Bioethics seminar and book launch: Prof Søren Holm and Dr Silvia Camporesi (19/01/15)

We are delighted to invite you all to a seminar by Professor Søren Holm on The seven deadly sins of bioethics – how bioethical argument can go disastrously wrong​, followed by the launch of Dr Silvia Camporesi‘s new book, From Bench to Bedside, to Track & Field: the Context of Enhancement and its Ethical Relevance​, recently published for the UC Medical Humanities Series, with a foreword by Professor Holm.

camporesi_cover_6x9-202x300When: Monday January 19th, 2pm to 4.30pm
Where: Room SW1.17, East Wing, Somerset House, Strand, London, WC2R 2LS
RSVP here

Søren Holm is a prominent bioethicist and philosopher of medicine. He is Professor of Bioethics at the Centre for Social Ethics and Policy, part of the School of Law at the University of Manchester and at the Centre for Medical Ethics at the University of Oslo.

Abstract: The seven deadly sins of bioethics – how bioethical argument can go disastrously wrong
Søren Holm has entered grumpy middle age and in this talk he will use his long experience as an academic bioethicist and journal editor to Silvia Book Launch 1identify some of the way in which bioethical argument can go disastrously wrong. He will identify the seven deadly sins of bioethics, but will only discuss five of them in detail, partly because some of the deadly sins do not really require any in depth discussion. The bioethical equivalent of the canonical sin of ‘sloth’, i.e. lazy referencing is, for instance hardly worth any discussion, despite being extremely prevalent. The sins that will be identified, analysed and discussed are ‘simplification and reduction’, ‘unlifted bracketing’, ‘it ain’t necessarily so arguments’, ‘the irresistible attraction of the hole in one argument’, and ‘the grand leap of the whale up the Niagara falls’. In Silvia Book Launch 3so far as it is possible, the seminar will use examples drawn from the literature on human enhancement.

Professor Brian Hurwitz will be chairing the seminar, which will be followed by the presentation of Dr Camporesi’s book on the ethics of genetic technologies.

Tea and coffe, cookies and wines will follow.

Born to run? Genetic tests claim to measure athletic prowess.

In preparation for the Olympics, London is building up excitement with an event organized by Progress Educational Trust (PET) and the Royal Society of Medicine, and exploring the genetic underpinnings of athletic prowess. Supported also by the Wellcome Trust, the event has been given a very catchy title indeed: Genetic Medalling, and will take place tomorrow, June 7th, at 630 pm at the Royal Society of Medicine (1 Wimpole Street, W1G 0AE). What are the genes that confer a competitive edge to people? Are there favorite genetic bakgrounds? Are there individuals simply “born to run”?

Photograph by Sarah Norcross


These issues have implications over the enhancement debate in relation to fairness in sports. When does a genetic or biological advantage become unfair, if ever? Is there a threshold that we should put on individuals being genetically or biologically exceptional?
Similar arguments underpin the new IAAF rules regulating the eligibility of women with hyperandrogenism to compete with other female athletes. The rationale -being disputed in “When gender isn’t a given“- is that women who are too exceptional in terms of hormones have a competitive edge which is unfair over the rest of the female athletes. This was also one of the rationales for Caster Semenya’s gold medal in the 800 meters being taken away at the Berlin World Athletic Championship in 2009.

The implications of this debate on fairness and the construction of categories in sports have not escaped the organizers of the event, who write that “If we do find performance-related genes, how might this affect our attitude to sporting ability, fairness, equity and justice? To take an extreme scenario, would it be fair to segregate some sporting events based on ‘race’ if it turns out that certain ‘races’ have a genetic advantage?” The all concept of race is extremely dubious, as over thirty years of research have shown uncontroversially that within the Homo Sapiens there is no biological basis for our common social understanding of race (Lewontin 1972; Barbujani, Magagni et al. 1997; Serre and Paabo 2004).

Some companies in the US are already making a profit from selling genetic tests which supposedly measure the athletic potentials of kids, for example a company called ‘American International Biotechnology Services‘ and another aptly called Atlas Sports Genetics and claiming to be able to “map” the genetic underpinnings of athletic prowess.
Parents would therefore be encouraged to “invest” on their children and steer their education in one way or the other, for example signing them up with a basketball team or a swimming one. And as higher education is tremendously expensive in the US, the companies selling the tests advertise them as possible decision making tools as to which scholarship parents should aim at.

One of these even planned selling the test at big drugchain stores such as Walgreens (Walgreens is more or less the American equivalent of the British Boots). On May 11, 2011, the FDA stepped in and stopped one of the companies and sent Bill Miller, chief executive of American International Biotechnology Services, a letter demanding justification for marketing his Sports X Factor test without the agency’s authorization.
If you do not believe that you are required to obtain FDA clearance or approval for the Sports X Factor Test Kit, please provide us with the basis for that determination“.
A hearing is expected to take place soon.

As I was reading the article by Rob Stein on the Washington Post (note, thanks to Katrina Karkazis for pointing that out to me), I found a particularly spot-on on some lateral implications of this new quest for the holy genetic grail (or medal!) on the meaning of sports itself. So here’s the comment, and thanks to Bob who kindly reminds us: “What ever happened to playing sports just because it’s FUN?”…

Those interested could also read:

Barbujani G, Magagni A, et al. (1997). An apportionment of human DNA diversity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U S A 94(9): 4516-9.

Camporesi S, Karkazis K (2011) Opinion: When gender isn’t a given. Special for the Mercury News, May 22, 2011.

Karama C. Neal. (2008) Use and Misuse of “Race” in Biomedical Research. Online Journal of Health Ethics, Vol 5, No 1

Lewontin, R (1972). The apportionment of human diversity. Evolutionary Biology 6: 381-398.

Serre D, Paabo S. 2004. Evidence for gradients of human genetic diversity within and among continents. Genome Research 14(9): 1679-85.

Stein R, (2011) Genetic testing for sports genes courts controversy
Washington Post, May 18.

Methodology in Philosophical Bioethics: a special issue of the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics

The issue of the second quarter of 2011 of the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics presents an original focus on methodological issues in philosophical bioethics. Guest editor is John Coggon, Research Fellow at the Institute for Science, Ethics, and Innovation, School of Law at the University of Manchester, and -at the time of writing- a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow, working in issues relating to public health law and ethics.
In his editorial, Coggon writes that, as bioethics is a “field of disparate disciplines”, it is not always clear what role the philosopher plays in the wider scheme”. As a consequence, there can be difficulty in finding sound resolution between the competing perspectives, with the result of an “apparent deadlock, with theorists seemingly able only to talk across each other”. Therefore the need of a special issue devoted to analyzing the different available methodologies in philosophical bioethics. Different authors take different -sometimes even very different!- stances on this point, as it becomes evident from the contribution of the special issue. Many of the articles take as a starting point of their analysis the book “Rationality and the genetic challenge: making people better?” by Matti Häyry (Cambridge University Press 2010), also at the Institute for Science, Ethics, and Innovation in Manchester.
Among the contributors, Søren Holm, (Professor of Bioethics and Director of the Centre for Social Ethics and Policy, School of Law, University of Manchester) argues that bioethics is, as is moral philosophy in general, a field spanning a range of different philosophical approaches, normative standpoints, methods and styles of analysis, metaphysics, and ontologies. Holm also argues that the categorization of individual philosophers or specific arguments into a relatively small number of categories (something very common nowadays in bioethics, of which the book by Häyry is an example) can be an useful tool to introduce some kind of “order” in an otherwise “messy” (my qualification) field.
The book by Häyry does so by identifying three ways to deal with what he considers the challenges of “genethics”, namely pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) , the possibility to design children, savior siblings, reproductive cloning, human embryonic stem cell (hES) research, gene therapies, and considerable life extension techniques, which he refers to heuristically as neo-consequentialism, neo-virtue ethics, and neo-deontology. Putting aside the question of whether such labeling is correct (the contributions to the issue by John Coggon and by John Harris tackle this issue), Häyry’s main claim is that it is not possible to conclude with philosophical tools which of three frameworks is the most appropriate for assessing the ethical justifiability of a new biotechnological practice. According to Häyry, philosophical tools fail in doing so, as the three frameworks defined as above differ in the fundamental values and principles they employ. So Häyry seems to say that what is left for the philosopher in bioethics is to assess the internal coherence of each position, but then to step back and assume what he calls a non-confrontational “polite bystander view” which recognizes the existence of many divergent rationalities, all of which are simultaneously valid on the premise of internal coherence.
In my own contribution to the special issue (“Genetic Enhancement in Sports: The Role of Reason and Private Rationalities in the Public Arena“, coauthored with Paolo Maugeri of the European School of Molecular Medicine), we tested the approach outlined by Häyry by applying it to an eighth genetic challenge, namely, a variation of the genetic enhancement challenge discussed by Häyry as it applies to sports: gene doping. Should genetic enhancement in sports should be conceived as an eighth wonder or an eighth cardinal sin? And how useful is Häyry’s nonconfrontational approach for dealing with this kind of issues?
In our paper we argued that the genetic challenges described by Häyry’ are “public questions requiring public answers” and in this regard Häyry’s nonconfrontational approach is neither exhaustive nor satisfactory. To prove our point we chose to nail it down to the very timely eight “genetic challenge” of gene doping in professional track & field, which will be a very practical issue to deal with at the upcoming London 2012 Olympics games. Using the case of genetic enhancement in sports as our case study, we tested Häyry’s claim about the polite bystander view of the philosopher in the bioethical arena and argued that, on the contrary, philosophers are not, and definitely should not, remain out of assessing the rationality of the available alternative approaches. Quite on the contrary, philosophers should undertake the necessary confrontation required when a moral position underpins a practical decision, as the decisions concerning the permissibility of genetic enhancement in professional sports, or the permissibility of other biotechnological interventions, are. Even if moral disagreement will persist, this is not a good reason for philosophers to watch and stand by. Rather, it is a good reason for philosophers to enter into the arena of political philosophy and to come up with tools of deliberative democracy to deal with the moral disagreement. But we will leave this realm for the next post.