Regulation

Fracking and the Precautionary Principle

By Charles Foster

Image> Leolynn11, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The UK Government has lifted the prohibition on fracking.

The risks associated with fracking have been much discussed. There is widespread agreement that earthquakes cannot be excluded.

The precautionary principle springs immediately to mind. There are many iterations of this principle. The gist of the principle, and the gist of the objections to it, are helpfully summarised as follows:

In the regulation of environmental, health and safety risks, “precautionary principles” state, in their most stringent form, that new technologies and policies should be rejected unless and until they can be shown to be safe. Such principles come in many shapes and sizes, and with varying degrees of strength, but the common theme is to place the burden of uncertainty on proponents of potentially unsafe technologies and policies. Critics of precautionary principles urge that the status quo itself carries risks, either on the very same margins that concern the advocates of such principles or else on different margins; more generally, the costs of such principles may outweigh the benefits. 

Whichever version of the principle one adopts, it seems that the UK Government’s decision falls foul of it. Even if one accepts (controversially) that the increased flow of gas from fracking will not in itself cause harm (by way of climate disruption), it seems impossible to say that any identifiable benefit from the additional gas (which could only be by way of reduced fuel prices) clearly outweighs the potential non-excludable risk from earthquakes (even if that risk is very small).

If that’s right, can the law do anything about it? Continue reading

We Should Regulate Politicians’ Public Statements Like Advertisements

Written by Hazem Zohny

There are strict regulations in place to stop businesses falsely advertising their products or services — why not the same for politicians? Lizz Truss and Rishi Sunak are currently trying to appeal to the Conservative party members who will determine the UK’s next prime minister in September – why can they largely get away with saying pretty anything about how their proposed policies will improve the status quo?

The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority has a clear code governing the public statements businesses can make about their products and services. They cannot mislead consumers by omitting key information or by exaggerating the performance of a product or service, and they must state any significant limitations and qualifications. In contrast, politicians are free to make misleading public statements about how they will tackle, say, inflation or recession using (potentially fudged) figures with little context or caveats. Continue reading

Abortion, Democracy, and Erring on the Side of Freedom

by Alberto Giubilini

(crosspost: this article appeared with a different title in iaiNews)

The leaked draft opinion by Supreme Court Justice’ Samuel Alito foreshadows the overturn of the 1973 Roe vs Wade ruling. Roe vs Wade grounded women’s (limited) right to abortion in the US in the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution and its implied right to privacy. Acknowledging the pervasive disagreement over the morality of abortion, the Supreme Court has now decided to “return the power to weigh those arguments to the people and their elected representatives”.

In this way, the Supreme Court is in fact democratizing the legal availability abortion. Which raises the ethical question about whether the legal availability of abortion should be a matter of democratic procedure, as opposed to a constitutional matter around fundamental rights. I side with the latter view. I do not think a decision over women’s right to abortion should be a matter of democratic procedure such as a State election or a referendum. And I am going to provide reasons for why I think people on either side of the abortion debate can share my view, assuming they accept some fundamental tenets of liberal democracy.

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Is Life-Sustaining Treatment Being Lawfully Withdrawn From Patients In Prolonged Disorders Of Consciousness? Nobody Seems To Know

By Charles Foster

From the time of the decision of the House of Lords in Airedale NHS Trust v Bland (1993) until the decision of the Supreme Court in An NHS Trust v Y (2018) (which I will refer to here as ‘Y”) it had been understood that the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment (typically clinically assisted nutrition and hydration – ‘CANH’) from patients in a vegetative state should be endorsed by the court. Over the years, this practice had been extended to cover such withdrawals in Minimally Conscious States too.

In Y, the Supreme Court held that there was no requirement for court review or endorsement. Why? Continue reading

Ambient Intelligence

Written by Stephen Rainey

An excitingly futuristic world of seamless interaction with computers! A cybernetic environment that delivers what I want, when I want it! Or: A world of built on vampiric databases, fed on myopic accounts of movements and preferences, loosely related to persons. Each is a possibility given ubiquitous ambient intelligence. Continue reading

Lockdown Erodes Agency

By Charles Foster

A couple of lockdown conversations:

  1. The other day I met a friend in the street. We hadn’t seen one another for over a year. We mimed the hugs that we would have given in a saner age, and started to talk. ‘There’s nothing to tell you’, she said. ‘Nothing’s happened since we last saw you. And that’s just as well, because, as you’ll find, I’ve forgotten how to talk, how to relate, and how to read ordinary cues. We’ve not been out. We’ve not changed anything. I wonder if we’ve been changed?’
  1. Another friend. ‘Zoom’s great, isn’t it? You switch off your camera and your microphone, and the meeting just goes on perfectly happily without you. Everyone thinks you’re there. Your name’s up on their screen. But you are just getting on with your own business.’

And a lockdown fact: Lockdown has been great for book sales. 2020 saw an estimated rise of 5.2% in volume sales of print books in the UK compared with 2019 sales. This was the biggest annual rise since 2007: Continue reading

Cross-Post: The Moral Status of Human-Monkey Chimeras

Written by Julian Savulescu and Julian Koplin 

This article was first published on Pursuit. Read the original article.

The 1968 classic Planet of the Apes tells the story of the Earth after a nuclear war destroys human civilisation. When three astronauts return to our planet after a long space voyage, they discover that humans have lost the power of verbal communication and live much like apes currently do.

Meanwhile, non-human primates have evolved speech and other human-like abilities, and are now running the earth with little regard for human life.

The astronaut George Taylor, played by Charlton Heston, is rendered temporarily mute when he is shot in the throat and captured. In one scene he is brought before the Apes, as he appears more intelligent than other humans.

He regains the power of speech, and his first words are: Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape.”

Planet of the Apes may be fiction, but this month the world’s first human-monkey lifeforms were created by Juan Carlos Belmonte at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in the US, using private funding. Professor Belmonte and his group injected stem cells from the skin of a human foetus into a monkey embryo.

This part-human lifeform is called a chimera.

If implanted into a monkey uterus, the chimera could theoretically develop into a live-born animal that has cells from both a monkey and a human.

While it has been possible to make chimeras for more than 20 years using a different technique that involves fusing the embryos of two animals together, this technique has not been used in humans. It has been used to create novel animals like the geep – a fusion of a sheep and goat embryo.

Professor Belmonte used a different technique– called “blastocyst complementation” – which is more refined. It enables greater control over the number of human cells in the chimera.

But why is this research being done?

Continue reading

Ethics, iBlastoids, and Brain Organoids: Time to Revise Antiquated Laws and Processes

Written by Julian Savulescu
Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and Wellcome Centre for Ethics, University of Oxford
Biomedical Ethics Research Group, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute

Jose Polo and his team at Monash University have successfully reprogrammed human adult cells (fibroblasts – skin cells) to form “iBlastoids”. These are structures which are like early human embryos. Normally when a sperm enters an egg, it produces a new cell, which divides, and these cells divide until a blastocyst is formed in the first week, consisting of 200-300 cells. In normal embryonic development, this would implant in the uterus. However, iBlastoids can’t do this as they lack the normal membrane that surrounds the blastocyst. They cannot by themselves form a fetus or baby.

They will be useful to study early human development and why so many embryos die soon after formation. They can be used to study mutations or the effect of toxins, perhaps developing treatments for infertility. So far, they have only been allowed to develop to the equivalent of a Day 11 Blastocyst. It is not clear whether they can produce the precursors to brain development:

“the developmental potential of iBlastoids as a model for primitive streak formation and gastrulation remains to be determined, and will require an international conversation on the applicability of the 14-day rule to iBlastoids.” (Excerpt from the team’s Nature article)

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Suspending The Astra-Zeneca Vaccine and The Ethics of Precaution

By Jonathan Pugh, Dominic Wilkinson, and Julian Savulescu

The authors are working on the UK Pandemic Ethics Accelerator project – @PandemicEthics_. This project was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) as part of UKRI’s Covid-19 funding.  All authors are affiliated to the University of Oxford.

 

Summary Points

  • Preliminary Reviews suggest that the number of thrombotic events in individuals who have received the Astra Zeneca vaccine is not greater than the number we would normally expect in this population.

 

  • It is crucial that we closely monitor these adverse events. The regulation of new medical interventions always requires us to manage uncertainty.

 

  • A precautionary approach to managing this uncertainty may be important for ensuring continued confidence in vaccination.

 

  • Regulators must weigh the potential risk suggested by these reports of adverse events following vaccination against the harm that suspension of the vaccine could have.
  • The harm of suspending the use of the Astra Zeneca vaccine depends on how many preventable deaths we can expect by suspending its use.

 

  • Amongst other things, this will depend on (i) how many people will be delayed in receiving a vaccine as a result (ii) the mortality risk of the people who would be prevented from receiving a vaccine, (iii) the prevalence of the virus at the time of the suspension, and (iv) the number of people who have received one dose of the Astra Zeneca vaccine, but not a second.

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Ethics Doesn’t Rule, OK?

By Charles Foster

Ethics and law are different. Or they should be.

Law has the power to coerce. That is a frightening power. There should be as little law as possible. But there should be more ethics than there is.

The boundary between the two domains is not absolute. Clinicians are probably more frightened of being struck off by the General Medical Council (GMC) (after an adjudication on their ethics by the Medical Practitioners’ Tribunal Service) than they are about an order by a civil court that compels their insurers to pay damages for clinical negligence. The exercise of the GMC’s statutory powers can be draconian: the existence of those powers, and the associated sanctions, is certainly coercive.

But although the boundary is sometimes blurred, it is still real. It is the job of the law to keep it from becoming dangerously permeable. In a recent case the law was caught napping. Continue reading

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