After Bill Gates criticized the Trump administration’s decision to withhold funding to the World Health Organization, right-wing social media personality and America Firster Candace Owens accused Gates of being a “vaccine-criminal.” In a Facebook post on April 15th that has since generated 38,000 reactions and over 6,000 comments—as well as being shared more than 22,000 times—she elaborated: FACT: Bill and Melinda Gates, along with their partners at the World Health Organization have been unethically experimenting with non-FDA approved vaccines on African and Indian tribes for YEARS… As this information is getting out, Snopes has bent over backwards to try to say that it is technically false. It is not and it is easily researchable and verifiable. I suggest every single person take the time today to educate themselves and read this academic review on the long efforts Bill Gates and the World Health Organization have the taken, under the guise of “philanthropy”, to develop and mandate worldwide vaccines. In another tweet published the same day, Owens stated: Experimenting on and incidentally paralyzing and infertilizing poor colored children …

The Complicated Science of a Medically Assisted Death

Jeff was ready to die. An Oregon man in his late 50s with kidney failure, he had cleared all the legal and practical hurdles that can keep someone from pursuing a medically assisted death. All that was left for him to do was ingest the lethal medication. Or so he thought. For much of his life, Jeff had worked as a long-haul trucker, sleeping in the cab of his truck and going fishing in between jobs. When his kidneys started to fail and he went on dialysis, he gave up trucking and became homeless. Jeff eventually stopped dialysis. He knew he wasn’t eligible for a transplant, and he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life hooked up to a machine. By the time Jeff was admitted to a Portland nursing home and enrolled in hospice, he had come to accept that he was dying. And he wanted to go out on his own terms. When Jeff first made his request to use Oregon’s assisted dying law, no one was sure whether he would …