German Ethics Council: Germline editing “not ethically out of the question” | European Scientist

On Monday, the German Ethics Council made public a 230-page report discussing their current position on human genome manipulation and in particular, germline editing. According to the press release published on 9 May, a few days before the report, “germline interventions currently too risky, but not ethically out of the question”.

The council made up of 26 ethicists, legal scholars, scientists, and other experts unanimously agreed there are no compelling philosophical arguments against altering human germlines, which they write is not “in principle, ethically reprehensible.” […]

The World Health Organization called for the establishment of a global registry of gene editing research on humans last March. And many scientists would now agree, genome-editing in the human germline should not be regulated by the scientific community but by law.

All members agreed “ the human germline is not inviolable”, although not all are in favour of the pursuing germline interventions – some are concerned the possible benefits may not outweigh the potential downsides.

https://www.europeanscientist.com/en/public-health/germline-editing-not-ethically-out-of-the-question/

For people with dementia, a fight for the right to die | MacLean's

Minister of Health Ginette Petitpas Taylor speaks outside the House of Commons, in Ottawa on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017., about medical assistance in dying (Adrian Wyld/CP)

Minister of Health Ginette Petitpas Taylor speaks outside the House of Commons, in Ottawa on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017., about medical assistance in dying (Adrian Wyld/CP)

Ron Posno was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment—a precursor to dementia—in 2016, and soon after, the London, Ont., resident re-wrote his will. He already had a Do Not Resuscitate order in place, and to this he added instructions for the niece who was his substitute decision maker that at a specific point in the progress of his illness, she was to seek medical assistance in dying on his behalf.

The eight conditions that Posno identified as signalling the proper time for his death are like a photographic negative that also reveals what he considers a life worth living. When I am unable to recognize and respond to family and friends; when I frequently experience hallucinations, paranoia or acute depression; when I become routinely incontinent; when I am unable to eat, clean or dress myself without assistance: that is when I want it to be over.

But then Posno’s niece, a lawyer in Toronto, informed him that an advance request like this for medical assistance in dying (MAID) was against the law and she would have no ability to act on it once he could no longer consent.

Posno had assumed that this request was basically an extension of his DNR: a statement of his desires for medical treatment in a given set of circumstances. He found it incomprehensible that he could legally state that he did not want CPR and the instruction would be followed if he were unconscious with a DNR in place, but in the face of an illness that would eventually render him unable to provide informed consent, he couldn’t request MAID on behalf of a carefully delineated future version of himself.

https://www.macleans.ca/society/for-people-with-dementia-a-fight-for-the-right-to-die/

SCOTUS LGBT Discrimination Case Will Test Conservative Commitment to Textualism | Verdict

Last week, the Supreme Court agreed to review three lower court decisions posing the important question whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—which makes it unlawful for an employer or prospective employer “to discriminate against any individual . . . because of such individual’s . . . sex”—thereby forbids discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. There is little doubt that few if any of the members of the Congress that originally enacted the statutory language would have thought it had that effect.

However, as the late Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the Court in a 1998 Title VII case that applied the statute’s sex discrimination prohibition to other circumstances that its drafters likely did not envision, “it is ultimately the provisions of our laws rather than the principal concerns of our legislators by which we are governed.” And there are straightforward reasons to think that discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is sex discrimination.

The pending Title VII cases thus pose a test for the Court’s conservative majority. At one point or another and to varying degrees, all of the Court’s conservatives have embraced some version of the so-called textualist approach to statutory interpretation epitomized by Justice Scalia’s observation in the 1998 case, Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc. If they keep faith with their textualist commitment, they will rule in favor of the plaintiffs.

https://verdict.justia.com/2019/05/01/scotus-lgbt-discrimination-case-will-test-conservative-commitment-to-textualism

Chinese scientists have put human brain genes in monkeys—and yes, they may be smarter | MIT Technology Review

Human intelligence is one of evolution’s most consequential inventions. It is the result of a sprint that started millions of years ago, leading to ever bigger brains and new abilities. Eventually, humans stood upright, took up the plow, and created civilization, while our primate cousins stayed in the trees.

Now scientists in southern China report that they’ve tried to narrow the evolutionary gap, creating several transgenic macaque monkeys with extra copies of a human gene suspected of playing a role in shaping human intelligence.

“This was the first attempt to understand the evolution of human cognition using a transgenic monkey model,” says Bing Su, the geneticist at the Kunming Institute of Zoology who led the effort.

According to their findings, the modified monkeys did better on a memory test involving colors and block pictures, and their brains also took longer to develop—as those of human children do. There wasn’t a difference in brain size.

https://www.technologyreview.com/s/613277/chinese-scientists-have-put-human-brain-genes-in-monkeysand-yes-they-may-be-smarter/

In Spain, prisoners’ brains are being electrically stimulated in the name of science | Vox

A team of scientists in Spain is getting ready to experiment on prisoners. If the scientists get the necessary approvals, they plan to start a study this month that involves placing electrodes on inmates’ foreheads and sending a current into their brains. The electricity will target the prefrontal cortex, a brain region that plays a role in decision-making and social behavior. The idea is that stimulating more activity in that region may make the prisoners less aggressive.

This technique — transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS — is a form of neurointervention, meaning it acts directly on the brain. Using neurointerventions in the criminal justice system is highly controversial. In recent years, scientists and philosophers have been debating under what conditions (if any) it might be ethical.

The Spanish team is the first to use tDCS on prisoners. They’ve already done it in a pilot study, publishing their findings in Neuroscience in January, and they were all set to implement a follow-up study involving at least 12 convicted murderers and other inmates this month. On Wednesday, New Scientist broke news of the upcoming experiment, noting that it had approval from the Spanish government, prison officials, and a university ethics committee. The next day, the Interior Ministry changed course and put the study on hold.

https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/3/9/18256821/prisoner-brain-study-spain-aggression-neurointervention-ethics

Is Ethical A.I. Even Possible? | NYT

HALF MOON BAY, Calif. — When a news article revealed that Clarifai was working with the Pentagon and some employees questioned the ethics of building artificial intelligence that analyzed video captured by drones, the company said the project would save the lives of civilians and soldiers.

“Clarifai’s mission is to accelerate the progress of humanity with continually improving A.I.,” read a blog post from Matt Zeiler, the company’s founder and chief executive, and a prominent A.I. researcher. Later, in a news media interview, Mr. Zeiler announced a new management position that would ensure all company projects were ethically sound.

As activists, researchers, and journalists voice concerns over the rise of artificial intelligence, warning against biased, deceptive and malicious applications, the companies building this technology are responding. From tech giants like Google and Microsoft to scrappy A.I. start-ups, many are creating corporate principles meant to ensure their systems are designed and deployed in an ethical way. Some set up ethics officers or review boards to oversee these principles.

But tensions continue to rise as some question whether these promises will ultimately be kept. Companies can change course. Idealism can bow to financial pressure. Some activists — and even some companies — are beginning to argue that the only way to ensure ethical practices is through government regulation.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/01/business/ethics-artificial-intelligence.html

Certainty is not a defensible standard for policy making in the context of assisted dying | Udo Schuklenk

[…] The chairperson of the group drafting the report on mental illness and assisted dying, Kwame McKenzie, made a statement to Canadian news media in support of current government policy that excludes competent people who suffer from refractory mental illness from access to assisted dying. He reportedly cautioned that ‘no one can be completely certain that a mentally ill patient is never going to get better’.[3] Which takes me to the actual topic of this blogpost: certainty as a standard for health policy making. Complete certainty, if that were ever possible in the context of health and disease, where most decision making is based on probability as opposed to certainty, might be a defensible threshold if nobody were harmed by the implementation of such a high standard. If the setting of a high standard were cost neutral, there would be no good reason not to have such a standard.

https://ethxblog.blogspot.com/2019/01/certainty-is-not-defensible-standard.html

An Elephant’s Personhood on Trial | The Atlantic

Forty-seven years ago, the Asian elephant now known as Happy was one of seven calves captured—probably in Thailand, but details are hazy—and sent to the United States. She spent five years at a safari park in Florida, time that in the wild would have been spent by her mother’s side. Then she was moved to the Bronx Zoo in New York City. There Happy remains today, and since the death of an elephant companion in 2006, she has lived alone, her days alternating between a 1.15-acre yard and an indoor stall.

For a member of a species renowned for both intelligence and sociality, the setting is far from natural. In the wild, Happy would share a many-square-mile home range with a lifelong extended family, their bonds so close-knit that witnessing death produces symptoms akin to post-traumatic stress disorder in humans. It would seem that Happy, despite the devotions of the people who care for her, is not living her best life.

In considering Happy’s circumstances and what might be done to improve them, should something more than animal-welfare laws and zoo regulations—which the Bronx Zoo has not violated, but arguably are inadequate—be invoked? Should Happy be considered, in legal terms, a person? Which is to say, an entity capable of possessing at least some rights historically reserved for humans alone—beginning with a right to be free?

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/12/happy-elephant-personhood/578818/

Ethics in genetic counselling | Journal of Community Genetics

Difficult ethical issues arise for patients and professionals in medical genetics, and often relate to the patient’s family or their social context. Tackling these issues requires sensitivity to nuances of communication and a commitment to clarity and consistency. It also benefits from an awareness of different approaches to ethical theory. Many of the ethical problems encountered in genetics relate to tensions between the wishes or interests of different people, sometimes even people who do not (yet) exist or exist as embryos, either in an established pregnancy or in vitro. Concern for the long-term welfare of a child or young person, or possible future children, or for other members of the family, may lead to tensions felt by the patient (client) in genetic counselling. Differences in perspective may also arise between the patient and professional when the latter recommends disclosure of information to relatives and the patient finds that too difficult, or when the professional considers the genetic testing of a child, sought by parents, to be inappropriate. The expectations of a patient’s community may also lead to the differences in perspective between patient and counsellor. Recent developments of genetic technology permit genome-wide investigations. These have generated additional and more complex data that amplify and exacerbate some pre-existing ethical problems, including those presented by incidental (additional sought and secondary) findings and the recognition of variants currently of uncertain significance, so that reports of genomic investigations may often be provisional rather than definitive. Experience is being gained with these problems but substantial challenges are likely to persist in the long term.

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12687-018-0371-7


When Nonviolence Isn't Enough | Reason.com

Interesting read by Jason Brennan.

In August 2017, Richard Hubbard III stopped at a red light in Euclid, Ohio, but his front bumper went a few feet past the white line. The cops pulled him over. That's no surprise: Police in Euclid, Cleveland Heights, and the surrounding cash-strapped towns strictly enforce traffic rules. But officers didn't just give the driver a ticket.

The police demanded Hubbard—a black man—step out of his vehicle. Dashcam footage shows that he calmly complied. Yet one officer immediately spun Hubbard around, bent his arm, and slammed him against his Hyundai. He flipped Hubbard again, punched him in the face, and kicked his groin. Hubbard screamed and put his arms up to protect himself. The other officer joined in.

They threw Hubbard to the ground but continued to punch, hammer, and kick him. When he tried to protect his face, they chanted the informal motto of American police, "Stop resisting!" Even when Hubbard was subdued, prostrate with his hands behind his back and two large officers pinning him down, one officer continued to pummel his skull.

Imagine you witness the whole thing. A thought occurs to you: You're armed. You could shoot the officers, perhaps saving Hubbard's life or preventing him from being maimed and disabled. May you do so?

Below, I defend a controversial answer: Yes, you may. Shooting the cops in this case is dangerous—they may send a SWAT team to kill you—and in many places it's illegal. But it is nevertheless morally permissible, indeed heroic and admirable. You have the right to defend yourself and others from state injustice, even when government agents act ex officio and follow the law.

https://reason.com/archives/2018/12/07/when-nonviolence-isnt-enough

Another by Brennan on this topic: When the state is unjust, citizens may use justifiable violence

https://aeon.co/ideas/when-the-state-is-unjust-citizens-may-use-justifiable-violence

"Rogue, Crazy": Alarm Over China Scientist's Claim Of Gene-Edited Babies

A Chinese scientist triggered alarm, shock and confusion across the scientific community Monday with the claim that he had edited the DNA of human embryos to create twin baby girls, Lulu and Nana, who he said had been born "crying into the world as healthy as any other babies" a few weeks ago.

The controversial experiment, publicized through the media and videos posted online by He Jiankui of Southern University of Science and Technology of China, was criticized by many scientists worldwide as premature and called "rogue human experimentation." More than 120 Chinese scientists called the experiment "crazy" in a letter, adding that it dealt a huge blow to the global reputation of Chinese science. Southern University said in a statement it would be investigating the experiment, which appeared to have "seriously violated academic ethics and codes of conduct." 

He's unverified claim came on the eve of an international summit dedicated to discussing the emerging science and ethics around powerful tools that give scientists unprecedented potential to tweak traits and eliminate genetic diseases - but that have raised fears of "designer babies." By editing the DNA of human embryos, scientists change not just the genes in a single person, but all their potential offspring - in effect, altering the human species

https://www.ndtv.com/science/rouge-crazy-experts-concerns-on-chinese-scientist-he-jiankuis-designer-babies-1953810

Woman who inherited fatal illness to sue doctors in groundbreaking case

Lawyers are bringing a case against a London hospital trust that could trigger major changes to the rules governing patient confidentiality. The case involves a woman who is suing doctors because they failed to tell her about her father’s fatal hereditary disease before she had her own child.

The woman discovered – after giving birth – that her father carried the gene for Huntington’s disease, a degenerative, incurable brain condition. Later she found out she had inherited the gene and that her own daughter, now eight, has a 50% chance of having it.

The woman – who cannot be named for legal reasons – says she would have had an abortion had she known about her father’s condition, and is suing the doctors who failed to tell her about the risks she and her child faced. It is the first case in English law to deal with a relative’s claim over issues of genetic responsibility.

“This could really change the way we do medicine, because it is about the duty that doctors have to share genetic test results with relatives and whether the duty exists in law,” said Anna Middleton, head of society and ethics research at the Wellcome Genome Campus in Cambridge.

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/nov/25/woman-inherited-fatal-illness-sue-doctors-groundbreaking-case-huntingtons

Gene drives promise great gains and great dangers - On the extinction of the species

Extinctions are seldom cause for celebration. Humans are wiping out species at a frightening rate, whether hunting them into history or, far more threateningly, damaging the habitats on which they depend. But occasionally, the destruction is warranted. Smallpox was officially eradicated in 1980, and no one laments the fate of the virus that caused it; campaigns to save the virus that causes polio are thin on the ground. How, then, to think about a new technology that will make driving a species to extinction far easier?

https://www.economist.com/leaders/2018/11/08/gene-drives-promise-great-gains-and-great-dangers

Believing without evidence is always morally wrong | Aeon Ideas

[…] What we believe is then of tremendous practical importance. False beliefs about physical or social facts lead us into poor habits of action that in the most extreme cases could threaten our survival. If the singer R Kelly genuinely believed the words of his song ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ (1996), I can guarantee you he would not be around by now.

But it is not only our own self-preservation that is at stake here. As social animals, our agency impacts on those around us, and improper believing puts our fellow humans at risk. As Clifford warns: ‘We all suffer severely enough from the maintenance and support of false beliefs and the fatally wrong actions which they lead to …’ In short, sloppy practices of belief-formation are ethically wrong because – as social beings – when we believe something, the stakes are very high.

https://aeon.co/ideas/believing-without-evidence-is-always-morally-wrong

Former heroin abuser's civil forfeiture case goes to Supreme Court

MARION, Ind. — Tyson Timbs works in a machine shop. He is a self-described former heroin junkie living with his aunt in a small home with two dogs. Inspirational messages — in the house, on his clothes and on a tattoo — help sustain his recovery.

It is a modest existence. That said, Timbs, 37, could see his name live on for decades in constitutional law. He is the plaintiff in a closely-watched case with far-reaching implications that the U.S. Supreme Court will hear Nov. 28.

Five years ago, Timbs pleaded guilty to selling $260 worth of heroin and had his $42,000 Land Rover taken by the government in a process known as "civil asset forfeiture," which allows police to seize and keep property alleged to have been used in a crime.

By Indiana law, however, the maximum fine for Timbs' crime was $10,000 — well below the value of seized vehicle.

https://www.indystar.com/story/news/2018/10/29/tyson-timbs-institute-justice-civil-asset-forfeiture-us-supreme-court-eighth-amendment/1646693002/

If elephants aren’t persons yet, could they be one day? | Aeon Essays

Have you ever stood in a field full of cows? It’s obvious that they’re aware of one another, but in a minimal kind of way. They tend to stay loosely clumped together as they graze, and they don’t deliberately knock into other members of the herd. Shouting gets their attention, but it tends to elicit a flickering inspection at most, which subsides into cud-munching indifference when they realise you represent neither a threat nor a treat. Cows don’t gauge how to respond to sights, sounds and smells by carefully studying the subtleties of one another’s reactions (which is why they can startle each other into stampeding). When you’re with a herd of cows, you’re basically alone. 

Stand or walk among a herd of elephants, however, and you’ll appreciate how different the experience is. Even the most peaceful group feels electric with communicative action. There’s continuous eye contact, touching, trunk and ear movements to which others attend and respond. Elephants engage in low-frequency vocalisation, most of which you can’t hear, but you can certainly see its effects. If you’re fidgety, for example, all the adult elephants will notice and become uneasy. Typically they take their cues from their female leader, the matriarch. When you’re with a herd of elephants, you’re not alone at all; you’re in a highly charged atmosphere, shimmering with presence and feeling. To an outside observer, elephants appear to have highly responsive minds, with their own autonomous perspectives that yield only to careful, respectful interaction.

https://aeon.co/essays/if-elephants-arent-persons-yet-could-they-be-one-day

In matters of morality, self-driving cars face a cultural obstacle course - The Globe and Mail

A self-driving car is speeding down a busy road when suddenly a group of pedestrians appears in its path. The car has a split-second to decide between two horrific options. Should it plow down the unwitting pedestrians or swerve into a concrete barrier with the likelihood that occupants in the car may be killed?

What if the pedestrian is a woman with a stroller? Does that change the moral calculus? Or what if the occupants of the car are mostly young children while the pedestrian is a single jaywalker breaking the law? Or an elderly man, possibly disoriented?

https://www.theglobeandmail.com/business/technology/science/article-in-matters-of-morality-self-driving-cars-face-a-cultural-obstacle/

An Ethical-Legal Analysis of Medical Assistance in Dying for Those with Mental Illness | Tanner | Alberta Law Review

One of mine!

This article considers sources of opposition to allowing access to medical assistance in dying for individuals with mental illness. It originated with an observation by members of the University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics that in mainstream Canadian culture — as well as in political, academic, and professional circles — such opposition remains widespread (and often reflexive). This opposition exists even in light of broad support for access to assisted dying for individuals with illness manifesting in physical suffering. Most Canadians treat the prospect of assisted dying for those with mental illness with suspicion, and it is worth exploring why this opposition persists, what arguments can be leveled to support it, and whether those arguments can be sustained. To that end, I identify five objections to assisted dying for the mentally ill that seem to characterize the public debate, and argue that none are sustainable. They either rely on false premises or otherwise fail to secure the conclusion that assisted dying should be off limits to people suffering from mental illness, even when such mental illness is their sole underlying condition.

https://www.albertalawreview.com/index.php/ALR/article/view/2500

On free will: Daniel Dennett and Gregg Caruso go head to head | Aeon Essays

Caruso: [Dan,] you have famously argued that freedom evolves and that humans, alone among the animals, have evolved minds that give us free will and moral responsibility. I, on the other hand, have argued that what we do and the way we are is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control, and that because of this we are never morally responsible for our actions, in a particular but pervasive sense – the sense that would make us truly deserving of blame and praise, punishment and reward. While these two views appear to be at odds with each other, one of the things I would like to explore in this conversation is how far apart we actually are. I suspect that we may have more in common than some think – but I could be wrong. To begin, can you explain what you mean by ‘free will’ and why you think humans alone have it?  

Dennett: A key word in understanding our differences is ‘control’. [Gregg,] you say ‘the way we are is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control’ and that is true of only those unfortunates who have not been able to become autonomous agents during their childhood upbringing. There really are people, with mental disabilities, who are not able to control themselves, but normal people can manage under all but the most extreme circumstances, and this difference is both morally important and obvious, once you divorce the idea of control from the idea of causation. Your past does not control you; for it to control you, it would have to be able to monitor feedback about your behaviour and adjust its interventions – which is nonsense.

https://aeon.co/essays/on-free-will-daniel-dennett-and-gregg-caruso-go-head-to-head

Safeguarding trials from racial bias

There is much to learn from the trial of Saskatchewan farmer Gerald Stanley on the dangers of not directly confronting the potential impact of racial bias on the trial process. Stanley was acquitted in February 2018 by an all-White jury in the shooting death of 22-year-old Cree man Colten Boushie. The law gives us tools to safeguard trials from racial bias that we shouldn’t ignore. One of these tools is the law of evidence.

What is the law of evidence? It is a set of rules aimed at regulating the admissibility and use of evidence, in order to fairly promote the search for truth. It recognizes that judges and jurors bring to court every day assumptions about human experience and behaviour that are grounded in unreliable, stereotypical or discriminatory assumptions. That is precisely why it gives judges a discretion to exclude evidence where its prejudicial effect outweighs its relevance or probative value. And why we have rules, for example, that make prior sexual history evidence in sexual assault cases or evidence that paints an accused in a negative light (bad character evidence) presumptively inadmissible.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that Indigenous, Black and Brown lived experiences are disproportionately before courts consisting of largely White jurors or judges, we have failed to ensure that our rules of evidence protect against racial bias in the same way that they do against other types of unreliable and discriminatory generalizations. The Stanley trial is a stark reminder of this reality.

http://policyoptions.irpp.org/magazines/october-2018/safeguarding-trials-from-racial-bias/