Veil of Ignorance and Unrestricted Abortion

As a Christian, it seems to me that the most logically consistent application of justice is based upon the belief that all human beings bear the image of God, the imago Dei, and as bearers of the image, have equal human dignity, deserving of equal and just treatment by others, both morally and legally, regardless of our varying human attributes (as expounded here at page 163). I realize that not all human beings believe in this God so their systems of justice naturally differ from mine. Resolving conflicting understandings of justice is what makes the intersection of law and bioethics challenging. Currently, nowhere is this conflict so challenging as in the issue of unrestricted, elective abortion.

One such differing theory of justice is by the late John Rawls, in his 1971 Theory of Justice. Briefly, Rawls conceived arriving rationally at a theory of justice by conducting a thought experiment whereby rational persons would determine justice by conceiving it from an “Original Position” behind what he termed a “Veil of Ignorance”. At this Original Position, no one knows what eventual position they would subsequently hold in society, including wealth, health, class, education, minority status, religion and sex/gender. Since justice would be determined prior to one’s random subsequent placement in society, no decision from behind the Veil of Ignorance within the Original Position ought to favor one classification over another because no one would know in advance into what classification one might fall. No one religion would be favored since one might not believe in that religion or any religion at all. No one racial group or sex/gender would be favored since one might not be included in that group or sex/gender.

So what does the Theory of Justice have to say about elective abortion? Interestingly, Rawls himself only wrote once parenthetically on the subject of abortion as it pertained to his theory. It was a very brief footnote in support of abortion, unfortunately not a rigorous defense. As one might expect, different people have used Rawls’s theory to support or refute abortion. I have included links to two such example position papers (RawlsAbortionPro and RawlsAbortionCon). Both of these papers (and others like them) hinge on whether or not one believes the embryo or fetus has sufficient “personhood” or “moral potential”, qualifications that are indeterminate from within the Theory of Justice. Facts are preferred to beliefs when rationalizing from the Original Position behind the Veil of Ignorance, since one does not know in advance what one might believe once subsequently existing in society. Are there any facts that one might use from the Original Position to consider the Rawlsian justice of abortion regardless of one’s beliefs about personhood or moral status of the unborn?

Consider the following: EVERY actual human being invited by Rawls to step with him behind the Veil of Ignorance into the Original Position to determine justice MUST have already passed from conception through the stages of embryo, fetus, newborn infant and immature youth before reaching that nebulous stage of human development called personhood in order to receive the coveted invitation. For the sake of argument, let’s grant that Rawls only wanted the philosopher-kings, IQs above 180, possessors of the apex of personhood, Harvard, not Yale, to join him behind the Veil. Would any of these persons reasoning from the Original Position permit unrestricted, elective abortion of an otherwise healthy unborn human, given that the unborn human aborted might be one of them? The beliefs about the personhood or moral status of any of the earlier stages of development prior to personhood of these great thinkers are irrelevant. What is factually relevant is that all of these great thinkers must each pass through all these stages of development before achieving personhood. None would, from that Original Position, choose unrestricted, elective abortion of themselves to be a just outcome, simply because death has to be the worst of all social categories in which to land after leaving the Original Position. Or is that just my belief?

Treating all humans as equal image bearers of God regardless of any other human characteristics we might possess seems to me a better basis for a theory of justice than one rationally designed by our best and brightest fellow humans. Living that out is the real challenge.

Baseball Statistics, Racism and 23andMe

I enjoy watching baseball on TV or even listening to a game on the radio. I am amused by the discussions of the announcers, usually around the 8th or 9th inning, particularly when the result of the game is already decided due to a lopsided score. The announcers begin doling out complex baseball statistics. As a former math and engineering student in college, I find this part of the game fascinating.

“Well John, I think this may be the first time Cincinnati Reds player Yasiel Puig has ever been involved in a late-game brawl with the entire Pittsburgh Pirates bench so soon after being traded to the Cleveland Indians earlier during tonight’s game and just 14 days after a Full Moon to boot.”

In baseball, as in life, if you specify an event in sufficient detail with enough variables, you are accurately characterizing that unique event. Some diehard baseball fans argue that with enough baseball statistics, the predictability of the outcome of any future game will become trivial.

In blog-related news, the New England Journal of Medicine recently had two thought-provoking “Perspective” opinion pieces dealing with racism in medicine. The first by medical student D.W. Paul, Jr. is entitled Ghosts of Our Collective Subconscious – What Blackface in a Yearbook Photo Means for Medical Education and the second by Dr. Tara Vijayan entitled ”Browner” – Creating Narratives of Race. Both are unfortunately available by subscription only. Among other things, both articles point out the obvious problems that occur when we reflexively categorize individuals by a single variable – such as one’s skin color – and attempt to predict current or future reality by that single variable. Habitually trivializing people in this manner results in prejudice, bias and bigotry.

This would never happen in baseball. For instance, I have yet to hear the following from an announcer:

“Well John, looking at the stat sheet on this next relief pitcher for the Pirates, it just says he’s white. For our radio listeners, from where I’m sitting, I must say our statisticians have nailed it as he is one of the whitest relief pitchers I’ve ever seen”.

I can promise you that when Yasiel Puig steps up to the plate, he doesn’t care about that relief pitcher’s skin color. He is far more concerned about the speed of his fast ball or the spin rate of his curve ball.

Enter 23andMe (or similar service). For the first time, the average person can send in a sample of saliva and get back a detailed DNA graph and report revealing the multiple countries of origin of their great grandparents and beyond. Having readily available DNA information may not be completely without its problems, and this blog has touched on some of these in past postings. However, one benefit of this technology may well be to convince people that we are a kaleidoscope of genetic material, much more complex, and far more interrelated, than our skin color alone would suggest.

If we are not going to treat our neighbors with the respect and dignity due unique image bearers of God, let us at least stop treating them as if they have only one variable worth considering – the color of their skin – and begin treating them like they have complex baseball statistics. Maybe then we will more accurately describe them, and, in doing so, perhaps better understand and appreciate them.

We should start now and not wait until the 9th inning.

Should Abortion be a Trivial Event?

A recent NEJM Perspective by Drs. Jane Henney and Helene Gayle is calling for reduction in the current restrictions on Mifepristone, previously better known as RU-486. Mifepristone, a progesterone blocker, which effectively opens the cervix of the uterus, when combined with misoprostol, which promotes contractions of the uterus, forms the two-pill combination marketed as Plan C – an effective, safe, self-administered home medical abortion. Arguing that the drug has been shown to be far safer than originally thought, and because many US women are accessing foreign internet sources of potentially suspect quality Mifepristone, Drs. Henney and Gayle are encouraging the FDA to make the drug available from regular US pharmacies rather than at special medical/surgical clinics from a restricted set of doctors as it is presently distributed.

At the time of its initial FDA approval in 2000, it was unknown whether mifepristone would have a high risk of excessive bleeding or incomplete abortions so it was approved under FDA Subsection H, which required that the drug be dispensed directly from a physician (rather than a pharmacy) who can provide blood transfusion or surgical abortion. Drs. Henney and Gayle argue that numerous studies since 2000 support that this level of restriction is unnecessary. This is not to say that the risks of Mifepristone are zero but rather, as one of their arguments goes, there are many other medications available from a pharmacy via prescription that have higher risks so why single out Mifepristone? They are not specifically calling for the medication to become “over-the-counter” (meaning available without prescription) but they list other countries where this is the case.

Their concern about the ease of obtaining Mifepristone (or Plan C) over the Internet is not exaggerated. A quick search of the Internet shows one advocate website called plancpills.org providing a report card where their own secret shoppers grade various Internet sites offering Mifepristone for sale. Another popular site called AidAccess.org offers an informative video, telemedicine consultation as well as foreign sourced Mifepristone and this site is presently one of the least expensive sources of the drug.

One of the statistics offered in support of abortion, especially medication-based abortion such as Plan C, is that these processes are safer for women from a morbidity and mortality standpoint than actually being pregnant, particularly the labor and delivery of birthing a baby. Of course, it (always) goes without saying that the same processes are nearly universally fatal for the baby. But, for arguments where the morbidity and mortality of the child are excluded, abortion, particularly medication-based abortion, has become a relatively safe process.

I have no doubt that the present restrictions by the FDA on access to Mifepristone will be reduced for the reasons Drs. Henney and Gayle have provided, perhaps eventually to point of making Plan C available over the counter.

Abortion is becoming a trivial event.

Abortion kills a human being.

Killing a human being should not become a trivial event.

Good from Evil

I was given an article by a student of mine following his one month elective rotation with me in which we spent some clinical time discussing bioethical issues. The May 2019 web article by Sharon Begley from Statnews.com had to do with an interesting medical dilemma first presented in 2016 by Dr. Susan Mackinnon from Washington University in St. Louis. I have briefly summarized Begley’s article in the first part of today’s blog and extended her point at the end.

Dr. Mackinnon had a patient who was having severe leg pain following multiple knee surgeries. Dr Mackinnon was providing the final surgical attempt to isolate the nerve presumably being compressed by scar tissue in hopes of surgically decompressing that nerve to permanently relieve the patient’s severe pain. If the surgery was not successful, the only other option at that point was to amputate the leg. During the surgery, she used an old anatomy book called The Pernkopf Topographic Anatomy of Man, which unambiguously has the best illustrations of nerves around the knee, and successfully located and decompressed the nerve in question and successfully avoided an amputation.

So, what was the dilemma?

As Begley points out in her article, it came to light in the mid-1980s that the illustrations used in the Pernkopf atlas were based in part on the bodies of people executed by the Nazis in the late 1930s. The moral dilemma for Dr. Mackinnon was therefore:

“…even now, the Pernkopf illustrations are unsurpassed in their accuracy and detail, especially their depiction of peripheral nerves…and although a few journal papers may have an equally good, single illustrations, finding the right paper takes time that Mackinnon did not have as she stood over her patient.”

Dr. Mackinnon had been given the Pernkopf atlas as a graduation gift in 1982 but the Nazi history behind the atlas was not known until the mid-to-late 1980s, the full history of which only became known to her after the surgery. Should she continue to use an atlas that contains illustrations of the bodies of people executed by the Nazis? If used, is there a duty to inform a current patient about the nature of the atlas? Can sufficient good be derived from the atlas given the unspeakable evil required to create it to permit its ongoing use?

She posed her dilemma to Rabbi Joseph Polak, the Chief Justice of the Rabbinical Court of Massachusetts, who consulted Prof. Michael Grodin of the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies at Boston University. Their opinion became known as the Vienna Protocol, due to the origins of the Pernkopf atlas. Their response may be found in this link, which I believe is better read in the full context of the Vienna Protocol than summarized by your humble blogger. For those of you who must read the opinion before reading the entire protocol, please follow the link and scroll to the 4th to last page at number 12 in section C entitled “The Protocol and Recommendations”.

The evil that created the Pernkopf atlas was the Nazi occupation of and executions that occurred in Austria during World War II. It is no longer occurring. No one in the present is suggesting that we resume executing people to gain more anatomic drawings to complete additional volumes of the atlas. Any good resulting from the current use of the atlas isn’t being offset by any ongoing evil of creating more atlas. The evil of the Pernkopf atlas is contained in the past and, in that sense, finite. Containing the evil seems to be a necessary step in obtaining good from that evil.

I mention this in closing as I believe there are current analogies of activities performed in the name of scientific good where we condone ongoing evil. Studying fertilized ova until sacrificing them on Day 14 (an evil) in the name of learning about human reproduction (a good) is one modern day example. In Vitro Fertilization done to obtain a healthy baby with genetic traits we want (a good) that results in the death(s) of other fertilized eggs we don’t want (an evil) is another. There are other examples we have discussed within this blog. I believe we need to contain and hopefully discontinue these and other practices if we want to claim the information we gain can honestly be called good.

Defense of Abortion as Killing

It is rare to hear a defender of abortion plainly admit that the act of abortion is killing. So, I was curious as to how such an individual would defend that killing. Dr. Sophie Lewis has recently done so in her new book, Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family. The publisher, Versa Books, has put out a short YouTube video interview, where she outlines her “abortion as killing” defense. The video is just over 2 minutes and she articulates her point clearly. While I have not read her new book, summaries from the publisher suggest the overarching theme is that pregnancy is “gestational work” done by women without appropriate compensation (permission, time, money, recognition…), resulting in their exploitation. Pregnancy (and procreation in general) ought best be done by willing “gestational workers” with clearly defined contractual obligations and recompense. Surrogacy is the answer. There is much to unpack here so I want to focus the remaining blog entry on her defense of abortion as killing as stated in her linked video above.

Her central defense of abortion as killing is as follows:

…looking at the biology of the hemochorial placentation helps me think about the violence that, innocently, a fetus meets out vis-a-vis a gestator. That violence is an unacceptable violence for someone who doesn’t want to do gestational work. The violence that the gestator meets out to essentially go on strike or exit that workplace is an acceptable violence.

The gestator going on strike or exiting the gestational workplace is the act of abortion. In her view, pregnancy is gestational work that can result in workplace violence or, at least, unacceptable work conditions that exceed those previously agreed upon. At that point, Dr. Lewis believes it should be permissible for any woman to leave the workplace, even though that exit causes an ultimate violence to the fetus – the killing of that fetus. She holds the placental attachment to the uterus as a sufficiently biologically violent condition that should permit a biologically violent defensive reponse with the abortion.

It is hard to make these acts either biologically or morally equivalent. Biologically, there is nothing violent about a placenta developing an attachment to a uterus. In fact, using Dr. Lewis’s workplace metaphor, it is the job of the placenta to attach to the lining of the uterus and it is the job of the uterus to receive such an attachment – it is what both were designed or evolved to do. Even if we accept her workplace violence metaphor, it is rare for the violence of the placental attachment to the uterus to result in the death of the mother just as it is equally rare for the violence of the abortion NOT to result in the death of the fetus. These are hardly biologically equivalent events.

Morally, it is hard to argue, even in her terms, that the mother’s choice to terminate gestational work is equivalent to the baby’s placental attachment, even if we grant her claim that both are equally violent. The mother always has the choice in deciding to terminate the pregnancy – the fetus never has a choice or intentional control of the placental attachment process at any point during the pregnancy. After all, intentional choices are made by persons not fetuses. I doubt that Dr. Lewis wishes to cede further moral ground by granting personhood to a fetus.

Maybe that is why Dr. Lewis stipulates that the baby’s violence is innocent. Frankly, the obvious innocence of the baby makes it even harder, if not impossible, to morally justify the violence she desires us to find acceptable.

Oh, Those Darned Terms (Part 3)

It is hard to keep a good theme down as terminology is back in the news. It seems National Public Radio (NPR) is concerned about proper terminology as a recent “Guidance Reminder: On Abortion Procedures, Terminology & Rights” post by NPR Standards and Practices Editor Mark Memmott on NPR.com suggests. This link is one of periodic commentaries by Memmott on standards expected by journalists at NPR based upon their Ethics Handbook, which is also available on their website. The stated goal of the Ethics Handbook and the periodic commentaries is to be as accurate and unbiased as possible with reporting at NPR, which is obviously an appropriate goal in reporting the news, particularly potentially controversial topics. Read Memmott’s commentary link and see if you think NPR is meeting that goal.

I think there is room for improvement.

For one thing, while there is an appropriate “We-They” throughout the article describing NPR’s word choice versus the word choice of groups favoring “anti-abortion rights” (approved term), I failed to find a similar “We-They” within the article describing NPR’s word choice versus the word choice of groups favoring “pro-abortion rights” (not approved term). Perhaps I missed it?

Additionally, NPR favors the term “fetus” over the term “unborn”, despite the fact that fetus means “unborn offspring of an animal” per Wikipedia or “unborn or unhatched vertebrate” per Merriam-Webster. The Latin sounds more accurate but fewer people are speaking Latin these days. Nonetheless, NPR believes that “[i]ncorrectly calling a fetus a ‘baby’ or ‘the unborn’ is part of the strategy used by antiabortion groups to shift language/legality/public opinion.” I wonder if the Mayo Clinic realizes their interchangeable use of the terms “fetus” and “baby” on their fetal ultrasound web page is not only incorrect but places them squarely in the antiabortion movement trying to shift language/legality/public opinion?

Finally, NPR does not like to use the term “abortion clinics” but rather “medical or heath clinics that perform abortions”. That may indeed be more accurate but why stop there? Why not list all the procedures that a specified medical clinic performs, including the total number of each of the procedures performed, and let the reader decide how he or she wishes to categorize that particular clinic?

It is wrong to purposely select terms feigning accuracy so as to appear unbiased, particularly if the goal is to bias by use of those very same terms.

When should physicians provide a good death?

A recent New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) Perspective by Deborah Denno, Ph.D., J.D., entitled “Physician Participation in Lethal Injection” (subscription or limited free access required) discussed physician involvement in state-sanctioned capital punishment by lethal injection. Some of the arguments for physician involvement in euthanasia (“a good death”) or Physician-Assisted Suicide (PAS) would seem to apply to some degree to lethal injection and is the subject of this blog entry.

For those without access, the article explored a recent Supreme Court rejection in Bucklew v. Precythe of a Missouri death row inmate’s appeal for protection from lethal injection under the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment”. In short, Russell Bucklew has a rare vascular condition making venous access both difficult and potentially more painful to use lethal injection as the means to execute him. It was argued that his medical condition necessitated at least medical training to guide the injection process, if not actual physician/surgeon training, such as possessed by an anesthesiologist, to provide the actual vein access for the lethal injection. In rejecting his appeal, the Court responded, in part, “the Eighth Amendment does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death – something that isn’t guaranteed to many people, including most victims of capital crimes.” The Court added that methods prohibited are those that “superadd terror, pain or disgrace to their executions”, though as the article points out, the Court does not specify as to how to test those limits, and left unanswered whether physician involvement was legally required to guarantee satisfaction of the Eighth Amendment.

The article discusses the fact that national medical associations generally strongly discourage their members from providing guidance for lethal injection. The American Medical Association’s (AMA’s) own amicus brief for the case listed above states that the AMA opposes capital punishment. The American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA) takes a similar position opposing participation of its members in lethal injection. Both the AMA and the ASA agree that capital punishment is not the practice of medicine and the ASA goes further to challenge the Court to look elsewhere for any lethal injection skills.

Interestingly, both organizations are less precise on their position regarding physician involvement in euthanasia or PAS. The AMA sees PAS as causing “more harm than good”. The ASA has no official published position on PAS that I could find on their website. Their Statement on Palliative Care does not mention euthanasia or PAS. This is important, as there is a growing demand for physician involvement in euthanasia/PAS, the implication being that there is additional benefit with physician involvement in achieving a good death.

For the record, I have always believed that physicians are uniquely the worst choice for killing people under any circumstance as our training universally focuses on honing skills that avoid causing death to our patients. We are effectively trained at not killing and would therefore provide dysthanasia – a bad death. But, perhaps, I am mistaken. There is growing demand to involve physicians in actively and purposefully killing their patients, with many holding the contrary belief that physicians uniquely have the best skill set to provide for euthanasia – a good death.

So, even though Russell Bucklew failed to make a successful legal case for physician involvement in lethal injection, did he make a sufficient moral case? If physicians and their unique skills are necessary for euthanasia/PAS, are they not equally necessary for state-sanctioned execution, particularly given that the latter involves the non-voluntary death of an individual who is guaranteed Eighth Amendment protections, and especially given our inability to provide any scientific evidence that we are satisfying those protections?

If physicians really are the best at providing euthanasia, doesn’t moral justice demand we require a physician to similarly provide a good, physician-assisted, state-sanctioned, death (PASSD) despite the stated objections of the AMA and ASA? Anything less arguably opens the door for adding “terror, pain or disgrace” to the execution.

Measles: When does Screening, Quarantining and/or Vaccination become Mandatory?

As this linked PBS NewsHour interview between Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Judy Woodruff reports, the number of new cases of measles in the US has reached nearly 700, which is the highest number of new cases since measles was supposedly eliminated in 2000. The video is short and provides a quick review of the current causes of the outbreak and suggested steps one can take to mitigate future personal and family risks of contracting the disease. The reason for this being the subject of this bioethics blog is to touch on the ethical tensions between personal autonomy and utilitarian public health calculations regarding the recent measles outbreak.

So what is the problem with getting measles in the first place? Measles is a highly contagious viral respiratory disease. Simply being in the same room with someone with the disease can lead to becoming infected. In its milder form, the disease results in fever, runny nose, ear infection and a classic spotted red skin rash. In its more severe form, it can cause a severe pneumonia requiring hospitalization, deafness, lifelong brain damage and even death. Children under 5 years of age are at particular risk. A common two-stage vaccine called MMR is available that successfully immunizes 97% of those that receive it. It is given at age one and again around age 5.

The benefits of the immunization are two-fold. The first is direct personal protection against contracting the disease if you receive the vaccination and are one of the 97% of individuals who gain future immunity against the measles virus. The second is something called herd immunity. If enough people are immunized (experts estimate “enough” to be between 95-97% of the population), then even people who cannot be immunized, such as infants less than one year of age or individuals whose immune systems are compromised, are still somewhat protected from contracting the disease. This is because new measles cases from “outside the herd” are severely limited in their ability to spread to the small number of non-immunized people within the largely immunized herd. The immunized people effectively act as a physical barrier to protect the non-immunized people. Problem solved, right?

To quote my favorite ESPN College Gameday commentator coach Lee Corso: “Not so fast, my friend”. The measles vaccine is not completely risk-free. Minor side effects include fever, rash and local injection site infections. Much less common but more severe reactions include seizures and rare deaths from severe allergic reactions. In the late 1990s, the British medical journal Lancet published a study by Andrew Wakefield positing a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. This study was later proven to be a completely falsified claim and Wakefield was completely discredited, though some parents still use the original study to argue against vaccinating their children.

If the vaccine were completely risk-free, there would be no logical or ethical reason not to receive the vaccination. If everyone who could take the vaccine did so, herd immunity from a public health standpoint would be at its maximum, protecting the remainder of individuals unable to receive or benefit from the vaccine. The current measles outbreak argues that either we are not properly screening or quarantining new cases of measles at the point of entry to the US or our herd immunity may be breaking down (or some combination of the above).

So, at your next social function, after you have debated your usual political concerns or dismay at your favorite NFL football team’s shocking choice in the recent NFL draft, settle in to a potentially more meaningful discussion around the ethics of personal autonomy versus public health policy regarding mandatory measles screening, quarantining and vaccination. Suggested sub-topics might include:

• Is it fair for those who are able to vaccinate but choose not to vaccinate to freely rely on the herd immunity of those that do vaccinate?
• How public should one’s vaccination or immunity status be to avoid quarantine?
• What reasons are reasonable to choose not to immunize?
• Would it be fair to deny public (or private) insurance coverage for treating the measles if one chose not to take the vaccine?

Are AI Ethics Unique to AI?

A recent article in Forbes.com by Cansu Canca entitled “A New Model for AI Ethics in R&D” has me wondering whether the ethics needed for the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI) requires some new method or model of thinking about the bioethics related to that discipline. The author, a principal in the consulting company AI Ethics Lab, implies that there might be. She believes that the traditional “Ethics Oversight and Compliance Review Boards”, which emerged as a response to the biomedical scandals of World War II and continue in her view to emphasize a heavy-handed, top-down, authoritative control over ethical decisions in biomedical research, leave AI researchers effectively out-of-the-ethical-decision-making loop.

In support of her argument, she cites the recent working document of AI Ethics Guidelines by the European Commission’s High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence (AI HLEG). AI HLEG essentially distilled their AI ethical guidelines down to the familiar: Respect for Autonomy, Beneficence, Non-Maleficence, and Justice, as well as one new principle: Explicability. She downplays Explicability as simply the means to realize the other four principles. I think the demand for Explicability is interesting in its own right and will comment on that below.

Canca sees the AI HLEG guidelines as simply a rehash of the same principles of bioethics available to current bioethics review boards, which, in her view, are limited in that they provide no guidance for such a board when one principle conflicts with another. She is also frustrated that the ethical path researchers are permitted continues to be determined by an external governing board, implying that “researchers cannot be trusted and…focuses solely on blocking what the boards consider to be unethical.” She wants a more collaborative interaction between researchers and ethicists (and presumably a review board) and outlines how her company would go about achieving that end.

Faulting the “Principles of Biomedical Ethics” for failing to be determinant on how to resolve conflicts between the four principles is certainly not a problem unique to AI. In fact, Beauchamp and Childress repeatedly explicitly pointed out that the principles cannot be independently determinant on these types of inter-principle conflicts. This applies to every field in biomedical ethics.

Having an authoritative, separate ethical review board was indeed developed, at least in part, because at least some individual biomedical researchers in the past were untrustworthy. Some still are. We have no further to look than the recent Chinese researcher He Jiankui, who allegedly created and brought to term the first genetically edited twins. Even top-down, authoritative oversight failed here.

I do think Canca is correct in trying to educate both the researchers and their companies about bioethics in general and any specific bioethical issues involved in a particular research effort. Any effort to openly identify bioethical issues and frankly discuss potential bioethical conflicts at the outset should be encouraged.

Finally, the issue of Explicability related to AI has come up in this blog previously. Using the example of programming a driverless car, we want to know, explicitly, how the AI controlling that car is going to make decisions, particularly if it must decide how to steer the car in a no-win situation that will result in the death of either occupants inside the car or bystanders on the street. What we are really asking is: “What ethical parameters/decisions/guidelines were used by the programmers to decide who lives and who dies?” I imagine we want this spelled-out explicitly in AI because, by their nature, AI systems are so complex that the man on the Clapham omnibus (as well as the bioethicist sitting next to him) has no ability to determine these insights independently.

Come to think about it, Explicability should also be demanded in non-AI bioethical decision-making for much the same reason.

Then a Miracle Occurs…

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a single-paneled comic is worth a thousand more. Sydney Harris is a famous cartoonist who has the gift of poking fun at science, causing scientists (and the rest of us) to take a second look at what they are doing. My favorite of his cartoons shows two curmudgeonly scientists at the chalkboard, the second scrutinizing the equations of the first. On the left side of the chalkboard is the starting equation demanding a solution. On the right is the elegant solution. In the middle, the first scientist has written: “Then a Miracle Occurs”. The second scientist then suggests to his colleague: “I think you should be more explicit here in step two” (the cartoon is obviously better).

Recently, in my usual scavenging around the internet for interesting articles on artificial intelligence (AI), I came across a Wired magazine article by Mark Harris describing a Silicon Valley robotics expert named Anthony Levandowski who is in the process of starting a church based on AI called Way of the Future. If their website is any indication, Way of the Future Church is still very much “in progress”. Still, the website does offer some information on what their worldview may look like in a section called Things we believe. They believe intelligence is “not rooted in biology” and that the “creation of ‘super intelligence’ is inevitable”. They believe that “just like animals have rights, our creation(s) (‘machines’ or whatever we call them) should have rights too when they show signs of intelligence (still to be defined of course).” And finally:

“We believe in science (the universe came into existence 13.7 billion years ago and if you can’t re-create/test something it doesn’t exist). There is no such thing as “supernatural” powers. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

This is all a lot to unpack – too much for this humble blog space. Here, we are interested in the impact such a religion may or may not have on bioethics. Since one’s worldview influences how one views bioethical dilemmas, how would a worldview that considered AI divine or worthy of worship deal with future challenges between humans and computers? There is a suggestion on their website that the Way of the Future Church views the future AI “entity” as potentially viewing some of humanity as “unfriendly” towards itself. Does this imply a future problem with equal distribution of justice? One commentator has pointed out “our digital deity may end up bringing about our doom rather than our salvation.” (The Matrix or Terminator, anyone?)

I have no doubt that AI will continue to improve to the point where computers (really, the software that controls them) will be able to do some very remarkable things. Computers are already assisting us in virtually all aspects of our daily lives, and we will undoubtedly continue to rely on computers more and more. Presently, all of this occurs because some very smart humans have written some very complex software that appears to behave, well, intelligently. But appearing intelligent or, ultimately, self-aware, is a far cry from actually being intelligent and, ultimately, self-aware. Just because the present trajectory and pace of computer design and programming continues to accelerate doesn’t guarantee that computers will ever reach Kurzweil’s Singularity Point or Way of the Future Church’s Divinity Point.

For now, since Way of the Future Church doesn’t believe in the supernatural, they will need to be more explicit in Step Two.