Better not to know?

April 1, 2014

Inmirko-ethicsblog medical ethics a distinction is commonly made between negative and positive autonomy. One’s negative autonomy is exercised in refusing medical care or refusing some specific treatment. Positive autonomy is the right to choose a specific treatment (within what is available and allowed). Expressing a preference for not being informed about some medical condition seems to exercise negative autonomy.

Several criteria define the autonomy of a person in medical ethics, including knowledge. The knowledge a person has is not simply derived from the quantity of information made available, but by the real information that the subject is able to understand and use in the assessment. It can be said, then, that under this perspective, the more knowledge one has the more autonomous one is.

To illustrate the role of knowledge in autonomy, consider two couples with a family history of genetic diseases. In both cases the woman is pregnant. Couple 1 doesn’t want to make any genetic test, because “whatever the result we would never consider abortion an option.” Couple 1 has a set of values that is not compatible with abortion. Couple 2 has the same values and does not consider abortion as a feasible option. Nonetheless, couple 2 chooses genetic testing and the result of the test is a very high likelihood of an impaired offspring. Though knowing this, couple 2 decides to have the baby too.

The decision (to have the baby) of couple 1 and couple 2 is the same, but is reached through different paths. Couple 1 didn’t wish to know, it exercised a kind of negative autonomy. Couple 2 exerted a kind of positive autonomy deciding to gain knowledge about the condition (actual or likely) of its offspring. They displayed different attitudes toward knowledge, but both made a kind of autonomous choice. Couple 1 didn’t want to test its offspring, and one may be tempted to say that it didn’t put its values to test in the light of knowledge possible to attain, whereas couple 2 in testing its offspring also gauged the strength of the values on the basis of which they made their decision.

I would say that the couples’ first choices to know/not to know are equally autonomous. Henceforth, however, the couples’ paths diverge and couple 2’s final decision (to have the baby) is a more autonomous one, because it uses more relevant knowledge. Couple 1’s preference for negative autonomy (not to know) leads, on this account, to a less autonomous final decision (to have the baby).

Mirko Ancillotti

We like ethics : www.ethicsblog.crb.uu.se


Conference on global aspects of reproductive technology and surrogacy

May 13, 2013

Reproductive technology and surrogacy often is a cross-border practice that raises several ethical issues concerning the rights not only of adult participants but also of the children involved.

Do the children have a right to know about their genetic parents and do they have a right to be recognized by the countries of their contractual parents? What are the rights of surrogate mothers?

These and related questions will be discussed at an upcoming conference,

organized by The Nordic Committee on Bioethics.

Participation is free of charge. Young researchers (mainly PhD students) are invited to submit an abstract no later than May 20.

More information about abstracts, programme and registration can be found on the website of the Nordic Committee on Bioethics.

If you want to participate, register no later than August 15.

Pär Segerdahl

We recommend conferences - the ethics blog


Interesting conferences

August 7, 2012

The Ethics Blog recommends three important conferences this autumn:

1.      Genomics for Healthcare and Socio-Economic Progress

This conference is organized by the Wales Gene Park. It discusses the economic potential of genomics in, for example, healthcare, agriculture and bio-energy.

  • When? 13-14 September 2012
  • Where? Radisson Blu Hotel, Cardiff
  • Website? Here

2.      HandsOn: Biobanks

This interactive conference is organized by BBMRI.se. It dicusses biobanking and the value of biobank research.

  • When? 20-21 September 2012
  • Where? Uppsala, Sweden
  • Website? Here

3.      Children’s Participation and Decision-Making in Medical Matters

This conference is organized by the Nordic Committee on Bioethics. It discusses the ethics of children’s participation in medical research.

  • When? 11-12 October 2012
  • Where? Lund, Sweden
  • Website? Here

Visit the websites to find out more about these interesting events!

Pär Segerdahl

We recommend conferences - the ethics blog


Who, or what, becomes human?

July 31, 2012

Our long childhood and dependence on parental care seem to leave no doubt about it: we are not born as humans, we become human.

I want to highlight a particularly tempting metaphor for this process of “becoming human” – the metaphor of:

  • “Order out of chaos.”

According to this metaphor, human infancy is abundantly rich in possibilities; so abundant, in fact, that it is a formless chaos – a “blooming, buzzing confusion,” as William James characterized the infant’s experience of being alive.

To acquire recognizable human form, the child’s inner chaos must be tamed through the disciplining efforts of parents and society at large (the metaphor suggests). The child’s formlessly rich inner life must me narrowed down, hardened, made boring… until, finally, it becomes another obedient member of society.

Society does not acknowledge a real human subject until the norms of “being human” are confidently repeated: as if the child easily would slip back into its more original state of blooming, buzzing confusion, the moment the reiteration of the social norms of humanity terminates.

The “order out of chaos” metaphor makes life and growth look like death and atrophy. To become human means aborting limitless possibilities and gradually turning into that tragic effect of social forces that we know as “the mature adult.”

Perhaps the intriguing topic of the “deconstruction of the subject” is nothing but rigorous faithfulness to the logic of this tempting metaphor? If becoming human is anything like what the metaphor presents it as, then “no one” becomes human, strictly speaking, for before the disciplined human is formed, there is nameless chaos and no recognizable human subject.

But how can the proto-human chaos – I mean, the child – be so responsive to its non-chaotic parents that it reduces its inner chaos and becomes… human? Isn’t that responsiveness already a form of life, a way of being human?

Dare we entertain the hypothesis that the newborn already is active, and that her metamorphoses throughout life require her own creative participation?

I believe we need another understanding of human becoming than that of “order out of chaos.” – Or is human life really a form of colonization of the child?

Pär Segerdahl

We challenge habits of thought : the Ethics Blog


Protecting children: through research or from research?

January 20, 2012

Children pose a dizzyingly difficult problem for research ethics.

One of the most important tasks of research ethics is the protection of human research participants. This significant aim is realized above all through the requirement of proper information and consent procedures.

But children often cannot be protected though these means. They are too young to understand information about research and to give their own autonomous consent.

Children often are excluded from medical research. Since they cannot be protected by the standard ethical precautions, they can be protected only by being excluded from research, so to speak.

The result, however, is that “experimentation” on children in practice moves elsewhere. It moves to the prescription of medical substances to sick children in health care.

We often don’t know the side-effects of medical substances in children; at least not as well as we know them in adults. We often don’t know what dosages are required in children to gain the sought-after effect. We often don’t know when the dosages become toxic.

As a consequence of this, medical prescriptions to children lack the scientific evidence that we have for adult patients. Moreover, when children become sick, they may be “protected” as patients by being denied what could be the most effective medical treatment. Doctors cannot prescribe potent medical substances to children if they don’t know their effects in the body of a child.

The dizzying difficulty can perhaps be simplified thus:

  1. Adults can be ethically protected as research participants. Therefore, scientific knowledge is gained that protects them as patients too.
  2. We cannot protect children as research participants. Therefore, we cannot protect them as patients either (at least not as well as we protect adult patients)

There is growing concern among ethicists about this situation. More knowledge is needed about children’s responses to various medical treatments. Otherwise they cannot be given the best possible treatments when they are patients. That, however, requires more clinical research with children. – But how can we ethically justify such research?

The problem is discussed in the current issue of The American Journal of Bioethics. A target article by David Wendler is followed by seven open peer commentaries.

If you are interested in the problematic, I strongly recommend reading this discussion and considering whether the attempted justifications get to the root of the dizzying problem.  One thing is clear, though:

Protecting children ethically by excluding them from research participation is not the unambiguously good deed it may appear to be.

Pär Segerdahl

We like challenging questions - the ethics blog


%d bloggers like this: