Pedophilia, Preemptive Imprisonment, and the Ethics of Predisposition

The first two weeks of 2013 were marked by a flurry of news articles considering “the new science” of pedophilia. Alan Zarembo’s article for the Los Angeles Times focused on the increasing consensus among researchers that pedophilia is a biological predisposition similar to heterosexuality or homosexuality. Rachel Aviv’s piece for The New Yorker shed light upon the practice of ‘civil commitment’ in the US, a process by which inmates may be kept in jail past their release date if a panel decides that they are at risk of molesting a child (even if there is no evidence that they have in the past). The Guardian’s Jon Henley quoted sources suggesting that perhaps some pedophilic relationships aren’t all that harmful after all. And Rush Limbaugh chimed in comparing the ‘normalization’ of pedophilia to the historical increase in the acceptance of homosexuality, suggesting that recognizing pedophilia as a sexual orientation would be tantamount to condoning child molestation.

So what does it all mean? While most people I talked to in the wake of these stories (I include myself) were fascinated by the novel scientific evidence and the compelling profiles of self-described pedophiles presented in these articles, we all seemed to have a difficult time wrapping our minds around the ethical considerations at play. Why does it matter for our moral appraisal of pedophiles whether pedophilia is innate or acquired? Is it wrong to imprison someone for a terrible crime that they have not yet committed but are at a “high risk” of committing in the future? And if we say that we can’t “blame” pedophiles for their attraction to children because it is not their “fault” – they were “born this way” – is it problematic to condemn individuals for acting upon these (and other harmful) desires if it can be shown that poor impulse control is similarly genetically predisposed? While I don’t get around to fully answering most of these questions in the following post, my aim is to tease out the highly interrelated issues underlying these questions with the goal of working towards a framework by which the moral landscape of pedophilia can be understood.  Continue reading

Turning the Camera Around: What Newtown Tells Us About Ourselves

On the morning of December 14th, 20-year old Adam Lanza opened fire within the halls of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, killing 20 children and six adult staff members before turning his gun on himself. In the hours that followed, journalists from every major news station in the nation inundated the tiny town, and in the days that followed, the country as a whole started down a familiar path characterized best by the plethora of ‘if only-isms’.

It began in the immediate hours following the shooting: if only we had stricter gun control laws, this wouldn’t have happened. This is perhaps an unsurprising first response in a country that represents 4.5% of the world’s population and 40% of the world’s civilian firearms.[1] Over the next few days, as a portrait of the shooter began to emerge and friends and family revealed that he was an avid gamer, a second theory surfaced in the headlines: if only our children weren’t exposed to such violent video games, this tragedy never would have occurred.[2] [3] And just in the past few days, public discourse has converged on the gunman’s mental health, the general conclusion being that if only we had better mental health services in place, this wouldn’t have happened.[4][5] (The National Rifle Association [NRA] even tried to jump on board, suggesting that “26 innocent lives might have been spared” if only we had an armed police guard in every school in America.[6] They seem to be the only ones taking themselves seriously.[7]) Continue reading

Don’t tax the fat!

by Rebecca Roache

Dr Philip Lee, Conservative MP for Bracknell and a practising GP, today suggested that people whose lifestyle choices lead to medical problems should have to contribute towards their healthcare costs. He apparently highlighted type 2 diabetes – which can be brought on by an unhealthy diet, being overweight, and lack of exercise, although some people are genetically disposed to it – and is quoted in the Huffington Post as saying, ‘If you want to have doughnuts for breakfast, lunch and dinner, fine, but there’s a cost’.

At first glance, the idea that those who lead unhealthy lifestyles should bear the burden of their own resulting health problems seems fair. But there are serious problems with this idea. Let us consider two of them. Continue reading

Personalised weapons of mass destruction: governments and strategic emerging technologies

Andrew Hessel, Marc Goodman and Steven Kotler sketches in an article in The Atlantic a not-too-far future when the combination of cheap bioengineering, synthetic biology and crowdsourcing of problem solving allows not just personalised medicine, but also personalised biowarfare. They dramatize it by showing how this could be used to attack the US president, but that is mostly for effect: this kind of technology could in principle be targeted at anyone or any group as long as there existed someone who had a reason to use it and the resources to pay for it. The Secret Service looks like it is aware of the problem and does its best to swipe away traces of the President, but it is hard to imagine this to be perfect, doable for old DNA left behind years ago, or applied by all potential targets. In fact, it looks like the US government is keen on collecting not just biometric data, but DNA from foreign potentates. They might be friends right now, but who knows in ten years…

Continue reading

Designer Babies

Tonight at 8.30 p.m. Australian Time, SBS will be airing a show on Deisgner Babies. I’ll be live tweeting during the show, and in the meantime, here are a few links to some opinion pieces, media and papers I’ve written on the topic. To join the live tweeting, use the hashtag #insightSBS

Recent Opinion Pieces

Nothing Nasty, or Nazi About Genetic Selection, The Punch

It’s Our Duty to Have Designer Babies, Reader’s Digest

Should We Decide What Breed of Humans to Create


Bioethics Bites: Designer Babies

Making Better Babies, Pro and Con. A Debate with Rob Sparrow

The Case for Perfection, Adelaide Festival of Ideas


Procreative Beneficence: Why We should Select the Best Children, Bioethics, 2001

A full collection of resources from the Uehiro Centre on Enhancement and related topics is available at our Hot Topics page.




Announcement: Making Better Babies, Pro and Con: A Debate

October 2, 6.00 – 7.30 p.m.
BMW Edge, Federation Square, Melbourne

Public debate between Julian Savulescu (Oxford University) and Rob Sparrow (Monash University).

Further information

Bad seed is a robbery of the worst kind: prolific sperm donation and screening

New York Times writes about “In Choosing a Sperm Donor, a Roll of the Genetic Dice”: recipients of sperm donation have found out the hard way that there is a risk of genetic disease affecting their children. In at least one case a donor with a clean bill of health and who had, according to the laboratory, been tested for genetic conditions. Unfortunately he turned out to be a carrier for cystic fibrosis like the mother, and the child suffered. Other cases of transmission of genetic conditions to multiple children from a single donor have appeared, suggesting a need to do something. Is there an ethical need for ensuring genetic testing in the case of sperm donation – or is the problem that some donors father many children?

Continue reading

Bold Private John Smith, VC, modified ‘t’ allele of TPH1 SNP rs2108977

By Charles Foster

There’s a significant association of PTSD symptoms with a particular allele, according to a recently published study from UCLA and Duke. Some of the ethical consequences are already being discussed.  One consequence might be military. One might be able to detect and filter out PTSD-vulnerable recruits. Perhaps that’s a kindness. It would certainly seem militarily prudent. There might be legitimate qualms about creating a biologically callous warrior-class, but you’re not creating its components – you’re just collecting them together. You might not want to go to their parties, and you might wonder about the mutually brutalizing effect of corralling them in a barracks, but the exercise is really only a scientifically more informed version of the selection that goes on in any event. It’s not very interesting ethically.
But what if a gene for PTSD-resistance could be inserted or artificially switched on? It doesn’t seem fanciful. Should the military be permitted (or perhaps even required) to PTSD-proof their personnel? Continue reading

Using Close Genes: A Suggestion

Today, if a gay couple wants to have a child, they have two main options: Either (1) they adopt a child or (2) they get an egg from a donor, have it fertilized in a laboratory, and have a surrogate mother carry and give birth to their child.

These are both good options. Imagine, however, that a certain gay couple – let us call them Albert and Mark – wants a child that genetically belongs to both of them. If they want this, then option (1) will not do the trick. Option (2) will be somewhat better, but the child will then carry genetic material from only one of the two.

This does not satisfy Albert and Mark.

Is their problem solvable? Can Albert and Mark have a child that, genetically, is truly theirs? The answer that first strikes one is no, since this seemingly requires technology beyond reach.

It is easily solvable, however, if we just think outside the box. The solution is that the egg fertilized by Albert’s sperm should come from Mark’s sister, or if still fertile, form Mark’s mother. This would not give a perfect genetic match, but a decent one – and it would be safe, affordable, and fully possible. Even legal, I assume, since it does not imply inbreeding.

Why should not gay couples do this? Or, for that matter: Why should not straight couples where one party is infertile?

The Myth of Elite Sport

In an interesting article, “Why we’re the best”, Oliver Poole writing in the Evening Standard yesterday claims:

Culture, environment and genes are all cited as reasons for sporting success. But it is practice that really makes perfect.

He cites evidence that it not some genetic advantage that makes Kenyan runners so great but the fact that they run barefoot from an early age. Usain Bolt? It is not that he is biologically very different – his brilliant performances are apparently due to eating yams.

It is a mistake to draw the conclusion that genetic factors are not important in sporting performance from the fact that science has not so far identified genetic contributors to sporting performance.  Our understanding of our own biology is exponentially increasing but still limited. We don’t know what most genes do or even really why humans age. How much of a sporting performance is the result of innate talent, mental determination or training is difficult to say.

It’s certainly true to be a good high jumper you have to train a lot at high jump. But you also have to be tall. And how tall you can be is limited by your personal biology. It may be that elite athletes could come from any country in the world, if only they had the specialized training to bring out the potential of their gifted citizens. But one of the myths of elite sport that many of us cherish is that anyone could be the best, if only he or she tried hard enough. That, I believe, is sadly not true.

Sporting performance is likely to be mixture of innate biological capacity, training and mental application. The opportunity to be the best, or even self-supporting professional, is likely to be open to a small minority. This drives some to take dangerous performance enhancing drugs or give up or be a spectator.

If we were concerned about human well-being, we would shift our concern from elite sport to making sport a part of culture and everyday life, like tai chi. We have become a culture of elite sportspeople, investors in sport, and unhealthy spectators. Sport should be fun, good for you, the opportunity to develop talents and social. And most of all, something which is really open to all. Elite sport is not.

A great sporting performance is a beautiful and admirable thing. But it is better to be a player than a spectator, in sport and in life.