A blog from the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB)

Month: April 2012

Collection of papers brings out neglected aspect of ethics

If you wrestle with ethical and legal difficulties associated with genetic science, a recent virtual issue of the Hastings Center Report could be good to think with.

The issue collects earlier material on ethics and genetics. There are pieces about the perils of genetic-specific legislation; about the difficulties of understanding behavioral genetics; about the prospects of personalized medicine; about the meaning of transhumanism; and much else.

Reading the virtual collection, it strikes me that our ethical difficulties surprisingly seldom are of a purely evaluative kind, or about what is morally right or wrong, or about what we ethically should or should not do.

Our ethical challenges are more typically about thinking well; about understanding complex facts properly; about avoiding tempting oversimplifications in our descriptions of reality.

In short, our ethical challenges are very much about facing reality well.

The philosopher Bernard Williams spoke of thick ethical concepts: notions like “courage” that seem to have both evaluative and descriptive content.

I am inclined to say that ethics is “thick” in this sense. Ethics is more often than not about describing reality justly. Ethical challenges are surprisingly often about coming to terms with oversimplified descriptions that prompt premature normative conclusions.

Just consider these two tempting oversimplifications of genetics, which produce an abundance of normative and political conclusions:

  1. The mistaken assumption that if the main source of variation is not genetic, it will be fairly easy to make environmental interventions.
  2. The mistaken assumption that if the primary source of variation is genetic, environmental interventions will be useless.

These assumptions are discussed in Erik Parens’ paper about why talking about behavioral genetics is important and difficult (on page 13).

Even though it is not its purpose, the virtual collection of papers on genetics makes it conspicuous how often our ethical challenges are of a descriptive kind.

Pär Segerdahl

We recommend readings - the Ethics Blog

Interactive conference seeks the value of biobanking

I have the privilege of belonging to a group of ethicists and law scholars that currently discuss how to visualize ethical and legal dimensions of biobanking.

We organize an interactive part of the scientific conference program for HandsOn: Biobanks in September. The conference invites participants to Uppsala to explore the values of biobanking and to take part in its interactive exhibition.

Biobanking is hot in medicine. There are hopes that it will substantially improve diagnosis, treatment and prevention of widespread as well as rare diseases. At the same time, however, the route to such values is difficult to survey, and the goals of large biobank investments are not always entirely transparent.

HandsOn: Biobanks is an ambitious attempt to explore and visualize the values of biobanking and the path towards them.

The conference asks: What are the values sought after? How can they be achieved in practice? There are the ethical, legal, scientific and commercial challenges, but there are also challenges for the industry. How can biobanking affect public trust in medical research and industry?

The conference combines keynote presentations with idea labs and educational sessions. The interactive part of the conference where I participate is called “the Route.” It follows the research process from ethical review, consent, sampling, storage and analysis, to end results that hopefully add value in ethics and trust, in clinical practice, in health economy, and in drug development.

If you want to participate in this interactive conference and help us better understand the values of biobanking, or simply are curious to see how we manage to solve the tricky problem of visualizing ethical and legal aspects – keep these dates in mind:

We are in the midst of brainstorming “the Route.” I hope that future blog posts can share with you some of the ethical and legal issues that we want to visualize and make accessible to participant interaction.

Registration is open – hope to see you in September!

Pär Segerdahl

UK Biobank invites researchers

After many years of data collection, UK Biobank is now open for research on human health and disease.

Like the Swedish biobank investment LifeGene, the British investment is big and prospective. Blood and urine samples were collected from 500 000 participants aged 40-69. Participants also underwent medical examinations and answered questions about health, disease and lifestyle.

The news is that researchers can now start planning projects using these data. Nevertheless, it will probably be a long time before interesting findings are reported…

It may seem cynical, but before UK Biobank can support valuable research, sufficiently many participants must develop various diseases, while others remain healthy. This is what will allow researchers to go back to the original data and identify patterns in how genetic and environmental factors contribute to health and disease.

The value of biobank infrastructure, like UK Biobank, increases with time, as participants develop cancer, depression, diabetes, or heart disease… while others remain in good health.

The fact that biobank infrastructure initially has unclear scientific value and reveals its potential only with time tends to invite skepticism. In the UK as well as in Sweden, investments in biobank infrastructure were interpreted by some as if they concerned unusually obscure research projects, lacking proper scientific goals and procedures.

I think that this is a misunderstanding.

As the recent opening of UK Biobank shows, it is not until now that clearly defined research projects can start being planned. If I am right, however, we might even have to wait somewhat longer…

The data collected between 2006 and 2012 might not support much interesting research until 2022, if I understand the temporality of these research processes. Since the research concerns health and disease in ageing humans, the significance of the research cannot develop any faster than humans grow older.

Rather than holding the initial lack of scientific prosperity against investments like UK Biobank or LifeGene, I am struck by the patience and foresightedness of those who planned and decided about these investments.

Understanding the infrastructural preconditions of biobank research seems to require an attitude to the pace of human life that I thought had become extinct in an age obsessed with short-term agendas.

Sometimes, we have to wait for the future to reveal itself. Only when the time is ripe can the goals and procedures of scientifically interesting biobank projects be defined.

Pär Segerdahl

Approaching future issues - the Ethics Blog

Political ambitions threaten the intellectual integrity of bioethics

Is there a need to enhance the way bioethicists discuss enhancement?

ConAshkan Atry defended his PhD thesis on doping in 2013temporary ethical debates on human enhancement sometimes resemble bitter political debates in a city council. Implicit or explicit political agendas are expressed as normative claims and are passed as “moral” arguments because they serve “the right cause.”

Consider, for instance, James Watson who said that “we’ve got to go ahead and not worry whether we’re going to offend some fundamentalist from Tulsa, Oklahoma.”

Another example is James Hughes, who almost ridicules moral worries about enhancement by reducing them to some sort of semi-religious “irrational” technophobia.

Liberal proponents of enhancement stress the value of individual autonomy and the freedom too choose one’s lifestyle. In this perspective, any attempt to prohibit enhancement is considered to encroach upon political liberty, hence as being unjust.

Opponents to enhancement, on the other hand, stressing values such as fairness and social justice, argue that without implementing regulations and proper measures, human enhancement will widen the already existing social divide and create a further gap between those who have the means to enhance themselves and those who don’t.

Thus, what drives both parties in the ethical debate on enhancement are more general political conceptions of what social justice is or ought to be.

Human enhancement admittedly raises many important political questions. Concerns about social justice will certainly continue to play a major part in debates on enhancement. Moreover, the political and the ethical spheres admittedly may, to some extent, overlap.

However, here I wish to raise the question whether political concerns fully exhaust what one may call genuine ethical reflection upon the phenomenon of human enhancement, and to what extent political agendas are to be allowed to determine the direction of ethical debates.

What is worrying is a situation where moral philosophical debates on enhancement reach some kind of deadlock position where bioethicists, acting as mouthpieces for rigid political perspectives, simply block their ears and shout at each other as loud as they can.

Arguably, what we may understand as genuine philosophical reflection also includes hearing the other and, more importantly, critically questioning rigid perspectives which limit the ethical horizon.

Indeed, the phenomenon of human enhancement provides a platform for doing so. Human enhancement will not only transform our lives but also necessitate a continuous re-formulation of key philosophical conceptions such as autonomy, freedom, and human nature.

In this regard, the dimension of unpredictability involved in new scientific and technological innovations challenges intellectual habits and requires development of new ways of doing ethics that would enable us to cope with these rapid transformations and perhaps even to foresee upcoming issues.

Reflecting on enhancement beyond the horizon of political ideologies would be a good starting point in this direction.

Ashkan Atry

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