people waiting in a line.

How the Government Can Prevent Individuals from Using Wealth to Cut the Vaccine Line

Cross-posted from COVID-19 and The Law, where it originally appeared on January 27, 2021. 

By

Since the Food & Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization for the COVID-19 vaccines produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna in December 2020, there have been many debates on vaccine allocation and prioritization.

As noted by Harvard Law School Professor Glenn Cohen in a recent interview with Annie Kapnick for the COVID-19 and The Law series, the issue of vaccine distribution is “complicated” because of competing factors decision-makers must consider. The relative weights placed on these factors has led to very different prioritization schemes. Initially, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended a hybrid plan that appeared to prioritize individuals who were most likely to contract the virus (e.g., first responders, grocery store workers) over individuals most vulnerable to severe symptoms or death from the virus if contracted (e.g., individuals over the age of 65 not in long-term care facilities). In the United Kingdom, the prioritization groups were primarily based on vulnerability. Similarly, when looking more narrowly at the various plans being implemented at the state level in the United States, there are high degrees of variation.

This post does not seek to evaluate the merits of these or other specific vaccine allocation plans. Rather, it will address a risk that all plans likely face: the potential of individuals using their wealth and access to “cut the line” and be vaccinated ahead of schedule.
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Illustration of mitochondrial donation

Time to Revisit the Prohibition on So-Called “Three-Parent IVF”?

In an editorial appropriately titled, “This Editorial Is Not About Designer Babies,” the New York Times supported efforts by the Petrie-Flom Center and suggested it was time for Congress to consider lifting the effective ban on mitochondrial replacement therapies — sometimes colloquially but inaccurately referred to as “three-parent IVF.”

The piece referred to the Petrie-Flom Center’s upcoming public event and Roundtable, where experts will have a general conversation about the state of the law in the U.S. and elsewhere and to, as a group, discuss whether the prohibition against MRT might be lifted and, if so, how that might be accomplished.

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Initial Quick Thoughts on the Announcement of the Birth Through Mitochondrial Replacement in Mexico

The science media is abuzz about the birth of a child using mitochondrial replacement techniques in Mexico to Jordanian parents at the hands of NY Doctors. A few quick reactions (I am heading to this unrelated NAS/IOM Committee meeting tomorrow evening so may have some more thoughts when that settles down).

  • This is the first time this particular technique has been used to produce a live, but I am not sure from an ethical standpoint the arguments are all that different. That said, for those deeply interested in the more philosophical question of harm to children and the propriety of best interests argument in light of Parfit’s Non-Identity Problem (my take here and here) it may matter whether mitochondrial replacement is done through Pronuclear Transfer or Maternal Spindle Transfer as argued quite well here.
  • The fact that the doctors are from New York, the Patients are from Jordan, and the procedure took place in Mexico is not insignificant. This is a form of medical tourism, a topic I wrote a book on, most similar to cases of fertility and stem cell therapy tourism I cover in the latter half of the book. Absent making domestic prohibitions extraterritorial, something that I argue is permitted by international law and justified in some instances, there is very little that a home country can do about this. The going abroad is likely in part at least a function of some U.S. laws on the subject Eli Adashi and I wrote about for JAMA prohibiting FDA from considering approval of the technology.
  • As I wrote on this blog in February in relation to the IOM report “whatever the US policy in a world where medical tourism is possible and other countries adopt their own systems, so long as not everyone adopts the approach of the US some of these problems will manifest no matter what. So this is about harm reduction not harm avoidance.” This was a bit quicker than even I thought, but is not surprising. More generally if your concern about MRT is harm to offspring and transmission to future generations, people born elsewhere through the technology will inevitably enter the United States and/or marry, and procreate with U.S. citizens who themselves become U.S. citizens. To sound a bit X-Files about it “THEY WILL BE AMONG US!” This is a great example of the limits of unilateral regulation in a world of globalized health care.
  • Interesting that it was a male birth. This may be coincidence or in keeping with the IOM recommendation that only male embryos be transferred (to get rid of germ line transmission). Eli Adashi and I raised some ethical questions in Nature about whether that was an ethically problematic form of sex selection or not but in the reporting I have seen so far it has not been clear that they used only male embryos on purpose.
  • I wish we could stop calling it in the media “Three Parent IVF” or “Three Parent Reproduction.” That assumes the answer to what I think of as a subtle and interesting set of questions — is the mitochondrial donor a “parent” and what sense of the word do we mean.

More soon, I hope!

Breaking News: NAM Releases Report on Mitochondrial Replacement Therapy (Part I Summary)

By I. Glenn Cohen

As readers know I’ve written on mitochondrial replacement therapy and its attendant ethical and regulatory issues. Today the National Academy of Medicine (formerly known as the IOM) released a terrific report today with its recommendations. I’ll have a second post with my reactions but here is a summary from the report of their recommendations. The big headline is they have recommended FDA largely move towards allowing it to go forward under a regulatory pathway with restrictions, the most important of which is the transfer only of male embryos (to avoid germ-line issues).

In the NAM’s own words:

Recommendation 1: Initial clinical investigations of mitochondrial replacement techniques (MRT) should be considered by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only if and when the following conditions can be met: Read More

Surrogacy, Israel, and the Nepal Earthquake

By John A. Robertson

The Nepal earthquake has shocked with the devastation and suffering inflicted on a long suffering people.  Foreigners in Nepal were also affected, but most of them will be able to leave and carry on their lives without the poverty, housing, and health care deficits the Nepalese will be dealing with for years.  One sub-group of foreigners were Israelis awaiting the birth of children carried by Nepalese surrogates or the legal papers needed to bring home those infants who had already been born.  They have, of course, no moral priority over others hit by the earthquake, but their situation shines yet another light on the complexities of national surrogacy policy and surrogacy tourism.

Nepal has become a major surrogacy destination for Israelis who because they are unmarried or gay cannot obtain surrogacy in Israel.  India and Thailand had been the prime choice for surrogates, but those countries two years ago restricted surrogacy to married couples.  Indian women already pregnant with children commissioned by unmarried persons then went to Nepal to give birth.   With surrogacy available in Nepal for $30,000-$50,000, rather than $150,000 in the United States, Israeli surrogacy agencies started arranging surrogacy births there, even while Indian rather than Nepalese women are usually the carriers. Read More

Thailand Bans Foreign Commercial Surrogacy

Allison M. Whelan, J.D.
Senior Fellow, Center for Biotechnology & Global Health Policy, University of California, Irvine School of Law
Guest Blogger

Thailand’s interim parliament recently passed a law prohibiting foreigners from seeking Thai surrogates. The law was proposed and passed in response to several recent scandals and the growing surrogacy industry that has made Thailand one of the top destinations for “fertility tourism.” One of the most publicized controversies was “Gammy’s case,” in which a baby boy born to a Thai surrogate for an Australian man (the baby’s genetic father) and his wife was diagnosed with Down Syndrome. The couple abandoned Gammy but took his healthy twin sister.  The Thai surrogate also claimed the parents asked her to abort both children when she was seven months pregnant.  And in August 2014, authorities discovered that the 24-year old son of a Japanese billionaire had fathered at least a dozen babies by hiring surrogate mothers through Thai clinics.

The law makes commercial surrogacy a crime and bans foreign couples from seeking surrogacy services. The law does not, however, appear to prohibit non-commercial surrogacy among Thai citizens, provided that the surrogate is over twenty-five years old. Violations carry a prison sentence of up to ten years. Wanlop Tankananurak, a member of Thailand’s National Legislative Assembly, hailed the law, stating that it “aims to stop Thai women’s wombs from becoming the world’s womb.” Read More

TOMORROW: Patients with Passports: Medical Tourism, Law, and Ethics

Cohen_Medical_Tourism_slidePatients with Passports: Medical Tourism, Law, and Ethics
I. Glenn Cohen and Dr. Robert Klitzman

Tuesday, February 24, 5:30 – 7:00 PM ET

Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs

Merrill House 170 East 64th Street, New York, NY 10065-7478

Live Video Stream HERE

 

Medical tourism is a growing, multi-billion dollar industry involving millions of patients who travel abroad each year to get health care.

Some seek services like hip replacements and travel to avoid queues, save money, or because their insurer has given them an incentive to do so. Others seek to circumvent prohibitions on accessing services at home and go abroad to receive abortions, assisted suicide, commercial surrogacy, or experimental stem cell treatments.

How safe are these procedures? How do you ensure that you will be protected if anything should happen?

I. Glenn Cohen is professor of law at Harvard Law School and director of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology and Bioethics. He is the author of Patients with Passports: Medical Tourism, Law, and Ethics.

Dr. Robert Klitzman will lead the conversation. He is a professor of psychiatry in the College of Physicians and Surgeons and the Joseph Mailman School of Public Health and the director of the Masters of Bioethics Program at Columbia University.

This event is part of Carnegie Council’s Global Health Series.

Tomorrow: “Patients With Passports” Book Launch

Cohen_Medical_TourismBook Launch: Patients with Passports: Medical Tourism, Law, and Ethics

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Harvard Law School Library
Langdell Hall, Caspersen Room
1557 Massachsetts Ave., Cambridge, MA [Map]

This event is free and open to the public. A light lunch will be served.

I. Glenn Cohen‘s new book Patients with Passports: Medical Tourism, Law, and Ethics  (Oxford University Press, 2014) is the first comprehensive legal and ethical analysis of medical tourism. Examining both the legal and ethical issues raised by medical tourism and how the two interact, it provides the best currently available data and explanations of the industry and tackles the most prevalent legal and ethical issues facing medical tourism today.

Co-sponsored by the Harvard Law School Library.

Upcoming Event: “Patients with Passports” Book Launch

Cohen_Medical_TourismBook Launch: Patients with Passports: Medical Tourism, Law, and Ethics

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Harvard Law School Library
Langdell Hall, Caspersen Room
1557 Massachsetts Ave., Cambridge, MA [Map]

This event is free and open to the public. A light lunch will be served.

I. Glenn Cohen‘s new book Patients with Passports: Medical Tourism, Law, and Ethics  (Oxford University Press, 2014) is the first comprehensive legal and ethical analysis of medical tourism. Examining both the legal and ethical issues raised by medical tourism and how the two interact, it provides the best currently available data and explanations of the industry and tackles the most prevalent legal and ethical issues facing medical tourism today.

Co-sponsored by the Harvard Law School Library.