Public Health

Epigenetics and Blaming Pregnant Women: Hasty Conclusions, Control, and Simplified Burden of Responsibility

In a recent (13.8.2014) article in Nature , Sarah S. Richardson and colleagues maintain that careless discussion of epigenetic research on how early life affects health across generations could harm women.

Authors discuss the extensive history of placing the burden of responsibility of a child’s health on the lifestyle of the pregnant mother – and the means for controlling women’s behavior. Authors describe how, for example, evidence of any fetal harm easily lead to zero-tolerance regulatory frameworks and severe informal and formal consequences (e.g. social condemnation for an occasional sip of alcohol despite the ambiguous evidence that very moderate and occasional drinking should harm the fetus), and how the “lack of emotional warmth” of the “refrigerator mothers ” was considered to be the reason to child autism as late as the 1970s. Going even more backwards in the history, various defects were attributed, for example, to the company the mother kept during pregnancy.

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Should we do more to help paedophiles?

By Rebecca Roache

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Luke Malone has published an extremely moving, disturbing, and distressing article in Medium, entitled ‘You’re 16. You’re a pedophile. You don’t want to hurt anyone. What do you do now?’ (warning: Malone’s article contains a graphic description of child abuse). The article focuses on ‘Adam’, a young man who, aged 16, was horrified to discover that he was sexually attracted to children. Disturbed by his sexual desires, and desperate to avoid acting on them, he suffered depression and initially used child pornography as an outlet for his feelings. (He subsequently stopped doing this.) Adam describes how he eventually went to see a therapist, who was unsympathetic, inexperienced in this area, and ultimately of little help. It turns out that, despite the fact that paedophilia is recognised as a mental disorder, there are major obstacles to helping people who, like Adam, are desperate to avoid harming children. Malone summarises some of the main problems: Continue reading

Drinking alcohol or using drugs during pregnancy could become a crime

Recently a neuroscientist discovered he was a psychopath. He was studying the brain scans of psychopaths, and intended to use some brain scans of family members and one of himself for the control group. Now one of the brain scans from the control group show clear signs of psychopathy, so he thought he must have misplaced it. He checked the reference number, and found out it was his own brain! This came as a total surprise to him, he never showed any signs of psychopathy, yet, he was very convinced that if his brain scan showed similarities with that of psychopaths, he must be a psychopath himself. Retrospectively his wife admitted that she thought he had some of the signs like lacking in empathy, and he found some famous murderers in his family. Instead of hiding this intimate fact about himself, he wrote a book about it, showing how amazing brain scans are. His book argued that brain scans can detect a psychopath like him, who never had any compelling symptoms of psychopathy. Continue reading

Should the NHS fund Weight Watchers schemes?

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recently recommended that the NHS should learn from commercial weight loss programmes such as Weight Watchers, Rosemary Conley and Slimming World. The NICE guidelines suggested that doctors should take a “respectful” and “non-judgemental” tone when helping patients to lose weight. As well as this, GPs were encouraged to continue to identify overweight patients for referral to state-funded commercial weight loss schemes, run by companies such as Weight Watchers, with obese adults being given priority.

The plan is estimated to cost hundreds of millions of pounds, but is also likely to save the NHS vast amounts in the long run, if successful in reducing obesity. Approximately 1 in 4 adults in the UK are obese, a condition that is linked with other ailments such as diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. The costs to the NHS attributable to people being overweight and obese are projected to reach £9.7 billion by 2050. Figures show that Weight Watchers and similar schemes manage to reduce participant’s body weight by 3 per cent, and NICE believe that even this small amount will help in the long term. Is it right, therefore, that the NHS subsidise the cost of these commercially run weight loss schemes?

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What if schizophrenics really are possessed by demons, after all?

By Rebecca Roache

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Is there anything wrong with seriously entertaining this possibility? Not according to the author of a research article published this month in Journal of Religion and Health. In ‘Schizophrenia or possession?’,1 M. Kemal Irmak notes that schizophrenia is a devastating chronic mental condition often characterised by auditory hallucinations. Since it is difficult to make sense of these hallucinations, Irmak invites us ‘to consider the possibility of a demonic world’ (p. 775). Demons, he tells us, are ‘intelligent and unseen creatures that occupy a parallel world to that of mankind’ (p. 775). They have an ‘ability to possess and take over the minds and bodies of humans’ (p. 775), in which case ‘[d]emonic possession can manifest with a range of bizarre behaviors which could be interpreted as a number of different psychotic disorders’ (p. 775). The lessons for schizophrenia that Irmak draws from these observations are worth quoting in full:

As seen above, there exist similarities between the clinical symptoms of schizophrenia and demonic possession. Common symptoms in schizophrenia and demonic possession such as hallucinations and delusions may be a result of the fact that demons in the vicinity of the brain may form the symptoms of schizophrenia. Delusions of schizophrenia such as “My feelings and movements are controlled by others in a certain way” and “They put thoughts in my head that are not mine” may be thoughts that stem from the effects of demons on the brain. In schizophrenia, the hallucination may be an auditory input also derived from demons, and the patient may hear these inputs not audible to the observer. The hallucination in schizophrenia may therefore be an illusion—a false interpretation of a real sensory image formed by demons. This input seems to be construed by the patient as “bad things,” reflecting the operation of the nervous system on the poorly structured sensory input to form an acceptable percept. On the other hand, auditory hallucinations expressed as voices arguing with one another and talking to the patient in the third person may be a result of the presence of more than one demon in the body. (p. 776)

Irmak concludes that ‘it is time for medical professions to consider the possibility of demonic possession in the etiology of schizophrenia’ and that ‘it would be useful for medical professions to work together with faith healers to define better treatment pathways for schizophrenia’ (p. 776). Continue reading

Does it matter that there’s cocaine in our water supply?

Scientists from the Drinking Water Inspectorate have recently discovered benzoylecgonine in water samples at four test sites, a finding that is thought to be a result of high levels of domestic cocaine consumption. Benzoylecgonine is the metabolised form of cocaine that appears once it has passed through the body, and is the same compound that is tested for in urine-based drug tests for cocaine. It is also an ingredient in a popular muscle-rub, however, so the origins of the compound in our water are somewhat uncertain. Steve Rolles from the drug policy think tank Transform has suggested that the findings are an indication of the scale of the use of cocaine in Britain todayAccording to a 2010 UN report, the United Kingdom is the single largest cocaine market within Europe, followed by Spain.  In contrast to the shrinking cocaine market in North America, the number of cocaine users in European countries has doubled over the last decade, from 2 million in 1998 to 4.1 million in 2007/8. Although the annual cocaine prevalence rate in Europe (1.2%) is lower than North America (2.1%), the UK prevalence rate (3.7% in Scotland and 3.0% in England and Wales) is actually higher than the US (2.6% in 2008). According to the charity DrugScope, cocaine is the second most used illegal substance in the UK after cannabis: there are around 180,000 dependent users of crack cocaine in England, and nearly 700,000 people aged 16-59 are estimated to take cocaine every year. Further, according to the government statistics, in the years 2012-13, cocaine was the only drug to show an increase in use among adults between 16-59. All this does appear to suggest a possible link between the benzoylecgonine found in the water supply and high levels of cocaine use in the UK.

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Complicity and Contraception: Rethinking Hobby Lobby’s Claim of ‘Substantial Burden on the Exercise of Religion’

Within the next month, the United States Supreme Court will decide whether for-profit corporations shall receive an exemption from providing certain types of contraceptives that are otherwise mandated for healthcare coverage by federal law to employees on the basis of the religious objections of the corporations’ owners.  The two cases considered in tandem by the Supreme Court, Sebelius v Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation v Sebelius (Hobby Lobby from here on out), feature a Christian-owned arts and crafts chain and a Mennonite Christian-owned furniture manufacturer, the owners of which object to four specific forms of birth control that they claim cause abortions.

In making their argument for an exemption, the claimants rely mainly on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) passed by Congress in 1993. The RFRA states, “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion…” unless “that application of the burden to the person – 1) is furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and 2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.” This sets up three tests for judging the permissibility of a government act: the substantial burden test, the compelling interest test, and the least restrictive means test. For the claimants in Hobby Lobby to be successful under the RFRA, the Supreme Court would need to decide first that the government’s ‘contraception mandate’ is indeed a ‘substantial burden’ and second that the provision of contraception is both a compelling government interest and that employer based health insurance is the least restrictive method for securing that interest.

Scholars and journalists have taken various approaches in responding to the range of questions related to these three tests. However, I argue here that Hobby Lobby’s exemption claim can be denied without diving into this spectrum by showing that it fails to meet the first test: the government does not place a substantial burden on the exercise of religion by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood in its ‘contraception mandate.’ Continue reading

Living near a busy road can kill you

Early April saw some unusually smoggy days across much of Western Europe, resulting in widespread media attention to air pollution.
(See, for example, here, here and here.) On one day, air quality in some parts of London was worse than in Beijing. Further attention has been drawn to the issue by a number of recent official reports, including one from the World Health Organisation, which has declared that air pollution is now the world’s biggest single environmental threat to health.

As has been noted, media coverage can give a misleading picture of the health risks of air pollution. Coverage tends to focus on short-term peaks, such as those seen recently in Western Europe, but the health risks of air pollution are primarily related to long term exposure, and show no ’safe threshold’ effect. Elevated baseline levels of pollution are thus more of a problem than occasional peaks.

There’s another important aspect of air pollution that often goes unnoticed; small geographical differences can have a marked effect on exposure to air pollution and thus on risk of adverse health effects. For example, living near a busy road appears to substantially increase air pollution-related mortality. A study published last year in the Lancet (press summary here) investigated the effects of very local differences in air quality on mortality by pooling 22 European cohort studies. The investigators found that an increase in average annual fine particulate (PM2.5) exposure of 5 µg/m3 was associated with a 7% increase in the risk of dying from all natural causes. This is approximately the difference between living on a busy urban road and living in a traffic-free area. The finding was robust in the face of correction for various possible confounding factors. Continue reading

The future of punishment: a clarification

By Rebecca Roache

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I’m working on a paper entitled ‘Cyborg justice: punishment in the age of transformative technology’ with my colleagues Anders Sandberg and Hannah Maslen. In it, we consider how punishment practices might change as technology advances, and what ethical issues might arise. The paper grew out of a blog post I wrote last year at Practical Ethics, a version of which was published as an article in Slate. A few months ago, Ross Andersen from the brilliant online magazine Aeon interviewed Anders, Hannah, and me, and the interview was published earlier this month. Versions of the story quickly appeared in various sources, beginning with a predictably inept effort in the Daily Mail, and followed by articles in The TelegraphHuffington PostGawkerBoing Boing, and elsewhere. The interview also sparked debate in the blogosphere, including posts by Daily NousPolaris KoiThe Good Men ProjectFilip SpagnoliBrian LeiterRogue PriestLuke Davies, and Ari Kohen, and comments and questions on Twitter and on my website. I’ve also received, by email, many comments, questions, and requests for further interviews and media appearances. These arrived at a time when I was travelling and lacked regular email access, and I’m yet to get around to replying to most of them. Apologies if you’re one of the people waiting for a reply.
I’m very happy to have started a debate on this topic, although less happy to have received a lot of negative attention based on a misunderstanding of my views on punishment and my reasons for being interested in this topic. I respond to the most common questions and concerns below. Feel free to leave a comment if there’s something important that I haven’t covered. Continue reading

Is smoking morally wrong?

This week, I’ve been thinking about smoking. Full disclosure: My name is Jim and I am a smoker. I have smoked for nearly a decade now – since around 2005 – and I only smoke menthol cigarettes. I am addicted to the sweet menthol smoke, where that touch of red fire at the end of a white stick seems so perfectly suited to almost any occasion from celebration to commiseration. I give up on average for a month or two a year, every year. I always come back, though. The reason I say this is to highlight that I am by no means one of these dour-faced moralizers, condemning smokers for their ‘filthy habit’. Like a snot-nosed child, it may be filthy, but it’s my filthy habit. Most efforts to encourage people against smoking focus on the idea that smoking is personally damaging: it causes illness and death, it costs a lot of money, it harms others, it litters the environment, and so on. This week, however, I’ve been thinking about whether the real concern is that smoking might be morally wrong. (NB: I’m discussing where whether it is morally wrong, not whether it should be legally banned or whether people should have the ‘right’ to smoke – these are distinct questions). Continue reading

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