Reality surpasses our concepts

March 20, 2019

Pär SegerdahlAfter thinking for some time about donation of human eggs and embryos to stem cell research, I want to express myself as in the headline. Reality surpasses our concepts of it. This is not as strange as it sounds. For, if our concepts already reflected reality, then no one would need to do research, or to think. Just talking would be sufficient. An endless flood of words could replace all sincere aspirations to understand life and the world.

So what is it about donation to research that makes me want to express myself as in the headline? Everyone knows that blood donation is a gift to patients. This makes blood donation humanly understandable. People want to help fellow human beings in need, even strangers. But what about donation of eggs and embryos to stem cell research? Conceptually, the donation does not go to patients in need, but to researchers. This makes it difficult to understand donation to research. Are we to assume that people feel sorry for researchers and that they therefore want to support them by donating to them? Why do donors support research?

Not only does the concept of “donation to research” make donation difficult to understand from a human point of view. The concept also causes donation to appear suspiciously exploitative. The recipient of the donation is more powerful than the donor is. Moreover, if research results are commercialized, the recipient can make a profit on the work that the donation enables, without the donor receiving any share of it. So not only does literal faith in the concept of “donation to research” make a free will to donate difficult to understand. The donation also looks suspicious. Some argue that we should prevent an increasingly capitalized life science sector from exploiting self-sacrificing donors in this way.

Nevertheless, there are people who freely donate to research. Why? I guess it often is because they use research merely as an intermediary, to be able to give to patients. The patient is equally important in donation to research as in blood donation, although the concept does not reflect this relationship. Let me give an unexpected example of intermediaries.

About one kilogram of bacteria lives in our intestinal tract. Without these bacteria, our bodies would not be able to absorb many of the nutrients in the food we eat. When we swallow the food, these bacteria are in a sense the first diners, and our bodies have to wait patiently until they have finished eating. Even if we know this, we rarely think that we are swallowing food in order to allow bacteria in the stomach to eat first. We eat without being aware of the work that these “intermediaries” in the stomach have to do, in order for the nutrients to become available to the body.

The concept of “eating” does not reflect this relationship between bacteria and us. This is not a shortcoming of the concept. On the contrary, it would be very unpleasant if the concept reflected the bacteria’s work in our guts. Who would then want to say, “Let us sit down and eat”? However, problems arise if we have too much literal faith in concepts. Our vocabulary will then begin to impose limitations on us. Our own language will shrink our otherwise open minds to mental caves, where the words cast shadows on the walls.

Researchers, then, can be seen as intermediaries between donors and patients. I hope I do not upset sensitive minds if I suggest that researchers are the bacteria that we need to make donated material available to future patients’ bodies. That is why people donate to research. They sense, more or less intuitively, that research functions as an intermediary. “Donation to research” is at heart a gift to patients.

It is even more complicated, however, for research alone cannot act as intermediary. The task is too great. For the donation to become a gift to patients, a capitalized life science sector is needed, and a healthcare system, and much else. Moreover, just as the beneficiary function of bacteria in our stomachs requires a diet that regulates the balance between bacteria, this system of intermediaries, extending from donor to patient, needs regulation and monitoring, so that all the actors work harmoniously together. We cannot allow quacks to sell dangerous or inefficient drugs to the sick, and we cannot allow researchers to access donated material in any way they see fit.

Donation to research is a striking example of how reality surpasses our concepts. When we succeed in overcoming our literal faith in concepts – when we discover the way out of the cave and see the light – then donation to research finally becomes humanly understandable. The donor uses research to be able to give to patients. Moreover, donation to research ceases to appear as a suspicious transaction between unequal parties, since the donor uses the relatively powerful direct recipient to give to a more understandable recipient: the patient. Trying to counteract exploitation by paying the donor large sums, or by giving the donor a share of the profit, would tie the donor to the wrong recipient: the one emphasized in the concept.

As mentioned, the donor uses not only research to reach the patient, but a whole system of intermediaries, such as industry, healthcare and governmental control. This system of beneficial societal bacteria is therefore, to some extent, subordinate to the donor’s will to help patients. Or rather, the subordination is an aspect of the relationship, as is bacteria’s subordination to human eating. If we want to, we can always see the opposite aspect as well. Who really eats first and who last? Who really uses whom? The questions lack definitive answers, for the aspects change into one another.

With this post, I wanted to suggest the possibility of a bigger seeing, which we can learn to use wisely in our thinking when we discover how conceptually purified standpoints easily shrink our minds to mental caves.

Pär Segerdahl

This post in Swedish

We think about bioethics :

On “truly” understanding the risk

March 12, 2019

Pär SegerdahlIt is a well-known psychological fact that people have great difficulties to understand probabilistic risks. What does it actually mean that the risk of developing breast cancer the next ten years is fifteen percent? In addition to the difficulties of understanding probabilities, mathematical expressions can cause a false appearance of exactitude and objectivity. It is often about uncertain evaluations, but expressed in seemingly definitive figures.

At our Monday seminar, Ulrik Kihlbom discussed another difficulty with understanding risk information. It can be difficult to understand not only the probabilities, but also what it is you risk experiencing. Sometimes, people face enormously complex choices, where the risks are high, but also the benefits. Perhaps you suffer from a serious disease from which you will die. However, there is a treatment, and it may work. It is just that the treatment has such severe side effects that you may die even from the treatment.

Ulrik Kihlbom interviewed physicians treating patients with leukemia. The doctors stated that patients often do not understand the risks of the treatment they are offered. The difficulty is not so much about understanding the risk of dying from the treatment. The patients understand that risk. However, the doctors said, no one who has not actually seen the side effects understand that the treatment can make you so incredibly ill.

Yet, it seems like quite comprehensible side effects: fatigue, serious infections, nausea and vomiting, stomach cramp, diarrhea, skin irritation, pain, and weight loss. Why would patients find it difficult to understand these risks?

Could it be that doctors have too high demands on “real” understanding? Must the patient, in order to “truly” understand the side effects, already have experienced the treatment? According to the doctors, experienced patients are at least easier to inform about the side effects. At the same time, the requirement that one must have had the experiences to really understand them seems too strong.

Rather, says Ulrik Kihlbom, doctors probably notice from the patients’ attitude that some of them underestimate what it is like to experience the side effects. Such attitudes can be sensed. The patients understand verbally that they are at risk of these side effects, but emotionally they do not really understand what the side effects are like, especially when they come together for a long time.

This resembles a general human difficulty. We often neglect how we ourselves are affected by our experiences. We project our present, unaffected self, and think: “I’m strong, I can handle those side effects.” However, when we actually experience the side effects, we are no longer strong! The self is not a constant, but changes with our experiences.

Here, then, it is not the probabilities that cause the difficulties, but the words. We understand the side effects verbally and can easily reproduce them. However, even words can cause a false appearance of objectivity: as if the experiences the words denote would not really reach us at our core. We separate ourselves from what we verbally understand we may experience, as if we could live our lives without being affected… without actually living them.

Ulrik Kihlbom has found a striking example of yet another aspect of the difficulty of understanding risk information. Not only probabilities but also common words such as “nausea” can create characteristic misunderstandings of risk information.

Pär Segerdahl

This post in Swedish

We like challenging questions - the ethics blog

Genetic risk entails genetic responsibility

March 5, 2019

Pär SegerdahlIntellectual optimists have seen genetic risk information as a human victory over nature. The information gives us power over our future health. What previously would have been our fate, genetics now transforms into matters of personal choice.

Reality, however, is not as rosy as in this dream of intellectual power over life. Where there is risk there is responsibility, Silke Schicktanz writes in an article on genetic risk and responsibility. This is probably how people experience genetic risk information when they face it. Genetic risk gives us new forms of responsibility, rather than liberates us from nature.

Silke Schicktanz describes how responsibility emerges in situations where genetic risk is investigated, communicated and managed. The analysis exceeds what I can reproduce in a short blog post. However, I can give the reader a sense of how genetic risk information entails a broad spectrum of responsibilities. Sometimes in the individual who receives the information. Sometimes in the professional who provides the information. Sometimes in the family affected by the information. The examples are versions of the cases discussed in the article:

Suppose you have become strangely forgetful. You do a genetic test to determine if you have a gene associated with Alzheimer’s disease. You have the gene! The test result immediately makes you responsible for yourself. What can you do to delay or alleviate the disease? What practical measures can be taken at home to help you live with the disease? You can also feel responsibility for your family. Have you transferred the gene to your children and grandchildren? Should you urge them to test themselves? What can they do to protect themselves? The professional who administered the test also becomes responsible. Should she tell you that the validity of the test is low? Maybe you should not have been burdened with such a worrying test result, when the validity so low?

Suppose you have rectum-colon cancer. The surgeon offers you to participate in a research study in which a genetic test of the tumor cells will allow individualized treatment. Here, the surgeon becomes responsible for explaining research in personalized medicine, which is not easy. There is also the responsibility of not presenting your participation in the study as an optimization of your treatment. You yourself may feel a responsibility to participate in research, as patients have done in the past. They contributed to the care you receive today. Now you can contribute to the use genetic information in future cancer care. Moreover, the surgeon may have a responsibility to counteract a possible misunderstanding of the genetic test. You can easily believe that the test says something about disease genes that you may have passed on, and that the information should be relevant to your children. However, the test concerns mutations in the cancer cells. The test provides information only about the tumor.

Suppose you have an unusual neurological disorder. A geneticist informs you that you have a gene sequence that may be the cause of the disease. Here we can easily imagine that you feel responsibility for your family and children. Your 14-year-old son has started to show symptoms, but your 16-year-old daughter is healthy. Should she do a genetic test? You discuss the matter with your ex-partner. You explain how you found the genetic information helpful: you worry less, you have started going on regular check-ups and you have taken preventive measures. Together, you decide to tell your daughter about your test results, so that she can decide for herself if she wants to test herself.

These three examples are sufficient to illustrate how genetic risk entails genetic responsibility. How wonderful it would have been if the information simply allowed us to triumph over nature, without this burdensome genetic responsibility! A pessimist could object that the responsibility becomes overpowering instead of empowering. We must surrender to the course of nature; we cannot control everything but must accept our fate.

Neither optimists nor pessimists tend to be realistic. The article by Silke Schicktanz can help us look more realistically at the responsibilities entailed by genetic risk information.

Pär Segerdahl

Schicktanz, S. 2018. Genetic risk and responsibility: reflections on a complex relationship. Journal of Risk Research 21(2): 236-258

This post in Swedish

We like real-life ethics :

%d bloggers like this: