2020, or 20/20?

Near the end of 2018, He Jiankui was on the world’s stage announcing that he had edited the genome of twin girls, in the hope of making them resistant to HIV. On Tuesday, December 31, 2019, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) printed a report that Dr. He and two others have been convicted of “illegally practicing medicine related to carrying out human-embryo gene-editing intended for reproduction.” (online version here).

A court in Shenzhen concluded that the defendants had acted for “fame and profit,” when they “deliberately violated the relevant national regulations, and crossed the bottom lines of scientific and medical ethics.” For the crime committed, He received the most severe sentence. In addition to the three-year prison sentence, He is banned for life from “working in the field of reproductive life sciences and from applying for related research grants, “ according to the WSJ.

The Xinhua News Agency also noted that a third genome-edited baby had been born, and that this child, along with the previously born twins, “would be monitored by government health departments.” The WSJ did not state for how long the monitoring would continue. Not only were the children experimental subjects as embryos, but they continue to be subjects as well. Further, these genome effects will affect their progeny, potentially into perpetuity. Additionally, the Smithsonian Magazine reports that in the summer of 2019, He met with “investors to discuss a potential commercial genetic modification clinic in Hainan, which aims to become a ‘world-class medical tourism hub’.”  One might reasonably call this “a crime against humanity,” even if it does not include genocide of humans already born. (For further reading, see David Luban, “A Theory of Crimes Against Humanity”)

In the print edition of the WSJ, alongside the article on He is an article about Pastor Wang Yi of the Early Rain Covenant Church. Pastor Wang was sentenced on 30 December to nine years in prison. His crime was “incitement of subversion of state power and illegal business operations” (online article here).

Consider that a pastor receives a nine-year sentence for an offense against the State; and a scientist, a sentence of three years for a crime against multiple generations, and indeed, humanity. In the year 2020, we could use a check of our understanding of what is important in the life of the world. Would that our vision were 20/20 also.

Dementia and the value of human life

Recent public reporting of some cases in Canada of people with dementia whose lives have been ended by euthanasia have caused me to think about the value of human life in those who have dementia. Canadian law requires the person whose life is ended by euthanasia to have mental capacity for informed consent, intolerable suffering, and a foreseeable death. It was initially thought that patients with dementia would not be candidates for euthanasia under the Canadian law because of the requirement for mental capacity, but now there euthanasia providers who have concluded that there are some patients with dementia who have sufficient symptoms from their dementia to qualify as having intolerable suffering but still have adequate decision-making capacity. The discussion there has focused on whether person who is at the stage of dementia that causes intolerable suffering can still have adequate mental capacity. I have a different concern.

When we try to define intolerable suffering in the context of euthanasia it appears to mean that the person who is requesting euthanasia has decided that the effects of an illness have reached the point that the illness has made his or her life not worth living. When we talk about intolerable suffering and euthanasia the first image that comes to mind is a person with excruciating and untreatable pain, but it turns out that pain is not the most common reason for people to request euthanasia. It is more commonly requested due to a loss of control and increased dependency. This is not surprising since we live in a society that places high value on independence and autonomy. However, is independence really what makes human life worth living or is that a widely believed but untrue fiction in our society? Aren’t we all dependent? As children we are dependent upon our parents. As we go through adulthood, we are dependent on spouses and friends. As we age, we become dependent on our children and neighbors. Loss of independence makes us more clearly human, not less human. The impairments of old age, whether they be physical or mental, make it harder for us to deny our dependency, but loss of control (which is what loss of independence is) and increased dependency should not be seen as something that makes life not worth living. It draws us deeper into the relationships that are an essential part of being human.

Living with dementia is difficult for the person with dementia and for those who love and care for persons with dementia, but it does not make the life of a person who has dementia not worth living. The person with dementia is still a person who has relationships that are important, even when the one with dementia can no longer remember who those people are, because the person with this dementia is still the same person. He or she is still the mother or father, sister or brother, or friend. He or she is still a uniquely created child of God. Our response to those who feel that life is no longer worth living because of the loss of cognitive abilities and independence should be to help them understand that their lives are worth living because they are valuable to us.

Sociopaths in Medical School

The NEJM recently had an interesting article calling on medical schools to do a better job identifying students who exhibit “unprofessional behavior” before allowing them to graduate. The link for that article is HERE (subscription required). While admitting that it was difficult to consistently and reliably identify such students, the authors claimed that every medical school staff annually could likely identify one or two students “whom they would not allow to care for their family.” The article goes on to describe the barriers that prevent medical schools from accurately identifying unethical behavior in their students and some of the problems associated with trying to use the limited data that is available to delay or even prevent such a student from graduating medical school.

Going so far as to label students with unethical behavior as sociopaths is admittedly hyperbole on my part for the sake of rhetoric. In my defense, the article does touch upon the fact that there are a few physicians, presumably in every class, who commit “criminal or malicious acts”. The authors then go on to ask how we might identify these individuals before they behave “unprofessionally”, ideally before they graduate medical school. I presently have no doubt that anyone who has ever attended medical school can think of at least one person in their graduating class whom they would prevent from treating their immediate family.

I heard an excellent lecture on this issue more than 15 years ago by Dr. John Patrick, former Associate Professor of Clinical Nutrition at the University of Ottawa, who now speaks worldwide on issues of medical ethics, culture, public policy and the integration of faith and science. In speaking to a group of medical students about the need for transcendence in Hippocratic Medicine in a lecture entitled “Meaning and Purpose in Medicine”, he says about the sociopaths in their midst (beginning at 38:25 in the audio):

“…you can name them in your class already, you know who they are. You could tell me in your class the two or three people who are likely to lose their licenses for immoral or bad behavior in the future. The faculty never have a clue. You know. But you have already left Christian ethics, and loyalty dominates your class, so you don’t tell us. We find out 5 or 6 years later when they lose their license. And nothing on their university transcripts but all the students are not surprised.”

I originally wondered about the veracity of this claim so, for several years, I conducted a simple survey of the first year medical students in our local medical school. For a period of time, I was the very first clinical lecturer the students heard as they prepared for their first exam on the anatomy of the spine, just 10 days after beginning medical school. At the beginning of the lecture, I asked the students to look at me directly and, without speaking or glancing at their fellow classmates, answer the following question in their head: “After being together for the past 10 days, have any of you met at least one person in your first year class to whom you would not trust to care for someone you loved?” Invariably, over half of the class smiled, many while quickly glancing in the direction of the same one or two potential sociopaths in their class.

Why is this bioethically important? Dr. Patrick contends, and I suspect many of the readers of this blog agree, while the study of medicine is a scientific endeavor, focused on the accumulation of scientific knowledge, the practice of medicine is mainly a moral endeavor. Physicians are trying to work with their patients to help them do what they “ought” to do, as agreed upon by both the physician and patient. Such an endeavor demands mutual respect and trust so there is no place for unethical behavior on the part of the physician caring for a vulnerable patient.

Sadly, as both Dr. Patrick and the authors of the recent NEJM point out, while we are fairly adept at selecting medical students who can handle the academic rigor and have sufficient self-discipline to succeed in medical school from a knowledge standpoint, we remain woefully inadequate at assessing the ethical character of those same students to make sure they have the necessary moral integrity to actually practice medicine.

Unless that can be remedied, we should expect the continued gradual replacement of rich, lifelong, covenantal doctor-patient relationships with sterile, limited, contractural provider-client partnerships.

[I encourage readers to follow the link to Dr. Patrick’s website for a wealth of audio lectures on bioethics, culture and the integration of faith and science. Begin with the above link for “Meaning and Purpose in Medicine”]

Experimental Subjects for Life?

More than a year after the birth announcement of genome-edited babies in China, we are only slightly more informed of He Jiankui’s experimentation, the results of which are named “Lulu” and “Nana.” Although apparently approached, neither Nature nor the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) chose to publish He’s work. Antonio Regalado reported on an unpublished manuscript in “China’s CRISPR babies: Read exclusive excerpts from the unseen original research” in Technology Review on 3 December 2019. The Technology Review article includes not only excerpts of the manuscript from He, but also reactions from Stanford law professor Hank Greely; University of California—Berkeley’s gene-editing scientist Fyodor Urnov; the scientific director of Eugin assisted reproduction clinics, Rita Vassena; and reproductive endocrinologist Jeanne O’Brien, from Shady Grove Fertility.

Regalado summarizes some of the problems with Chinese experiment as follows:

 . . . key claims that He and his team made are not supported by the data; the      babies’ parents may have been under pressure to agree to join the experiment; the supposed medical benefits are dubious at best; and the researchers moved forward with creating living human beings before they fully understood the effects of the edits they had made.

Greely points out the lack of “independent evidence” of the claims made in the paper. Urnov labels the paper’s claim of reproducing the usual CCR5 variant “a deliberate falsehood,” and calls the statement about the possibility of millions being helped through embryo editing “equal parts delusional and outrageous.” O’Brien’s concerns include the possibility of coercion of the couples involved, and, noting the social stigma of HIV-positivity in China, she poses the question of whether this was a genetic fix for a social problem. Certainly, the Chinese experiment raises many questions, including how a culture views children. Are children gifts to be received or projects to be completed? Is it appropriate to subject children to experimental research because we can? One of the quotes from the paper reads, “we have made a follow-on plan to monitor the health of the twins for 18 years and hope to then reconsent for continued monitoring through adulthood.”

We would be remiss if we thought that China alone plans to remake humanity. Vassena is quoted regarding He’s study:

Unfortunately, it reads more like an experiment in search of a purpose, an    attempt to find a defensible reason to use CRISPR/Cas9 technology in human embryos at all costs, rather than a conscientious, carefully thought through, stepwise approach to editing the human genome for generations to come.  As the current scientific consensus indicates, the use of CRISPR/Cas9 in human embryos destined to give rise to a pregnancy is, at this stage, unjustified and unnecessary, and should not be pursued.

Vassena, who directs a fertility enterprise, it should be noted, appears comfortable with impacting the human genome for generations to come:  It just needs to be a “reflective” and “mindful” approach. That is chilling. Would she, or the study’s authors, or Greely, or Urnov, or O’Brien sign up to be a science experiment for the rest of their lives? I would not consent—not for myself nor for my children—no matter how “reflective” or “mindful” the researcher happened to be.

Finally, “Lulu” and “Nana” should be known as more than the results of someone’s laboratory experiment. They are human beings, not laboratory rats or cells under a microscope to be studied at the will and convenience of the experimenters.

Determining Fairness in Healthcare

The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) had a recent Perspective on proposed bill H.R. 3 aimed at reducing federal spending on prescription drugs. A main component in the bill authorizes the Secretary of Health and Human Services to establish a “Fair Price Negotiation Program” that, beginning in 2023, would permit the secretary to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies the price paid by the federal government on 25 drugs each year. The article provides a broad overview of the bill as it discusses some of the economic pros and cons as well as the political back and forth that would be required to allow this bill to become law. The link is behind a subscription firewall but provides an option for free access to a limited number of articles with registration.

Call me cynical but anytime I see the word “fair” associated with a bill in Congress, I immediately wonder “for whom?” The article is quick to point out that the “negotiation” effectively means “price regulation and severe penalty for noncompliance” by the drug manufacturers. The article describes in general the method that will be used to set the maximum price of a given drug. How or why did Congress determine that method as the best for determining the Fair Price? Also, not all drugs will be included in the group subjected to negotiation. If it is good or fair (as determined by Congress) for drug prices to be determined/set/negotiated by our government, should not all drugs be negotiated similarly so they are fairly priced?

Bills like H.R. 3 are part of the larger discussion of what I call the ultimate “Rights vs. Obligations” in the delivery of healthcare. If healthcare is a human right, who is obliged to provide that right? In the present case of medication pricing, if the present cost of a drug is too high, who is obliged to offset that cost (read – pay the difference between “too high” and “fair”)? The provision of healthcare, generally, and the creation, testing and production of medications, specifically, have real costs. Are these costs fair? Who will pay these costs? The patient? The doctor? The hospital? The pharmaceutical industry? Should healthcare be for-profit? If so, how much profit? Should healthcare become a utility with strict(er) oversight? Can the market decide a fair cost or price? Can a utility board? Can our elected representatives? How about a group of really (and I mean really) smart, unelected bureaucrats?

Thoughtful answers to any one of these questions should be submitted immediately to your local congressperson. Collectively, they are presently the ones determining fairness (in a real bioethical sense) in healthcare.

Giving thanks for life

The “bio” in bioethics means life. Although it includes other types of life the focus of bioethics is on human life. The announcement a year ago of human infants born in China after their genes had been edited has caused us to think this year about how human life should come into being.

The story in Genesis of the creation of humans tells us some things about who we are. We learn that we are created beings made from the material substance of creation with the breath of life breathed into us by God. We are made to be male and female and complement each other. When we come together in marriage, we have been given the ability to bring new human beings into the world as a result of our union as one flesh. Each new child is given to us as a gift from God. We also learn that God made us in his image so that we are intended to reflect his glory in the world we have been given to steward. That sets us apart from other created life and puts great value on every human being.

How does all this impact how we think about how we bring new human lives into the world? It means we should remember that each new child is a gift from God who should be accepted unconditionally. Children are not intended to be something we make to fulfill our own desires. Each new human being from the very beginning of his or her life has great value. It means we should hesitate to modify the genetics of a new human being to give that child the genes that we think are best. It also means that we should show great respect to any human being who is a subject of research. Human subject research can be very important, but the subjects should enter in voluntarily giving of themselves as a gift to others. When we do research on human beings who are not able to volunteer, the research should cause no more than minimal harm. We should not see human embryos as a disposable resource for research.

As our family travels to our home to celebrate Thanksgiving together this year, I am thankful for each of their lives. I am thankful for my parents who brought me into this world and nurtured me both physically and spiritually. I am thankful for my wife whom God has given to me as a faithful partner and the children God gave to us. I am thankful for the spouses God gave to them and the children they have been given. Above all I am thankful to the God who gives us life.

Assisted Suicide and Disability

On October 9th, the National Council on Disability (NCD) released a report on the dangers of assisted suicide laws as they relate to persons with disabilities. The report provides a nice background on the history and justification of the Council’s position against assisted suicide as far back as 1997. The present report, available here, provides an update on its rationale for its continued opposition to assisted suicide laws. The report, and its references, provide an excellent resource for those of us who argue against assisted suicide regardless of the presence or absence of a disability.

Eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized assisted suicide in some form since Oregon led the way in 1994. Additionally, while lacking a specific assisted suicide statute, a state supreme court decision in Montana in 2009 is believed to provide a defense for physicians who practice assisted suicide. Oregon has provided the statutory framework for existing assisted suicide laws as well as proposed or pending legislation in states moving in this direction. As a result, every state where assisted suicide is legal claims that a primary need for the law is to preserve a person’s dignity, a claim that NCD finds particularly troublesome for people with disability:

The idea that hastened death is a pathway to dignity for people facing physical decline reveals the public’s extreme disparagement of functional limitations and a perception that “dignity” is not possible for people who rely on supports, technology, or caregivers to be independent or alive. Many hold the attitude that a person with a disability may be better off dead than alive.

Assisted suicide is often the cheapest “treatment” for many chronic medical problems affecting those with disability, a fact not lost on those responsible for state Medicaid budgets. NCD provided example after example of patients in Oregon who were denied treatment for their chronic or terminal medical care only to be offered coverage for assisted suicide within the same denial letter. Such crass efficiency was too much even for California, who in 2015, passed a law correcting this behavior: “[a]ny [insurance carrier] communication shall not include both the denial of treatment and information as to the availability of aid-in-dying drug coverage.” Many patients or their physicians eventually were provided the information on assisted suicide by the very same insurance carrier in a follow-up phone call.

Another major issue discussed within the NCD report was the relationship of depression and suicidal ideation in patients with a new disability:

Research overwhelmingly shows that people with new disabilities frequently go through initial despondency and suicidal feelings, but later adapt well and find great satisfaction in their lives. However, adaptation takes considerably longer than the mere 15-day waiting period required by Oregon-model assisted suicide laws.

Perhaps the most persistent concern by NCD since 1997 continues to be “the major gap between informing the patient of alternative options [such as palliative care programs and long term-term services/supports] and those alternatives actually being available and provided.” All statutes legalizing assisted suicide include provisions that require a full explanation of all of the programs, resources, and options available to assist the patient if he or she does not decide to pursue suicide. However:

Many people with disabilities find this to be a very shallow promise when they know that all too often the programs are too few, the resources are too limited, and the options . . . often nonexistent.

The concerns articulated in the NCD report warning of the dangers of assisted suicide apply just as forcefully for those without disability. We should join their efforts to educate law makers on a better way forward without assisted suicide.

“Why did you make me this way?!”

Recently, Jon Holmlund brought us up to date on an effort in Russia to proceed with CRISPR gene editing aimed at eliminating deafness. Coincidently, a recent MedPage article was posted regarding the ethics of using pre-implantation genetic diagnosis and IVF to purposefully select FOR an embryo with genetic deafness for a couple, both of whom were deaf. Both links discuss some of the ethical problems with using medical reproductive and genetic technology for these purposes. While we presently lack the ability to use polygene scoring to accurately “produce” the babies we want, I want to use the remainder of today’s blog to consider what obligations, if any, a genetic engineer (or parents that use their skills) may have toward future children designed using these growing array of genetic technologies.

Deafness seems to me to be rather curious in that it is considered either a serious disability or a desirable trait, depending upon your cultural worldview. No one in any culture would purposefully select for cystic fibrosis or Tay-Sachs diseases for their child. In fact, most want to use medical reproductive and genetic technologies to eliminate these diseases. On the other end of the genetic trait spectrum, some parents want to use these same technologies to purposefully select for more trivial traits for their children – hair and eye color, for instance. Given the triviality of these traits, I hear no one mounting an effort to genetically eliminate any particular hair and eye color. Perhaps I am living a sheltered life?

Nonetheless, with regard to deafness, prior to the promises of our new reproductive technologies, if you were born deaf and did not like it, you could only shake your fist at God or Nature. Now (or very soon), you can shake your fist directly at another human, such as your regional genetic engineer (or your parents who purposefully used her technological skills) and demand a direct answer as to why they purposefully made (or did not make) you deaf. Maybe this angst will be more widespread for the many more trivial traits such as eye or hair color rather than something more significant like deafness?

Building a child is about to become much harder for parents as they become directly responsible for both interior (genetic illnesses) and exterior (hair and eye color) design issues.

“Why DID you make me this way?!”

“Why did YOU make me this way?!”

I wonder how many genetic designers (or the parents that will ultimately bear the direct responsibility for having used the technology) really want that type of responsibility?

Is there already fine print in PGD-IVF contracts holding the doctors/scientists/geneticists harmless for the choices the parents make?

I can’t wait for the late night TV commercials: “Were you born with brown eyes and feel emotionally scarred because you have always wanted blue? Call our law offices as you may be entitled to financial compensation …”

Humanoid Mass Production

Henry Ford would be proud.

We now have the ability to mass produce humanoids, embryonic cells derived from human embryonic stem cells or induced pluripotent stem cells (the latter can be made from adult cells). These cells are specifically designed by researchers to have some but not all of the necessary elements to be fully human. The goal is to grow these humanoids beyond the current 14-day limitation imposed on research studies on human embryos that ARE fully human.  In theory, these humanoids are physiologically similar enough to humans that by observing their growth and development, scientists hope to learn about human development. By design, the claim is that humanoids are different enough from humans that they would not/could not /should not live outside the Petri Dish. The original report in Nature may be found here.

I use the Henry Ford analogy on purpose. He revolutionized the automobile industry by standardizing the manufacturing process such that less skilled laborers could sequentially assemble an automobile. This allowed the cars to be built faster, at higher volume and far less expensively. Previously, higher skilled craftsmen machined each unique part for each unique car. Though the cars looked the same, their parts were not interchangeable. The process was painstakingly slow, resulting in a very low production volume at a very high price. With mass production, cars became far more common,  much less expensive and, to some extent, disposable.

Moving toward a standardized “mass production” process will have the same effects for humanoid production. Standardizing the manufacturing process will reduce the variance of a given humanoid, making the scientific study of its growth more reliable, reproducible and less expensive, all good things from a scientific standpoint. Will it also cause us to view the humanoids as more disposable?

I continue to want more discussion on the moral status of humanoids before more experimentation is permitted, particularly as we extend their lifespans. Whatever they are, at minimum, they are living entities.  Humanoids must be more than the sum total of their individual cells otherwise we humans would not have so much interest in their development. How human-like does a humanoid have to be before we should consider additional human-like moral/ethical protection in humanoid experimentation?

Or their mass production?

“Velvet Eugenics”

Human Flourishing in an Age of Gene Editing is a new collection of essays, edited by Erik Parens and Josephine Johnson.  In the introduction, the editors explain they are concerned with “nonphysical harms” of human gene editing.  That is, these harms would not affect bodily systems, but harm “people’s psyches…[their] experiences of being persons,” and could impair human flourishing.  These harms could be incurred not only by gene editing but also by use of other “reprogenic” technologies such as preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) and prenatal diagnosis.

Your correspondent has just begun to read this collection.  In the first entry, “Welcoming the Unexpected,” bioethicist Rosemarie Garland-Thomson of Emory University, takes the view that flourishing is not a matter of proximity to some ideal of health or human excellence, but is, for each person, a growing into expression of that person’s unique capabilities.  Accordingly, rather than embrace a project of eliminating disabilities, society should work to make the environment more welcoming to people with those conditions—many of which, after all, need not impair a person’s ability to live a life of happiness and contribution to others.  Communities have an obligation, she says, “to support the distinctiveness of its members according to the egalitarian principles of justice, liberty, and equality,” and “build environments that…support the widest spectrum of embodiments…in which human embodied existence can successfully thrive as it is.”  Put another way, we should not be building a regime in which we are deciding what sort of people we will allow to be born, but we should be ready to welcome and embrace the ones who are.  In this, Professor Garland-Thomson sounds a “caution against an aggressive normalization imperative…an outlook of humility about the human capacity to control future circumstances through present action…against the arrogance of [what one writer called] ‘the danger of a single story.'”

We should, she writes, adopt a stance of “growing” rather than “making” human beings, and “reconsider the logic of a velvet eugenics that would standardize human variation in the interest of individual, market-driven liberty and at the expense of social justice and the common good.”  In this, she embraces the argument of contemporary German philosopher Jurgen Habermas that rejects “a liberal eugenics regulated by supply and demand.”  One can be forgiven for hearing in this an echo of C.S. Lewis’s worries about “conditioners” in The Abolition of Man.

This is set in the author’s description of her ongoing friendship with three other women, all, like her, married PhD’s who like good wine, good food, and are amply supported by technology and community.  One of her friends is congenitally deaf, another has hereditary blindness, the third has a genetic muscular condition, and the author herself was born with what is now called “complicated ectodactyly,” with “asymmetric unusual hands and forearms.”  The sort of thing your correspondent understands the Chinese to be trying to eliminate through the use of PGD.

A remarkable essay to lead off a collection that appears worthy of careful consideration.