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03/08/2011 - 10:51pm

In December 2010,   

But, defying the odds, Kimberly pulled through and was transferred to a regional hospital and then, this week, to her parents' home.  (Hawkes Bay Today)...

03/08/2011 - 12:05pm
It is with great pleasure that we announce the appointment of Ayesha Khanna as a Fellow of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.
03/08/2011 - 10:09am

It turns out that the Lifeboat Foundation (and this is a direct quote from its founder, Eric Klien) is “a Trojan Horse” that is (here I interpret the rest of what Klien says) designed to hoodwink the people recruited to be its members.

Okay, first: what is the Lifeboat Foundation? It is supposed to be a nonprofit organization dedicated to the study of existential threats to humanity (threats that could lead to destruction of the human race, or all life on the planet). It consists mainly of a very large number of invited members (sometimes called Advisors and sometimes Board Members) who are organized into groups known as Advisory Boards, which are dedicated to specific subjects like threats from artificial intelligence, from nanotechnology, from falling asteroids, and so on....

03/08/2011 - 9:54am

Kristine Casey is the latest grandmother to gestate and give birth to her own grandchild, for love, not money. Elton John and Nicole Kidman arranged for gestational carriers of the nongrandmother kind. Once again, the question is raised: Should surrogates be paid for their work in gestating the children of others?

In the United States, some states have banned surrogacy; others permit it, allowing nominal payment to cover only medical and incidental expenses. Why the resistance to actual compensation?

Payment for biologically-based needs is often controversial. A case currently before the Ninth Circuit, for example, challenges the constitutionality of the federal ban against the purchase of bone marrow. While this case may ultimately have something relevant to say about surrogacy, it does not raise the gender issues that are so prominent in surrogacy.

It does not seem a coincidence that the discomfort with – or outright refusal – to pay gestational carriers is tied to the reality that surrogacy is, by definition, women’s work. It is not just that women have ended up in disproportionate numbers in a pink collar ghetto by some combination of choice and force. Rather, women and women only have the means to perform the functions required by surrogacy. If as a society, we have routinely devalued traditional women’s work such as typing, teaching, and child care, is it surprising that we devalue the most “womanly” work of all – that of bearing a child?

Some argue that the problem is not that the work of surrogacy is devalued, but that surrogacy is not work, and that to view it as such is demeaning. Gestating a child is, or should be, a function of love and relationship. Perhaps that is true of women who are bearing babies for themselves and their families, in the same way that when one cooks for her husband or cleans the house it is out of love and not directly financially compensable. But those who perform domestic duties for others are paid for their work.

What of altruism? Some gestational carriers themselves believe that money taints the “gift” that they bring and give to the childless. Payment, however, doesn’t necessarily destroy altruism. Would-be surrogates could choose to offer their services voluntarily, without pay.

We tend to think of altruism as a system without costs, infinitely preferable to commercialization. It is not. When the gestational carrier is a stranger volunteering her services, her function and the relationship between the parties may be more ambiguous than it would be under a carefully defined services-for-hire contract.

That ambiguity may play a role in those cases in which gestational carriers refuse to relinquish a child after the birth, much to the detriment of all parties, including the child. Role conflicts may be further exacerbated when the surrogate is a close family member. And the voluntary – uncompensated – nature of the carrier’s function may make it harder for prospective parents to make even reasonable demands about the surrogate’s conduct, such as refraining from alcohol use or taking prenatal vitamins. In such cases, commercialization may assist in the necessary emotional remove of the surrogate from the fetus.

Another argument against compensation is that it exploits women, particularly poor women. Women who have few or no marketable skills and maybe fewer choices will be seduced into giving their bodies over to be used by others.

Not all surrogates can be described as economically downtrodden. It is foolish, however, to deny the class (and at times, race) issue, and admittedly this anti-exploitation argument gains the most traction in the context of the so-called “baby farms” in India and elsewhere, where young women are housed – and paid – while gestating infants for first-world couples. But the exploitation argument is paternalistic, often ignoring the voices of the gestational carriers themselves, many of whom claim that the opportunity to obtain such work is a valuable and valued one.

These women have used their compensation to do things like purchase a home, or send their children to school, that would otherwise have been impossible. In addition, the let’s-not-allow-women-to-be-exploited-in-this-way argument never seems actually to improve women’s lives. Unless the exploitation argument is followed by real efforts to give women more education or other opportunities for remunerative work, the argument leaves the arguers feeling morally right with themselves, but it leaves poor women in their same deplorable plight.

In an ideal world, perhaps the market would not be the best place for the work of forming families. In the real world, some people who want them cannot have babies, and some women can supply the gestational function necessary. It does and will continue to happen, whether for free or with payment. If that is the case, paying women for this service is the right – and maybe even better – thing to do.

Susan B. Apel is a professor at Vermont Law School and an adjunct professor at Dartmouth Medical School.

03/07/2011 - 10:18pm
An article by Mike Stobbe on global research ethics is doing the rounds: my Google Alert has been sending me its many incarnations, as the piece seems to have been sold and resold to various news outlets. Titles vary from 'Ugly US medical experiments uncovered' to 'Shameful past of medical trials prompts new US investigations' and all sorts of other permutations. The first line of the article, though, is not promising:Shocking as it may seem, US government doctors once thought it was fine to experiment on disabled people and prison inmates.It should not be too shocking, because the National Institutes of Health sponsor and conduct research studies involving the disabled and prisoners right now. It was not just the populations that were the problem with those experiments, of course. It were the procedures, and more specifically, studies in the past that involved deliberate infection of healthy (but vulnerable) persons. Stobbe has himself sniffed around in the archives to find some more skeletons in the US research closet, and adds them to the scandals we already know: Tuskegee, Willowbrook, the Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital, the AZT trials, the Trovan study. He leavens his account with an indication of how health research has gone global: drug studies, once almost exclusively conducted in the US on prison populations, has been redirected to developing countries in order to evade stricter regulations at home and to hold down study costs.This potted history is a lead-in to last week's meeting of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethics Issues. The Commission devoted an afternoon to comments and discussion about global health research ethics, Commission having been given two tasks by President Obama: to investigate dubious US government funded studies in Guatemala in the 1940's, and to see what system of protections and safeguards exist to ensure that similarly abusive research does not happen. This is an enormous task, and the Commission has little time to complete its mission. They did invite an amazing array of experts for the session on March 1st that is well worth watching. What struck me, however, was the public comment session: a fair number of people stood up to give personal testimony of how they were subjected to secret government experiments, involving electroshock treatments, mind control, torture and so on, followed by way too much information about physical and psychological symptoms. Either mentally unbalanced persons are drawn to commissions about abusive research like moths to a flame, or there is much more abusive research taking place in the United States than we know about. UPDATE (March 10th): I was amazed by the testimonies during the public comment session of the Presidential Commission. Those over at Are You Targetted? are not amazed at all by the content of the testimonies, where citizens claimed to be victims of abusive and covert state-sponsored research, but are amazed by the fact that the news outlets did not seem to cover this part of the proceedings at all. It is strange that the high drama and vividness of these testimonies was not considered newsworthy.
03/07/2011 - 4:43pm
Dr. J. continues his chat with historian, novelist, and journalist Philipp Blom about his delightful history of the French philosophers of the eighteenth century, A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment. Part 2 of 2. Also includes “Pester Power” by Cory Doctorow.
03/07/2011 - 11:49am

While individual productivity has soared in areas like manufacturing and services, healthcare and education remain stubbornly stuck in the 20th century. If anything, as of late technological innovation seems to have decreased, rather than increased, wellbeing-per-dollar and education-per-dollar productivity metrics.

Aside from otherwise welcome counter-cyclical employment effects, the fact that both sectors have kept hiring people through most of the latest recession in the United States raises concerns about the long-term sustainability of their current dynamics....

03/07/2011 - 10:07am

The philosophy of mind is important for popular transhumanist topics. Many desire to accelerate the development of some sort of ‘higher consciousness’, sometimes in virtual reality. Although this issue may be approached with the most serious input of specific fields, for example cutting edge neuroscience, it is nevertheless often handled in a philosophically naïve way.

Let me first deal with higher consciousness and afterward with the simulation of consciousness in computers and gods....

03/06/2011 - 9:49pm

Robert Bradbury passed away suddenly and unexpectedly last weekend of a massive hemorrhagic stroke. His passing was the kind of thing that barely registered anywhere except among his immediate group of family and friends—and among a group of dedicated and niche scientists, futurists and technologists. For them, Bradbury’s premature passing represented a monumental blow to inspired and imaginative scientific inquiry.

While Robert Bradbury, who died at the age of 54, may not have had the most recognizable name in the various scientific communities he was involved in, his impact to future studies, and in particular its relation to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, cannot be overstated. Bradbury was a giant in this area, a creative and unconventional personality who paved the way for other like-minded thinkers and enthusiasts....

03/05/2011 - 1:37pm

Animals rescue people all the time, but not like this. Jim Eggers is a 44-year-old man who suffers from a problem that not only puts his life at risk—it jeopardizes the safety of everybody around him. But with the help of Sadie, his pet African Grey Parrot, Jim found an unlikely (and seemingly successful) way to manage his anger.