Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Could Reproductive Liberty be Ethically Curtailed for Environmental Policy Reasons? or Why I Would Have Rejected Cristina Richie's Article on IVF

It's been a bit of a gale (as opposed to a bona fide storm) lately, following an article in the Journal of Medical Ethics by Cristina Richie, entitled "What would an environmentally sustainable reproductive technology industry look like?". It's not the question of a full hurricane, as in the infamous "after birth abortion" paper from 2012, but this rather raving rant is on the more aggressive end of the scale of reactions to Richie's piece. I dislike the language and the attitude expressed at the end of this article for simple reasons of decency and respect, but I also rather dislike Richie's article for more intellectual reasons. In fact, having read it, I have come to the conclusion that, had I been the JME reviewer for it, I would have recommended rejection.

Based on the undisputed fact that human reproduction carries with it a carbon footprint (assuming fixed per capita consumption levels related to population-size and -growth), Richie's paper argues about assisted reproductive technologies (ART), such as IVF, that...

The use of ART to produce more human-consumers in a time of climate change needs to be addressed.  Policymakers should ask carbon-emitting countries to change their habits to align with conservation. And though all areas of life – from transportation, to food, to planned technological obsolescence – must be analysed for ecological impact, the offerings of the medical industry, especially reproductive technologies, must be considered as well.

More specifically, she argues that access to ART should be restricted to "those who are not biologically infertile", meaning thereby to exclude, e.g., homosexual couples, single individuals and other "rainbow" family constellations. In particular, she claims, such restriction should befall publicly funded medical services of this kind. To season the stew somewhat, Richie is openly declared as belonging to "catholic theorlogical ethics", attached to an openly Catholic academic institution, the theology department of Boston College, a church well-known for its officially set hostile stance towards both ART in general and, in particular, technological facilitation of human reproduction in other social forms than within that of a married heterosexual couple.

Iain Brassington at the JME's blog has opposed the idea that Richie therefore should have declared a conflict of interest. He does however concur with several critics, some described here, that the attempted distinction between "biological" and other types of infertility is swampy territory. In fact, all infertility is always partly social, as it depends on a person or a group of persons being unsatisfied by existing alternatives to using ART, such as keep on trying the old "natural" way, attempt to adopt, or remain childless. A particularly tricky thing is that many times, individuals belonging to the group that Richie would presumably call "biologically" infertile, their infertility may very well be due to the fact that they prefer to keep to their couple relationship. Already here, had I been a reviewer of the paper, I would have unconditionally demanded revision. This is sloppy conceptual work of a sort a philosophy teacher slams A-level students for and it is given the job of providing substance to one of the article's main theses. I'm frankly surprised that reviewers and editors of a leading bioethics journal could let that one pass.

At the same time, Brassington insists in another comment that the general idea, which is the other thesis of the article, of subjecting human reproductive liberty and policies to the challenge of their impact on pressing environmental problems is not necessarily ill-conceived. Again, I agree, as I should do, having argued some 18 years back (an open access preprint is here) that global justice and health concerns may be reasons for people to avoid having children and rather adopt or otherwise assist existing children in need. As I argued in that context, however, Brassington observes that there seems to be no reason to restrict the environmental argument to the use of ART, but rather that if the argument bites, it points towards more general conclusions about the value of avoiding human procreation, e.g. via adoption or policies like the infamous Chinese 1-child restriction or other types of limitations.

Another comment that expands this particular line of criticism has emerged from Dominic Wilkinson, also on the JME blog, where he argues that Richie's argument is flawed to the core, due to its claim that ARTs are in some way extra environmentally problematic. Now, Richie herself does openly confess that this may very well not be so, but that she nevertheless chooses to restrict her paper to a thesis pertaining to ART. In other words, the main thesis of the article is entirely dependent on an ad hoc and arbitrary restriction of its thematic scope. Richie presents no argument justifying this restriction, but her article nevertheless is left to pursue a main claim pertaining to ART and only ART. This, given the level of ethical controversy around ARTs, is unjustified bias. Had Richie presented an argument in favour of the limitation of the scope it hadn't been so, but since she in fact claim herself that there's nothing special with ARTs, the article is clearly skewed in an unwarranted way. Therefore, had I been reviewer, I would have faulted the article on that ground, demanding a more general discussion of reproductive liberty in the face of environmental policy – alternatively, independent arguments for singling out ARTs as a specific target. This is a major flaw that the review or editorial process should have caught.

Together these two problems with the article point to a third one, namely that it aims to prove two intellectually independent main claims. This is asking for trouble, as everyone knows, but it is obvious why Richie wants to take the risk: without the combination, she wouldn't have been able to aim her shot specifically at the application of ART for the facilitation of reproduction within "alternative" families. Thus, Richie has an apparent (possibly religiously motivated) agenda to place a questioning of ART and specific applications of ART in a well-regarded scientific journal. Even if that doesn't amount to a conflict of interest, it undercuts the claim to intellectual honesty one would require of a researcher worthy of publication in the JME. Again, I'm surprised that this wasn't picked up in the JME review or editorial process.

Having said that, the general ethical issues arising out of the link between human reproduction and environmental concerns (of all kinds), are sure worthy of more reflection. In fact, this is something that I will be addressing with qualified colleagues at a panel convened by myself on Reproductive Public Health Ethics at the MANCEPT Workshops in Political Theory in just a few weeks.


Friday, 8 August 2014

The Pathetic Hypocricy of Israel and USA on Palestinian ICC Plans to Probe War Crimes in Gaza


I've touched before on the hypocritical attitude of the USA regarding the activities – or lack of activities – of the International Criminal Court, ICC with regard to international conflicts: here and here. In that case, the conflict in question pertained to Syria. Now, a few days ago, there were news of an official visit of the foreign minister of the Palestinian Authority, Riad al-Malki, to the ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, where the former urged the ICC to probe alleged war crimes of Israeli soldiers, IDF high officers, state officials and politicians during the recent and ongoing attacks in Gaza, to date resulting in around 2 000 dead, among which are many civilians and children, many more injured and material destruction of vast proportions (here, here, here). 

Related to past Israeli attacks on Gaza, such petitions have ended in nothing, as the ICC have found the legal status of the Palestinian Authority to be uncertain. It has been commented that, in order for the ICC to move on this issue, the PA needs become a member of the ICC, and only states can be such members (here). However, in 2012, the UN general assembly voted with a large majority to recognise the PA as a de facto state, albeit not a UN member (here, here, here). This is now used as a stepping stone by the PA to move for membership of the ICC (see also here) – to sign the Rome statute – thus recognising the court's authority, becoming party to its actions and be bounded by its decisions. To quote a report from Reuters (linked to above): 

If the Palestinians were to sign the ICC's founding treaty, the Rome Statute, the court would have jurisdiction over crimes committed in the Palestinian territories.
With Palestinian authorization, an ICC investigation could then examine events as far back as July 1, 2002, when the court opened with a mandate to try individuals for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

Of course, what such probes and possible prosecutions against Israelis would lead to is entirely up to the prosecutors and judges of the court. For a number of reasons, one of which is about evidence, it may end up in nothing. However, it must be observed that any such probe might also uncover war crimes committed by the PA or the Hamas-controlled Gaza leadership, their officers, officials, politicians and soldiers. For instance, the rocket-fire of the Hamas military contingent, The Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, towards Israeli civilian areas may very well constitute such crimes. Crimes such as genocide are namely not defined by the sheer number of victims, but by the intent behind prosecuted actions (here). In other words, by joining the ICC, the PA opens itself up to allegations and convictions and has bounded itself to comply, including the handing over of any Palestinian wanted for questioning or arrest.

Now, this is certainly not the case regarding Israel or its politicians or personnel and neither is it true of the USA. Both these states stand in the proud company of China, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Qatar not to recognise the ICC and to have refused signing the Rome statute – in fact, USA has even (under G.W Bush) actively withdrawn a previous signature of then US president Bill Clinton (for sources see my former post). Nevertheless, responding to the move of the PA towards ICC, Israeli PM, Benjamin Netanyahu, has officially asked the US to help Israel to avoid ICC actions (see also here and here) and a White House representative has responded that the US will support the Israeli case in this respect. These attitudes of both Israel and the USA are not only hypocritical – if they want to have a say over the ICC, they should join it and recognise it – it is pathetically so. Both of them wants to eat the cake and have it, to get the goods without paying the price.

Exactly how pathetic these moves by the Israels state and the US are is revealed by Netanyahu's stated concern of Israel being held to a "double standard" visavis Hamas. As just described, it is in fact Israel's persistent refusal to join and recognise the ICC which creates a double standard – in Israel's favour. For while the PA moves to join, thus empowering ICC to probe and prosecute actions on its territories and charge and arrest its citizens, Israel is not (and neither is the USA). As long as Israel reserves this (doubtful) legal privilege, it is Netanyahu and the state that he is currently running that actively upholds a double standard towards all those states realising the value and import of solid international law instruments pertaining to war crimes and crimes against humanity and recognising the ICC – among them, should they join, the state of Palestine, represented by the PA.

In conclusion, if Israel and the USA really wants to work for an adequately functioning ICC and secure lack of double standard in its actions, they should both immediately sign the Rome statute and recognise the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. Then, there would be some clout behind their present claims.






Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Update: Facebook Experiments Lacked Support in User Agreement and May Have Included Minors


I posted yesterday about the ethical and possibly legal ramifications of the already infamous emotional manipulation experiment where researchers tweaked Facebook user feeds and studied ensuing user behaviour. The post yesterday gave links to a number of useful accounts and analyses, but I did also mention my own doubt that the research, including the subsequent publication of the findings, was covered by the Facebook user agreement. Today, Kashmir Hill at Forbes reveals that this is exactly what was the case. Not only did the user agreement not include "research", however, apparently Facebook realised what this meant for the defensibility of the study and retrospectively added "research" to the agreed to activities by users after the study's data collection in January 2012. In addition, it is also revealed that the study inclusion criteria did not exclude minors, and since Facebook allow users down to the age of 13, this means that the researchers may very well have been children without their or their parents' consent.

Both of these revelations are, of course, of substantial importance for the research ethical assessment of the study. Not least is the combination rather damaging not only for Facebook and its study leader Adam Kramer, but also for the non-Facebook employed researchers Jamie Guillory and Jeffrey Hancock. This since it may be assumed that the research ethical assessment that was allegedly performed at their universities, Cornell and the University of California, rested, at least partly, on the presumption of consent being implied by the Facebook user agreement. Moreover, this point is especially sensitive because of the possible enrollment of children, as research ethics standards, regardless of area, is especially adamant on rigorous consent procedures and protection mechanisms for children, as it is for other vulnerable groups, and mandatory involvement of their parents or guardians in one way or another, especially when they are below 15 years of age. Possibly, dirt may therefore spill over also on the journal PNAS's responsible editor Susan T. Fiske of Princeton University, whose responsibility it was to ensure the ethical soundness of the article before publication.

That's ethics. But, of course, today's revelation also means that there may be basis for substantial legal complaints. Not least, since Facebook and the involved universities are based in the USA – the heaven of civil lawsuits for astronomical amounts of money – it seems far from improbable that users who where included in the study may join in a class-action suit against (primarily) Facebook and the involved universities. Whether or not there would be grounds for administrative of criminal legal action is more difficult to assess, as I lack knowledge of sufficient details of the relevant sections of US law.