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Review: Worst Case Bioethics- George Annas

10 Dec
Thought I’d have a stab at doing a proper academic book review while another over-analytical post gestates. Thing is, I’m skint, so it’s not a new book- instead it is from last year. I should give a disclaimer before you read- I’ve tried to do this properly, for once. That means I’ve boiled out my own opinions of some of Annas’ positions. The man is a rampant bioconservative when it comes to issues such as human enhancement and all the other neat stuff we love at Biojammer, and so obviously that gets my goat. He has, by other people, been called a ‘human racist (which isn’t necessarily perjorative in the same way as plain old ‘racist’, but I’d always argue against it as being wrong for a number of reasons which deserve their own post in the future)- perhaps better labelled as ‘speciesism‘- as he opposes any technology or idea which endangers the primacy of the ‘normal human’, which is a concept I have belittled elsewhere on this site.
This being said, he can write rather well, and the book is well worth a read whatever your own views.

George J. Annas, Worst Case Bioethics: Death, Disaster and Public Health, Oxford University Press, 2011, Paperback, 335 pp., £27.50 r.r.p.


  In Worst Case Bioethics, George Annas- a respected and well-known professor in health care, human rights and bioethics at Boston University- gives a broad account of the manner in which US public health policy has been and continues to be shaped over time by national responses to doomsday or worst-case scenarios, both real and posited. In doing so he aims to illustrate the manner in which ethically questionable practices and controversial decisions have been excused politically as defences against these often sensationalised eventualities. He also frames his discussion in the context of the American public’s fear of death as a concept, and their apparent unwillingness to accept it as an inexorable eventuality. Continue reading

How can we govern new life forms?

12 Nov

Synthetic biology’ is an emergent scientific field with enormous potential for development and technological advancement. However, it also carries an equal capacity for risk and for harmful results to derive from the advancement of the science. Consequently, it is widely recognised in academic papers, political documents, and public discourse as requiring regulation on national and global levels, on both an ethical plane and as a safeguard.

Synthetic biology as a realised or projected field of research has existed for at least a hundred years.[ii] Today, we could attempt to define the science as “focus[sing] on the design and synthesis of artificial genes and complete biological systems, and on changing existing organisms, aimed at acquiring useful functions.”[iii] The advent of the technologies of DNA sequencing in the latter part of the 20th century and more recently of DNA synthesis[iv] have thrown the field into the spotlight as a major and realistic growth area, and have highlighted the absence of a cohesive regulatory methodology to unite the various disciplines involved.[v] Also noted to be absent is an intellectual property model pertaining to organisms or technologies arising from the field.[vi] Continue reading

Update: Science writing prize entry, version 2!

12 Nov

Here’s the edited piece I wrote for the 2012 Wellcome Trust/ Guardian Science Writing Competition. I was fortunate enough to be shortlisted, and I thank the Wellcome Blog for posting this edited version of the piece (which I have posted previously in unedited form) on their site- albeit along with the least flattering photograph I think I’ve ever had. I intend to do more writing of this type in the near future, so watch this space!

Wellcome Trust Blog

We’re publishing the shortlisted entries to the 2012 Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize. Today, David Lawrence on the common forms of human enhancement.

I should warn you: I took a cognitive enhancement drug before I began to write this. A central nervous system stimulant, to be precise. I took it to increase my capacity to think clearly, and to keep me focused. It gives me an advantage over the girl at the table next to mine – I’m going to be able to keep working longer and more productively with my enhanced brain than she is. Until she buys a dose too, anyway. It’s perfectly legal – in fact, there aren’t any specific regulations on it at all.

Okay, so I had a coffee. You probably had one too this morning, without considering that you were, in fact, enhancing yourself. Caffeine crosses your blood-brain barrier and inhibits your adenosine…

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Does dignity matter in biotech?

25 Oct
In discussing emerging biotechnologies, the term ‘dignity’ is often thrown out as a blanket defence of bioconservatism. Proponents of technologies are questioning whether this is really relevant. But what IS dignity, and does it even matter?

The idea that human dignity is an empty concept is not a new one. It has been suggested in academic works throughout the best part of the last two centuries that the use of the term is often nothing more than what Marx termed a “refuge (from history) in morality”. In 1837, Schopenhauer set precedent for this attitude in his analysis of Kant’s ‘Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals’, wherein he described human dignity as the

Almost as widespread as his rad hair.

” …shibboleth of all perplexed and empty-headed moralists. For behind that imposing formula they concealed their lack, not to say, of a real ethical basis, but of any basis at all which was possessed of an intelligible meaning…”

-from the tone of which we can perhaps infer that Schopenhauer, at least, saw how widespread and wide-ranging the term had become even then.

This is not to say, however, that merely because a view has been held by our intellectual forebears it must be so. I would argue that there are other moral concepts which we respect despite their being used conflicting rhetoric, ‘freedom’ being the most obvious, if slightly trite, example. Consider that while it would be generally agreed upon (in the West) to support the principle of freedom in terms of political agency, this freedom can be interpreted differently- for example, positive versus negative liberty. Regardless of your interpretation, having respect for this freedom is regarded as a solid, defined concept and a key feature in democracy.

The concept of respect for human dignity is different, and this is best illustrated by Schopenhauer’s assertion that the subject ‘…lack[s]… intelligible meaning…”.

So can we really respect a concept without a universally agreed definition? Academics of far greater provenance than I have attempted to work out of what might constitute human dignity, and many thousands of pages have been published in argument. That this debate continues is indicative of the scale of the difficulty that exists in validating the term, and it is worthy of note that possibly the most important- in that it was designed to guide future U.S. policy– review of the term, by the President’s Council on Bioethics in 2008, concluded that “…there is no universal agreement on the meaning of the term human dignity.” I’m not, therefore, going to try and give a definition myself; but it is of value to note that this meaning has gone from something defined and rather narrow in scope to Marx’s all encompassing moral shield, and to an undefined phrase at the core of various legislative documents today. Continue reading