“Are you my mummy?”*: Diverse notions of “motherhood” in the IVF era

Back in autumn 2017, I was asked to be a contributor at the Edinburgh Biomedical Ethics Film Festival on the Ethics of Surrogacy. As part of the weekend we watched the 2016 documentary Future Baby, and the 1990 film version of The Handmaid’s Tale.

It was during my preparation for that event that I found myself ruminating on the diverse tasks that constitute being a mother. The anniversary of IVF brings this back into my thoughts.

There are, in essence, three contributions that a mother would naturally make:

  • producing the egg which provides half of the chromosomes for the resulting child (plus nutrients and some other genetic material via the mitochondria),
  • offering the womb in which the baby will develop (whilst receiving both nutrition and epigenetic influence on gene expression), and
  • caring for the infant after birth, and as they grow on to eventually attain their own independence.
motherhood too

Motherhood can now be subdivided into different roles (cartoon inspired by Morparia original)

These phases could be summarised as the genetic, the gestational and the nurturing dimensions of motherhood (the term “social” is sometimes used in the literature to cover this third category, but I prefer to the notion of nurture). Continue reading

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Can “Synths” and “Posthumans” have Human Rights?

In the recently-finished third season of the intelligent drama Humans [spoiler alert…], the government has set up a Commission under the chairmanship of Lord Dryden to consider the legal status of synthetic robots (Synths). These creatures had become conscious at the end of the previous series (if you want to know more, I do recommend that you watch the box set).

chan

Mia (Gemma Chan) is a central character in the first three seasons of Humans

Against that backdrop, I was especially interested to read a new paper in the Medical Law Review by David Lawrence and Margaret Brazier. Legally Human? ‘Novel Beings’ and English Law considers ways in which the European Convention on Human Rights and English case law might be brought to bear on the legal status of human-like creatures. The authors favour the description of such beings as “sapient” rather than the more common “sentient”, not least as sentience was famously used by philosopher Jeremy Bentham as justification for broadening protection from suffering to non-human animals.

legallyhuman

Lawrence and Brazier examine three types of entity whose production is scientifically-plausible using existing technologies (whilst acknowledging that other methods might emerge in the future). These creatures are: Continue reading

What characterises “quality” in ethics education?

I recently read Ercan Avci‘s 2017 paper Learning from experiences to determine quality in ethics education (International Journal of Ethics Education 2:3-16). Avci, from Duquesne University, conducted a literature review looking for shared characteristics in peer-reviewed, full text articles with “ethics education”, “ethics teaching” or “ethics learning” in the title and “ethics” or “ethics education” in the keywords during the period 2010-2015 (which the author describes as the “the last five years”, though it looks like six years to me). A total of 34 papers were examined, drawn from 11 academic disciplines and 10 countries (plus 3 international studies). As one might anticipate, the USA was the most represented geographical context, and healthcare (Nursing, Medicine, etc) was the discipline with the highest number of studies. I was a little surprised to see that none of the reports were from the UK.

As the author himself points out, this is a rather eclectic mix of settings. This might be spun either as an advantage (e.g. capturing diversity) or as a limitation (when it comes to drawing universal lessons). Notwithstanding these issues, Avci makes a number of important observations, some of which resonate with my own experience (e.g. see the Notes for the Tutor section, p16 onwards, in my contribution to the 2011 book Effective Learning in the Life Sciences).

AVCI

Taking a step back, there is an initial question before examining the quality of any ethics programme, namely is ethics being taught at all? It is apparent that many courses – even in Medicine, even in the States – do not include a formal ethics component. However, a broad range of subjects are now including some ethics in their teaching. Continue reading

Stroke and Personhood

fasttooTV viewers in the UK will likely have noted that the Public Health England “Act F.A.S.T.” adverts promoting stroke awareness are back on our screens. The campaign has run periodically since 2009* and emphasises the importance of knowing the signs that someone is having a stroke – Face (has their face fallen on one side?), Arms (can they raise both arms and keep them there?), Speech (is their speech slurred?), Time to call 999.

The campaign has evolved over the years. For example, a broader ethnic range of characters experiencing stroke was introduced in 2014.

This year there has been a highly significant additional change. Did you spot it? The final tag line for the advert has been altered from “The faster you act, the more of the person you save” to  “The faster you act, the better their chances“.

The change is subtle, but hugely important. The previous version reinforces a perception that someone who has suffered a stroke is somehow less human they were before. This is ableist and reflect a view of personhood that considers, albeit unintentionally, someone with a disability as less of a person than those who are able-bodied. I welcome this change and congratulate Public Health England for correcting this error.

 

*Official analysis of the impact of the Act F.A.S.T. campaign has been mixed. In 2012 the government reported an increase in stroke-related calls to the 999 emergency number,  however a qualitative study published the following year was more sceptical (see  Dombrowski et al (2013) BMC Public Health 13:915).

 

Review of Neurolaw text

neuroloaw1b.jpgThe October 2016 edition of the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics has a special focus on Clinical Neuroethics. It contains a review of my Neurolaw book Biological Determinism, Free Will and Moral Responsibility: Insights from genetics and neuroscience.

I’m thrilled that the review is hugely positive about the book. Quotable quotes include:

  • “…a very accessible explanation of the need to reconsider notions of free will and moral responsibility in an age of scientific breakthroughs in genomics and brain science…”
  • “…an insightful philosophical account of the apparent stand-off between free will and the evidence of determinism…”
  • “…a remarkably lucid account of the relevance of science for the debate on free will and determinism…”
  • “…an impressive prudential approach, balancing the reliability of scientific achievement with caution about its applicability to criminal courts…”
  • “…an extraordinary resource for engaging moral responsibility in the age of genetics and neuroscience…”.

“My brain made me do it”: are we ready for more Neurolaw?

I’m excited to say that my book Biological Determinism, Free Will and Moral Responsibility: Insights from Genetics and Neuroscience is being published this week.

determinism cover

There are 5 chapters, in which I have attempted to pull together threads from moral philosophy, from law and from neuroscience to examine the growth of Neurolaw. Around the world, notably the USA and Italy, an increasing number of defendants are appealing to their genes or issues with the structure and function of their brain as mitigation for their crimes. To what extent should we allow this, now or in the future?

Chapter summaries:

  • Free will and determinism: an overview of some of the main schools of thought regarding the “free will problem” – Libertarianism, Compatibilism and Hard Determinism.
  • Existing legislation on mental disorders and criminal cases: automatism, criminal liability, diminished responsibility, “disease of the mind”, insanity, mens rea and M’Naghten.
  • Biological basis of behaviour: background on behavioural genetics and the use of various brain imaging techniques to investigate the extent to which our behaviour might be “hard wired”.
  • Use of genetic and neuroscientific evidence in criminal cases: a brief history of neurolaw. Summarises many of the key cases in which scientific evidence has been proffered by in criminal cases as (partial) justification of the behaviour of the defendant.
  • Are we ready for an expanded use of neuroscientific evidence in the courtroom?: In which I caution that the current use of genetic and brain physiology evidence is, at best, premature and uncertain.

More on “Headline Bioethics Commentaries”

Following on from last week’s post about our Headline Bioethics project, here is a poster about the assignment and repurposing which I presented at the University of Leicester Learning and Teaching conference on January 10th. The poster is shown here, with a pdf version avialable via this link.

HeadlineBioethicsJan13

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