Black and white photograph of adult holding a baby's hand

On the Tyranny of Partners in Posthumous Reproduction Cases

By Shelly Simana

The topic of posthumous reproduction has produced great interest globally due to the fundamental dilemmas it raises. The most controversial cases are the ones in which there is no explicit consent on behalf of the deceased person for using his or her gametes after death. In those cases, courts try to trace the presumed intentions of the deceased person, heavily relying on testimonies of the deceased’s family members and friends.

I recently published an article about this topic, in which I advocate for a more permissive approach toward posthumous reproduction. In this blog post, I would like to focus on a particular issue—the permission for the deceased’s partner, but not the parents, to engage in posthumous reproduction.

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Robot and human facing each other. silhouetted against lit background

Please and Thank You: Do we Have Moral Obligations Towards Emotionally Intelligent Machines?

By Sonia Sethi

Do you say “thank you” to Alexa (or your preferred AI assistant)?

A rapid polling among my social media revealed that out of 76 participants, 51 percent thank their artificial intelligence (AI) assistant some or every time. When asked why/why not people express thanks, a myriad of interesting—albeit, entertaining—responses were received. There were common themes: saying thanks because it’s polite or it’s a habit, not saying thanks because “it’s just a database and not a human,” and the ever-present paranoia of a robot apocalypse.

But do you owe Alexa your politeness? Do you owe any moral consideration whatsoever? Read More

What We Lost When We Lost Google ATEAC

By Joanna Bryson

In a few weeks, the Advanced Technology External Advisory Council (ATEAC) was scheduled to come together for its first meeting. At that meeting, we were expected to “stress test” a proposed face recognition technology policy. “We were going to dedicate an entire day to it” (at least 1/4 the time they expected to get out of us.) The people I talked to at Google seemed profoundly disturbed by what “face recognition” could do. It’s not the first time I’ve heard that kind of deep concern – I’ve also heard it in completely unrelated one-on-one settings from a very diverse set of academics whose only commonality was working at the interface of machine learning and human computer interaction  (HCI). It isn’t just face recognition. It’s body posture, acoustics of speech and laughter, the way a pen is used on a tablet, and (famously) text. Privacy isn’t over, but it will never again be present in society without serious, deliberate, coordinated defense. Read More

No One Is Sovereign Over Genetic Sequences

Most of the time the sanctity of national sovereignty is invoked in international law, it’s covering for something bad. The debates about the interpretation of the Nagoya Protocol, a 2010 supplement to the Convention on Biological Diversity, are no exception.

A number of states party to the Protocol, a cryptic document designed to ensure the “fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources,” enshrines a principle of state sovereignty over the genetic sequences of all life—including those of pathogens—within state territory.

This interpretation is not obvious on the face of the treaty. But neither is it foreclosed. The resolution of this question has profound implications for global public health: if the states that espouse this position are right, global genetic research will be impeded, possibly dramatically, and epidemics will be harder to fight. Read More

The bottom half of a robotic face, featuring nose and mouth in blue lighting

Sex Robots are Here, But Can the Law Keep Up The With Ethics and Privacy Issues?

The robots are here. Are the “sexbots” close behind?

From the Drudge Report to The New York Times, sex robots are rapidly becoming a part of the national conversation about the future of sex and relationships. Behind the headlines, a number of companies are currently developing robots designed to provide humans with companionship and sexual pleasure – with a few already on the market.

Unlike sex toys and dolls, which are typically sold in off-the-radar shops and hidden in closets, sexbots may become mainstream. A 2017 survey suggested almost half of Americans think that having sex with robots will become a common practice within 50 years.

As a scholar of artificial intelligence, neuroscience and the law, I’m interested in the legal and policy questions that sex robots pose. How do we ensure they are safe? How will intimacy with a sex robot affect the human brain? Would sex with a childlike robot be ethical? And what exactly is a sexbot anyway? Read More

Image of a pile of gold coins on top of a map showing African continent

Repayment for Training as an Optimal Solution to Medical Brain Drain

In an earlier post I offered two arguments for why wealthy nations have a moral obligation to address medical professional brain drain from resource-scarce developing nations. But once one acknowledges that wealthy nations have this obligation, a question remains as to what the best way to fulfill that obligation is.

Some have suggested that the solution is for wealthy nations to train an ample amount of doctors in their home countries so that they no longer need to take talent from developing nations to make up for the gap. This idea has intuitive appeal. After all, it allows more medical doctors to be trained in wealthy nations like the U.S. and results in more doctors being trained overall (assuming that developing nations would continue to train the same amount of doctors under such a model). Read More

Reality star Kim Kardashian at the CFDA Awards at the Brooklyn Museum on June 4, 2018.

Can Kim Kardashian Help Bioethics? Celebrity Data Breaches and Software for Moral Reflection

In 2013, Kim Kardashian entered Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

During her hospitalization, unauthorized hospital personnel accessed Kardashian’s medical record more than fourteen times. Secret “leaks” of celebrities’ medical information had, unfortunately, become de rigueur. Similar problems befell Prince, Farah Fawcett, and perhaps most notably, Michael Jackson, whose death stoked a swelling media frenzy around his health. While these breaches may seem minor, patient privacy is ethically important, even for the likes of the Kardashians.

Since 2013, however, a strange thing has happened.

Across hospitals both in the U.S. and beyond, snooping staff now encounter something curious. Through software, staff must now “Break the Glass” (BTG) to access the records of patients that are outside their circle of care, and so physicians unassociated with Kim Kardashian’s care of must BTG to access her files.

As part of the BTG process, users are prompted to provide a reason why they want to access a file. Read More

Don’t miss today’s Health Law Workshop with S. Matthew Liao

October 1, 2018 5:00 PM
Hauser Hall, Room 104
Harvard Law School, 1575 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA

Presentation: “The Moral Status and Rights of Artificial Intelligence”

To request a copy of the paper in preparation for the workshop, please contact Jennifer Minnich at jminnich at law.harvard.edu.

S. Matthew Liao is Director of Center for Bioethics and Arthur Zitrin Professor of Bioethics at the NYU College of Global Public Health. He uses the tools of philosophy to study and examine the ramifications of novel biomedical innovations.

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From bioethics to medical anthropology to humanities and back: A year in review

I thought I would take this opportunity to reflect on the past year, where I will be in the future, and how the student fellowship has impacted me. I still hope to contribute to the Bill of Health blog going forward, but as my last official post as a Petrie-Flom Student Fellow, I would be remiss if I did not express my sincere gratitude to everyone at the Petrie-Flom Center, the faculty and staff, the other student fellows, and especially my mentors: Professors I. Glenn Cohen, Carmel Shachar, and Intisar A. Rabb.

My own project took a few different turns this year. My original proposal was to explore the ways in which bioethics and biomedical issues will play a significant role in reviving the dialectic between secular scholars and religious authority. Ayman Shabana rightly argues that respect for Islamic religious norms is essential for the legitimacy of bioethical standards in the Muslim context, wherein he attributes the legitimating power of these norms—as well as their religious and spiritual underpinnings—to their moral, legal, and communal dimensions. Building off of Shabana’s work, my initial argument held that the relationship between the secular and religious worlds is important because the discourse between the two, although often presumed to be dichotomous, is not necessarily antithetical nor is it impassable. This led me back to the arguments of the venerable philosophers Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor whereby, in critiquing the concept of secularism itself along with its historical contexts, furthered my argument and helped me to clarify the significant role that religion plays vis-à-vis categorical issues such as fundamental beliefs and metaphysics. I still maintain this, and it is something I continue to work on, although I decided to take my project in another direction.

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What can an 11th century Islamic philosopher teach us about 21st century neuroscience?

There is a lot of fascinating research about the brain coming out of Stanford University, with some exciting, cutting-edge work being done there. Early last month I reported on the findings made by neuroscientists at Stanford in understanding how mental rehearsal prepares our minds for real-world action. Today, I’ll outline the recent advances made by a team led by Sergiu Pasca, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, and discuss some of the ethical implications of this research.

Pasca’s method enables him to culture cells in order to form brain organoids with robust structures that are not compromised by cells from other parts of the body, thereby allowing him to more accurately replicate distinct brain regions. Doing so provides greater structural organization and also allows him and his team of researchers to better study and understand pathological mechanisms and perhaps one day to examine the molecular, cellular, and circuit levels of a person’s neurons. This is a promising method and a big step toward greater understanding of psychiatric and neurological disease, leading Pasca to declare, “This is our doorway into personalized psychiatry.” At the same time—although these “brain balls” are not brains, nor do they receive sensory inputs from the outside world—it is clear that as scientists progress in both the techniques and complexity of replication, major ethical questions and dilemmas will arise.

Chief among these will undoubtedly be the perennial ethical debate about the ontology of a human being. Is it only physical, material, social—in which case we might think of ourselves as technicians—or is it spiritual, religious, metaphysical—in which case we would more likely consider ourselves custodians? When we speak about attributing rights to animals or consciousness to AI, it is because at bottom we hold some fundamental belief: about dignity, a soul, being, or about what life might mean in a relational or social and emotional sense. This is no different with Pasca’s brain balls; in fact, it is an even more pressing quandary. As Bruce Goldman notes in his article, “One of the most amazing things about their brain balls was that, with not much chemical guidance, they tended to take on a default structure that’s a facsimile of the most evolutionarily advanced part of the brain: the human cerebral cortex, with all six layers you find in a living human brain.” The ethics of growing human organs are one thing, but the ethics of growing brain balls, which might eventually lead to more and more complex synaptic connections followed by even more elaborate renditions of an actual brain, will become especially contentious given the meaning and significance that we associate with the brain—both biologically and existentially.

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