Topic: Reproductive Medicine
May 16, 2016 | Posted By Claire Horner, JD, MA

Did you know: we can now make sperm from embryonic stem cells (in mice).  Not only can we create this sperm, but we can use it to successfully fertilize an egg and develop into a fully grown mouse.  And what is the role of bioethics in this scientific discovery, according to the article?  A brief mention of theoretical ethical issues relegated to the end of the news article that no one reads far enough to see, anyway.

 

Scientific advancements in reproduction have occurred at an unbelievable rate.  We not only have the ability to create sperm, but we can also create an embryo using three genetic donors, choose or reject embryos based on their genetic traits, such as sex, and correct genetic defects by essentially cutting and pasting healthy DNA sequences over defective ones.  Conversely, using such technology, we also have the potential to clone human beings, choose or reject embryos based on traits such as hair color or athletic ability, and irreversibly alter a germ cell line, potentially leading to unknown negative effects in later generations.

 

While breakthroughs in reproductive technologies have the potential to address issues as important and varied as male infertility, uterine factor infertility, mitochondrial disease, genetic defects and disease, and even artificial gestation, one wonders whether anyone is stopping to ask: to what end?  How will we use this technology?  What are the short- and long-term effects?  How might this technology be misused?  And, my personal favorite, when will we start to regulate how and when we tinker with biology at a genetic level?

 

 

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

May 9, 2016 | Posted By Lisa Campo-Engelstein, PhD

As I discussed in a previous blog, the blame for fetal harm is generally directed at women. Some of my colleagues and I, including AMBI faculty member Zubin Master, were interested in examining how fetal harm, and more specifically age-related preconception harm, is portrayed in the media. Our findings were published earlier this year in the American Journal of Bioethics Empirical Bioethics.

Given the significant social change that many people today are delaying childbearing in comparison to previous generations, it is relevant to examine the media portrayal of older parental age and risk to future offspring. Furthermore, there is clear evidence that older parental age carries certain risks to offspring: older age in women and men leads to an increased risk of having children with autism and Down syndrome and older paternal age has also been linked to higher rates of children with schizophrenia. Many people get most of their scientific news from the media, so it is important to examine the accuracy and biases of the information.

Our results indicate that reproduction is still largely seen as the domain of women, rather than of couples or of men. We rarely found articles discussing reproduction as it relates to both women and men as the majority of articles were maternally focused. Even among the articles that were paternally focused, they almost always discussed maternal harm as well. However, the reverse – maternally focused articles containing discussions of paternal harm – were almost nonexistent. This pattern suggests that men alone are never seen as solely responsible for fetal harms, but rather that this responsibility is always shared with women.

 

 

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

April 1, 2016 | Posted By Lisa Campo-Engelstein, PhD

In March, the Indiana legislature passed and the Indiana governor signed into law HB 1337, a bill that bans abortions for women seeking them based solely on certain characteristics of the fetus, such as race, sex, and disability. Specifically, the bill:

 “Prohibits a person from performing an abortion if the person knows that the pregnant woman is seeking the abortion solely because of: (1) the race, color, national origin, ancestry, or sex of the fetus; or (2) a diagnosis or potential diagnosis of the fetus having Down syndrome or any other disability. Provides for disciplinary sanctions and civil liability for wrongful death if a person knowingly or intentionally performs a sex selective abortion or an abortion conducted because of a diagnosis or potential diagnosis of Down syndrome or any other disability.”

As I have discussed in a previous blog, sex selection is a frequent occurrence in certain countries, such as India and China, where there is a strong preference for sons. Yet, there is little to no evidence that sex selection abortion is commonplace in the US. Abortion based on the race of the fetus is similarly rare in the US. While the purpose of any law is to prohibit actions it deems unethical or contrary to social norms, regardless of their frequency, due to limited time and resources, it makes sense to focus on bills that address common occurrences or things that are so morally repugnant that the state must take a stand. The main motivating factor for this bill does not seem to be avoiding discrimination based on sex and race, but rather trying to undermine legal access to abortion. Indiana is one of only five states that does not have a hate crime law and it recently rejected another attempt to pass hate crime legislation. It seems odd, and even contradictory, that Indiana is so worried about discrimination against fetuses, but not against legal persons.

 

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website. 

March 24, 2016 | Posted By Wayne Shelton, PhD

Who could be against life? Ancient natural law theory in the Catholic tradition tells us that human beings desire to live, and that life is good, therefore humans have an obligation to live and not kill other human beings. This ancient wisdom has been instilled into western ways of moral thinking. So, who could not be prolife in terms of how we place value on all individual human life?

Who could be against human freedom? Individual human beings should be free to live peacefully in accordance with their own values and life goals. This is a basic tenet of democracy that has shaped moral and political thinking in the West for the past four centuries. So, who could not be against the exercise of free choice, especially about something so basic as having control over our bodies?

The two value perspectives contained in the prior two paragraphs, all things equal, are eminently reasonable and most ethically unproblematic. These two value positions represent two fundamental principles of ethics—the intrinsic value of all individual human lives and the right of free individuals to govern their own lives and bodies—that guide us in living an ethical life and making ethical decisions. It is when these fundamental principles come into direct conflict that a serious, a near irresolvable, ethical conflict arises. There is no greater direct conflict of these two ethical principles than right of women to have an abortion. It is commonly assumed that one is either on one side of this moral abyss or the other and the twain shall never meet. It seems to me one of the central tasks of ethical reflection on this issue is to find as much meaningful middle ground as possible. In this brief blog I’ll offer a few ideas in this regard, which advocates on either extreme will likely find unsatisfactory.

 

 

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.


March 15, 2016 | Posted By Lisa Campo-Engelstein, PhD

Whereas quality of life issues for cancer patients used to minimized, and sometimes even ignored, today there is more of a focus on cancer patients’ quality of life post-cancer. One such quality of life issue is oncofertility, which is fertility preservation for cancer patients. In many places, oncofertility is, or is becoming, the standard of care for cancer patients. But should it be offered to all patients? What about patients who have a very bad prognosis?

Fertility preservation for patients with a poor prognosis raises a host of ethical issues. Providers may worry that discussing fertility preservation will give patients false hope about their prognosis. In other words, these patients may feel their providers deceived them by mentioning fertility preservation, leading them to believe that their prognosis is not as bad as they originally thought.

Yet, at the same time, pursuing fertility preservation may be a source of hope and happiness for patients during difficult times. It may furnish them with mental and physical strength, making them even more motivated to survive for the sake of their potential future children. Additionally, these patients, and their families, may feel a degree of inner peace knowing that part of their lives will continue on in the reproductive material even if they are never used.

 

 

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

 


February 10, 2016 | Posted By Lisa Campo-Engelstein, PhD

The New York Times recently reported that physicians will soon undertake the first penis transplants in the U.S. The goal of this procedure is to restore everyday functionality as well as sexual functioning for men with genitourinary injuries, which are injuries involving loss of part of all of the penis and/or testicles. The donated penis will come from a deceased donor, with that donor’s permission. Penis transplants have only taken place in China in 2006, where the procedure failed due to the recipient psychologically rejecting the transplant, and in South Africa in 2014, where the procedure was successful. 

For the time being, this procedure will be limited in the U.S. to men who lost their penis in military service. In the last 15 years, over 1300 men have suffered genitourinary injuries in Afghanistan or Iraq, mainly due to homemade bombs. Almost all of these men are under 35 years old.

One objection to penis transplantation is that it is not life-saving. While it is true that penis transplants are not life-saving, much of modern medicine focuses on improving quality of life (e.g. glasses for poor vision, over the counter medication for the common cold, physical therapy for back pain, assisted reproductive technologies for infertility, etc.). While a genitourinary injury may not be visible to others, the effect on the individual can be devastating. For many men, the penis is a symbol of his masculinity and not having “normal” genitals can impair his gendered and sexual identity. As I have discussed in my published research,

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

January 28, 2016 | Posted By Claire Horner, JD, MA

Gestational surrogacy contracts have been in the news again recently as a gestational surrogate reports that the intended father, having discovered that she is expecting triplets, is demanding that she undergo selective reduction to abort one of the fetuses.  Situations such as these, while often not reported, are not necessarily uncommon.  In 2013, a gestational carrier was offered $10,000 to abort when a second trimester ultrasound discovered congenital heart and brain abnormalities.  Despite a well-established Constitutional right to privacy that includes a pregnant woman’s right to procure – or refuse – an abortion, surrogacy contracts routinely include provisions that not only prohibit a surrogate from having an abortion unless there is a medical need, but also give the intended parents sole discretion to determine whether the surrogate should abort where there is evidence of a physical abnormality or other issue.  Such provisions have not been tested in court, but would almost certainly be unenforceable based on the surrogate’s Constitutionally-protected right to reproductive autonomy.


In India, where there is an estimated $400 million surrogate tourism industry, women agree to be surrogates in exchange for $5,000-7,000, which is far more than they could make otherwise.  In many clinics, surrogates live in dormitories for the duration of the pregnancy and their food and medical care is provided by the clinic.  There are also reports that some clinics have policies against pregnancies of 3 or more fetuses – meaning that selective reduction may occur as a matter of course to reduce the number of fetuses to 2 or 1.  If this is in fact happening, are the surrogates (or even the intended parents) aware of what is happening?  Are they given a voice in the medical care and treatments they receive?  Or are the decisions made by the intended parents or the clinic, and simply imposed on the surrogate?


The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

January 14, 2016 | Posted By Jane Jankowski, DPS, LMSW

“Of all the ways to be wounded,” regrets Jake from Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises, setting the stage for a narrative which implies the male character’s war injury to his genitals rendering him irreversibly and torturously impotent. Recently, the NY Times reported that research on penis transplants would offer a possible treatment option for men who have suffered injury to the groin in war or other trauma (www.nytimes.com-heal-troops).  To attempt to restore function and procreative ability cadaveric penis transplants will be undertaken as an experimental procedure. As noted in the article cited above, consent from donor’s family would be secured as with any organ donation. While some may find such surgical interventions to be less compelling than other transplants which provide life- saving organs (heart, lung, kidney, liver, pancreas) transplanting reproductive organs offers important benefits to patients.   

Uterine transplants have been discussed in the media recently, and seem to hold promise as these transplants have been done successfully in Sweden(www.nytimes.com-uterus-transplants ). Women born without a uterus may soon be able to receive a cadaveric uterus in the US. Unlike penis transplants which rely on exclusively cadaveric donation, live donation has been performed for uterine transplants in Sweden, and in time may also be available for women in the US.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

December 29, 2015 | Posted By Claire Horner, JD, MA

“It is a disturbing consequence of modern biological technology that the fate of the nascent human life, which the Embryos in this case represent, must be determined in a court by reference to cold legal principles.”  Findley v. Lee, No. FDI-13-780539, 4 (Cal. Tentative Ruling Filed Nov. 18, 2015).

On November 18, 2015, the Superior Court of California issued a Tentative Decision and Proposed Statement of Decision holding that five embryos that were created and cryopreserved by a husband and wife, now divorced, must be destroyed in accordance with the agreement signed by the parties prior to beginning IVF.  According to the Court, the agreement contained, among others, a provision determining in advance the agreed-upon disposition of any remaining embryos in the event of divorce.  For this provision, both spouses initialed “thaw and discard.”  This “contractual approach” has been adopted by several jurisdictions that have had occasion to determine disposition of embryos in divorce.  In this analysis, courts will enforce an agreement signed by the parties prior to IVF as evidence of their intentions at the outset of the process.  

Courts in some states have decided such cases using different approaches.  The Constitutional rights approach (or balancing approach) looks at the interests of the parties, evaluating and balancing their respective rights, which seems to result in a comparison of the right to procreate and the right to avoid procreation.  This paradigm, in practice, has led courts to conclude that the right to avoid procreation typically prevails.  The contemporaneous mutual consent approach, on the other hand, attempts to reconcile the contractual approach with the current wishes of the parties by holding that pre-IVF agreements are valid and enforceable unless and until one of the parties changes his or her mind.  While this approach appears to recognize contracts, in practice a contract is disregarded where there is disagreement, and the embryos remain frozen until a mutual decision can be reached.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

December 24, 2015 | Posted By Paul Burcher, MD, PhD

I was surprised to read recently in the New York Times that a woman has undergone a cesarean section despite her refusal to consent to the procedure.  While the details of the case are not entirely clear in the article, so I do not want what follows to be understood as a specific comment on this case, my surprise arises because I thought the ethics of refusal of consent were not in dispute.  The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology has taken a clear position of this: it is not justifiable to perform surgery on a patient with decisional capacity without her consent. ACOG’s committee opinion, “Maternal Decision Making, Ethics, and the Law,” strongly discourages even attempting to seek a court order for treatment when a pregnant woman refuses cesarean section, and concludes with a statement that:

Pregnant women's autonomous decisions should be respected. Concerns about the impact of maternal decisions on fetal well-being should be discussed in the context of medical evidence and   understood within the context of each woman's broad social network, cultural beliefs, and values. In the absence of extraordinary circumstances, circumstances that, in fact, the Committee on Ethicscannot currently imagine, judicial authority should not   be used to implement treatment regimens aimed at protecting the fetus, for such actions violate the pregnant woman's autonomy. 

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

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BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.
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