Top Bioethics Stories - Summer 2013

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“Philadelphia Abortion Doctor Guilty of Murder in Late-Term Procedures”

by Jon Hurdle and Trip Gabriel, New York Times, May 13, 2013

A doctor who was responsible for cutting the spines of babies after botched abortions was convicted Monday of three counts of first-degree murder in a case that became a sharp rallying cry for anti-abortion activists. (http://

The trial of Pennsylvania abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell lasted several weeks as testimony revealed that Dr. Gosnell not only conducted illegal lateterm abortions, but also cut the spinal cords of several live infants. Authorities found fetal parts in various containers throughout the abortion clinic, along with other unsanitary conditions. On May 14, Kermit Gosnell was found guilty of three counts of first-degree murder, 24 counts of performing an abortion beyond the 24-week limit in Pennsylvania, involuntary manslaughter for the death of a woman who died from a sedative overdose, and 211 counts of not waiting 24 hours after consulting with a patient before performing an abortion.

“Three-Person IVF Moves Closer in UK”

by James Gallagher, BBC, March 20, 2013

If the techniques were approved it could help a handful of families each year. Around one in 6,500 children develop serious “mitochondrial disorders” which are debilitating and fatal. Research suggests that using mitochondria from a donor egg can prevent the diseases. However, it would result in babies having DNA from two parents and a tiny amount from a third donor. (http://tinyurl. com/cllvr7g)

Last October, human embryos containing the nuclear DNA of one woman and one man and the mitochondrial DNA of another woman were successfully created in a laboratory. This March, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, finding no evidence that the procedure would be unsafe, gave three-person IVF the go-ahead. The health ministers have yet to decide whether this procedure can be used in the clinic.

“U.S. Judge Widens ‘Morning-After’ Pill Access for Young Girls”

by Jessica Dye, Chicago Tribune, April 5, 2013

A federal judge on [April 5] ordered the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to make ‘morning-after’ emergency contraception pills available without a prescription to all girls of reproductive age and criticized the Obama administration for interfering with the process for political purposes. (

“Drug Agency Lowers Age for NextDay Birth Control”

by Pam Belluck, New York Times, April 30, 2013

The Food and Drug Administration said Tuesday that it would make the most widely known morning-after pill available without a prescription to girls and women ages 15 and older, and also make the pill available on drugstore shelves, instead of keeping it locked up behind pharmacy counters. (

A confusing tussle ensued when U.S. District Judge Edward Korman gave the Food and Drug Administration 30 days to lift the age restriction on the “morning after” pill, which is available over-the-counter to women 17 and older. On May 10, the FDA appealed the decision, stating that based on its findings it will maintain the age limit on the 2-pill pack. In a decision that the Department of Health and Human Services says is unrelated to the lawsuit, it will allow 15-year-old girls to buy the one-pill version, “Plan B,” over-the-counter, as long as they have proper ID.

“Supreme Court Hears Arguments In Human Gene Patent Case”

by Lawrence Hurley, The Huffington Post, April 15, 2013

U.S. Supreme Court justices on Monday raised tough questions about patents on human genes held by Myriad Genetics Inc. The nine justices signaled reluctance to issue a broad ruling, indicating that some were looking for a compromise that might distinguish between types of genetic material. ( mfy8j7w)

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on April 15 over whether Myriad Genetics should be allowed to patent the BRCA genetic markers, which are known to indicate a higher probability of developing breast and ovarian cancer. The prosecution argued that genes are a “product of nature” and therefore cannot be patented, while Myriad maintains that the isolated genes in question have a different chemical structure from DNA. The plaintiffs accuse Myriad of being a gatekeeper for key genetic testing, preventing the development of potentially superior alternatives to Myriad’s $3,000 test, while Myriad maintains that the patent allows compensation for its research investment and discovery of these genes.

“Mental Health: On the Spectrum”

by David Adam, Nature, April 24, 2013

The stark fact is that no one has yet agreed on how best to define and diagnose mental illnesses. DSM-5, like the two preceding editions, will place disorders in discrete categories such as major-depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia 15 and obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD). These categories, which have guided psychiatry since the early 1980s, are based largely on decadesold theory and subjective symptoms . . . . The problem is that biologists have been unable to find any genetic or neuroscientific evidence to support the breakdown of complex mental disorders into separate categories. (

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is known as the “bible” of the psychiatric field. This manual has been revised only four times since its publication in 1952. Its fifth edition was released in May. The third, fourth, and now, fifth, editions base mental disorder diagnosis on Emil Kraepelin’s model of unique symptoms pointing to distinct causes, what is referred to as the category approach. However, clinicians often observe a range of symptoms that overlap several mental illness categories. Some psychiatrists have proposed that mental illnesses occur on a spectrum, and certain illnesses tend to overlap more often than others. This dimensional approach has raised questions about how doctors diagnose and treat mental illness.

“Five Doctors Jailed for Kosovo Organ Trafficking”

by Ismet Hajdari, Associated Press, April 29, 2013

An EU-led court in Kosovo on [April 29] jailed five doctors for organ trafficking at a Pristina clinic in the first such case in the breakaway territory which has already faced allegations of similar crimes during and after its 1998-99 war. ( mb8mztz)

On the global front, an organized crime ring in Kosovo was prosecuted for conducting illegal kidney transplants and organ trafficking. The clinic was exposed when a man collapsed at an airport after having donated a kidney. Investigators found that donors had been recruited from poor Eastern and Central Asian countries. They were promised $20,000 for their organs, even though recipients were charged about $100,000.

“My Medical Choice”

by Angelina Jolie, New York Times, May 14, 2013

My doctors estimated that I had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer, although the risk is different in the case of each woman. (http://tinyurl. com/m5cmn2a)

Actress Angelina Jolie announced that she underwent a double mastectomy to reduce her chances of getting breast cancer. Her mother died of ovarian cancer at age 56, and her aunt recently died of breast cancer at age 61. Jolie tested positive for a BRCA1 gene mutation, known to be a marker for risk of these diseases. Her decision has not only heightened awareness of genetic factors in breast and ovarian cancer, but also increased demand for the genetic test that detects BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations. Jolie’s announcement comes on the heels of the Supreme Court’s beginning deliberations about whether Myriad Genetics can claim patent rights to the BRCA genes.

“Human Stem Cells Created by Cloning”

by David Cyranoski, Nature, May 15, 2013

It was hailed some 15 years ago as the great hope for a biomedical revolution: the use of cloning techniques to create perfectly matched tissues that would someday cure ailments ranging from diabetes to Parkinson’s disease. Since then, the approach has been enveloped in ethical debate, tainted by fraud and, in recent years, overshadowed by a competing technology. Most groups gave up long ago on the finicky core method — production of patient-specific embryonic stem cells (ESCs) from cloning. A quieter debate followed: do we still need ‘therapeutic’ cloning? (http://

“Stem-Cell Cloner Acknowledges Errors in Groundbreaking Paper”

by David Cyranoski & Erika Check Hayden, Nature, May 23, 2013

A blockbuster paper that reported the creation of human stem-cell lines through cloning has come under fire. An anonymous online commenter found four problems in the paper, which was published online on 15 May in the journal Cell. (http://

This spring human cloning made a comeback. Shoukhrat Mitalipov and his team were able to obtain embryonic stem cells through human cloning. The embryos, which reached the blastocyst stage prior to harvesting, were made from donor oocytes whose nuclei were replaced with genetic material from other donors’ skin cells, a technique known as somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). However, a week after the paper was published, a commenter observed that some of the images were duplicated. Mitalipov says that the results are real and the data is real. The errors were minor and do not affect the results of the study.

“Vermont Becomes Third US State to Legalize Assisted Suicide”

AFP, May 20, 2013

Peter Shumlin, the Democratic Governor of the small progressive-leaning state, signed into law a bill that lawmakers adopted last week. Vermont follows the states of Oregon and Washington in legalizing the practice. (

Vermont, Oregon, and Washington are now the three U.S. states that permit physician-assisted suicide. The Vermont law allows terminally ill patients estimated to have less than six months to live to request a lethal dose of drugs to hasten their death. In order for a patient to qualify, he or she must receive two medical opinions, be given the option for psychiatric examination, and wait seventeen days before the prescription can be filled.