Top Bioethics Stories - Summer 2012

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“A Struggle To Define ‘Death’ For Organ Donors”

by Rob Stein, National Public Radio, March 28, 2012.

A new method of obtaining organs for transplantation is raising a host of ethical questions, including whether the donors are technically “dead.” For decades, organ donation has been guided by something called the “dead donor rule.” That probably sounds pretty obvious. But defining “dead” turns out to be pretty complicated. (

In recent years a new definition of death has surfaced which may usurp the more common definition which included the death of the brain. Some doctors now are defining death as the permanent cessation of circulatory function which has allowed for the procurement of organs even if the patient has not been declared brain dead.

“Mother Country”

by Sarah Elizabeth Richards, Slate, March 27, 2012.

[Ellie] Lavi, a dual citizen of Israel and the United States, visited an Israeli clinic that helped her conceive twins from anonymously donated eggs and sperm. Since she lived in Israel, she gave birth there. And then she tried to apply for U.S. citizenship for her daughters—and the State Department rejected her case. (

Countries are becoming increasingly unable to handle citizenship issues raised by IVF, particularly in cases where sperm and egg donors’ nationality differs from the gestational parents. Some countries have relied upon outdated and irrelevant laws to handle these problems, while other countries have simply not tolerated IVF and its inherent citizenship difficulties.

“California’s Dark Legacy of Forced Sterilizations”

by Elizabeth Cohen and John Bonifield, CNN, March 15, 2012.

“It’s one of the most horrific and shameful chapters in California’s history,” said Los Angeles civil rights attorney Areva Martin. Thirty-two states had eugenics programs, but California was in a league of its own. (

Unbeknownst to most, the state of California’s eugenics program was one of the longest running and most expansive in the country. Some estimate the number forcibly sterilized to be around 20,000, nearly twice the number of the next state, Virginia (8,300). Since this story broke, state officials in California, have done little to make reparations to those affected. Many are trying to highlight the injustice in hopes that California will act similarly to North Carolina by giving compensation to citizens who were forcibly sterilized.

“Champion of Death With Dignity Act dies at age 83”

by the Associated Press, Fox News, March 14, 2012.

A doctor who championed for Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act has died, assisted by the law he fought so hard for a decade earlier. Portland physician Dr. Peter Goodwin died Sunday at 83 in his home after using lethal chemicals obtained under the Oregon law, surrounded by his family. (

In 2006 Dr. Goodwin was diagnosed with a degenerative brain disorder. Recently he decided to end his life using the same law that he fought to enact. The Death with Dignity Act was approved by voters in the state of Oregon in 1994 and again in 1997. Oregon was the first state to allow physician assisted suicide, followed later by Washington and Montana.

“FDA Says Nanotech May Need Extra Safety Tests”

by Anna Yukhananov, Reuters, April 20, 2012.

U.S. health regulators said consumer products that use nanotechnology may have unknown effects on the human body, and advised food and cosmetic companies to further study the safety of these tiny particles. (

The FDA has asked companies using nanoparticles in their products to continue studies on their effects. Much remains unknown about this technology including whether it is possible for these particles to penetrate the skin and move to other organs. The FDA has placed the burden upon companies using nanoparticles to demonstrate that they are safe for use.

“Women Should Not Trick the Biological Clock”

by Bryony Gordon, The Telegraph, April 17, 2012.

In the next six months, Dr. Gedis Grudzinskas hopes to open a clinic in London where, for a not insubstantial fee, women will be able to “bank” tissue from their ovaries during their twenties and early thirties (the years of peak fertility) and have it reinserted later, when they are ready to fit children into their hectic schedules. The technique – which is currently only available in the U.S., Denmark, and Belgium – has so far been used mostly in cancer patients who fear being left infertile by chemotherapy. (

This procedure, though not new to the U.S., may be increasingly normalized in the United Kingdom. Participants hope that the ability to freeze ovarian tissue will allow them to have children later in life when they are ready to start a family. Doctors have expressed concern, however, that little is known about the effects of this procedure on a woman’s health and the children created thereby.

“Birth Defects More Common in IVF Babies: Study”

by Kerry Grens, Reuters, April 19, 2012.

Babies conceived through certain fertility treatment techniques are about one-third more likely to have a birth defect than babies conceived without any extra help from technology, according to a new review of several dozen studies. (

The data concerning reproductive technologies continues to show that children conceived through IVF are about thirty-seven percent more likely to have a congenital abnormality. The reason for this is still unknown although researchers have various hypotheses. Doctors have recommended that patients receive strict screening and genetic testing before undergoing in vitro fertilization.

“Stem Cell Clinic that ‘Preyed on the Vulnerable’”

by Robert Mendick, The Telegraph, April 8, 2012.

For the incurably ill, it is a message of hope: for a fee of between £10,000 and £40,000, sufferers of illnesses such as heart disease, Parkinson’s, autism and cerebral palsy can buy themselves hope at Cells4health’s clinic. The website is slickly designed, alluringly upbeat and carefully phrased. “Despite the huge advances which have been made recently, there is no guarantee for the success of stem cell therapy,” it says, which is medically true. But the next sentence is more concerning: “Nevertheless, every week we see this new ‘medicine’ helping a lot of people and improving the quality of life of many patients.” (

A doctor who was forced to shut down his stem cell therapy business in Germany has reopened a clinic in the United Kingdom. His website promoting his new clinic offers tactfully worded phrases which intermingle snippets of honesty and false hope. Absent from the information provided are the dangers of stem cell therapy and the number who have died under his care.

“Georgia Bans Most Late-Term Abortions, Assisted Suicide”

by David Beasley, Reuters, May 2, 2012.

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signed into law two pieces of legislation on Tuesday to restrict late-term abortions and outlaw assisted suicide in the state. The first law banned most abortions after 20 weeks’ pregnancy. . . . The second law signed by Deal made it a felony to help people take their own lives. (

Georgia’s governor has signed into law legislation prohibiting citizens of the state to receive an abortion after twenty weeks gestation based upon the fetus’ ability to feel pain. Georgia is the eighth state to enact such legislation. In addition, the governor has also enacted legislation making it a felony to aid another person in taking their own life after a law was struck down which prohibited advertising for services that would help end the life of another person.

“Transplant Experts Question Impact of Facebook’s Organ-Donor Registration Push”

by Kevin B. O’Reilly, American Medical News, May 28, 2012.

Facebook’s move to allow users to add their organ-donor registration status as a “life event” on their profile pages led to a surge in donor sign-ups and earned the company plaudits from physicians and other professionals in the transplant community. But experts warn that the social-networking behemoth’s action will not be enough to solve the U.S. organ shortage and could pose ethical problems for patients and families while trivializing the decision to donate. (

Facebook has made the controversial move to allow users to indicate that they are organ donors. After just one week, more than 33,000 had signed up to donate their organs. While the numbers appear to be promising, others are concerned by the medical and ethical implications of promoting donorship via Facebook. Among other things, the company has been cited for not giving adequate information regarding organ donation in order for users to be fully informed before registering.

“Why Genetic Tests Don’t Help Doctors Predict Your Risk of Disease”

by Alice Park, Time, May 25, 2012.

In a report published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health found that incorporating genetic information did not improve doctors’ ability to predict disease risk above and beyond standard risk factors, including things like family history, lifestyle and behavior. (

Though many are excited about the potential of a person’s genetic information in fighting disease through personalized medicine, much remains unknown and scientists are even uncertain of the function that some genes play in disease. The study found that most doctors’ treatment plans for patients remain the same regardless of information provided through genetic testing.