Ethics for CRISPR and the Big Leap Forward

By Kelsey Berry

This week, a research group in China published a paper describing a significant step forward in one application of the genome editing technique CRISPR: they used it to modify the genome of non-viable human embryos. Now, the scientific community finds itself grasping for ethical and legal foundations in order to evaluate the implications of this work and its possible extensions. Bioethicists and philosophers have been laying these foundations for years. Yet, the key problem, as always, is in translation: as we shift from science fiction to scientific reality, the robust and rigorous literature on the ethics of human population enhancement must find its way to usefully inform the policy debate and scientific practice. Translation between these camps can be thorny, but it must start with convergence on the issues at stake. Here’s a quick primer on the issue:

The spark: A team out of Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou led by Junjiu Huang used the CRISPR technique in non-viable human embryos to modify the gene responsible for a potentially fatal blood disorder. Leading journals Science and Nature denied the group publication on ethical grounds; the paper can be found in Protein & Cell. This is the first time that the CRISPR technique has been used to modify the human germline; however, the team specifically selected non-viable embryos in which to conduct the experiment in order to side step some of the most pressing ethical concerns.

The technology: CRISPR, which stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” refers to DNA loci that contain repeated base sequences, separated by other sequences called spacers. These spacers are like memories from previous exposure to a virus, and they tell the biological system which invaders to look out for and destroy – a key part of an adaptive immune system. In 2012, a team led by Doudna and Charpentier showed that CRISPRs could also be used to zero in on DNA sequences of their choosing simply by introducing synthetic guide RNA that matched the DNA sequence they wished to target. The CRISPR system would then slice up the targeted DNA sequence, either knocking out a gene entirely or allowing researchers to insert a “patch,” which if incorporated into the DNA sequence would modify the target gene. Since 2012 this technique has been shown to work in several organisms, including in human cells.

Continue reading

Bioethicists Art Caplan & Tom Mayo: Lawmakers have no business legislating end-of-life decisions

A new piece by contributor Art Caplan along with Tom Mayo in The Dallas Morning News:

This week, the Texas Legislature considered restoring to pregnant women a right every other adult Texan already enjoys: the right to make health-care treatment decisions in an advance directive or through the next-of-kin who speaks for them.

House Bill 3183 would eliminate all vestiges of the “pregnancy exclusion” from Texas’ Advance Directives Act. If it passes, the bill would remove the basis on which a Fort Worth hospital in 2013 kept brain-dead and pregnant Marlise Muñoz on life support for two months. This was done despite her husband’s insistence that his wife would not want to be hooked up to machines under those circumstances.

Eventually, a trial court agreed with her husband and declared that the pregnancy exclusion and the entire Advance Directives Act did not apply to a patient once she had died. That was only after Marlise Muñoz’s family had to endure the unimaginable pain of watching her corpse deteriorate before their eyes. Little wonder that they support “Marlise’s Law” and were in Austin to testify in support of the bill. […]

Read the full article here.

What Does Indiana’s Religious Freedom Law Mean For Health Care?

A new post by the Petrie-Flom Center’s Executive Director Holly Fernandez Lynch on the Health Affairs Blog, as part of a series stemming from the Third Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event held at Harvard Law School on Friday, January 30, 2015.

By now, we’ve all heard the commotion around Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), although it appears that the public’s fickle attention has already moved on to other matters. Despite some headlines to the contrary, the law originally said nothing explicitly about discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. It focused exclusively on religious freedom, allowing the government to impose a substantial burden on “any exercise of religion” only if it is able to demonstrate that burdening the person in question is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest.

In line with the Supreme Court’s opinion in Hobby Lobby, which held that corporations are persons capable of exercising religion, the Indiana law defines “person” to include individuals, organizations organized for religious purposes, and business entities that “may sue and be sued” and exercise “practices that are compelled or limited by a system of religious belief held by: (i) an individual; or (ii) the individuals; who have control and substantial ownership of the entity, regardless of whether the entity is organized or operated for profit or nonprofit purposes.” […]

Read the full article here.

China stops using executed prisoners as a source of organs for transplants

By Lydia Stewart Ferreira

According to the Lancet, China will stop using executed prisoners as a source of organs for transplants as of January 1, 2015. After January 1, 2015, “only voluntary donated organs from civilians can be used in transplants.” This decision was officially announced December 3, 2014 by Jiefu Huang, the former vice-Minister of Health at a seminar of China’s Organ Procurement Organization. While China needs to be commended for this government initiative, I find the fact that this initiative takes effect in 2015 quite shocking.

China has one of the largest organ transplant systems in the world, yet it has one of the lowest levels of organ donation – with a rate of 0.6 per 1 million people. In a 2011 Lancet article, Huang and colleagues reported that 65% of transplants in China used organs from deceased donors, more than 90% of whom were executed prisoners. The Lancet also reports that since 1984, it has been legal in China to harvest the organs of executed prisoners with the consent of the prisoner or their family. It was not until 2007 that China implemented its first legal regulatory framework for the oversight of their organ transplant system. In 2013, China went on to establish a national electronic organ allocation system.

Clearly, China has had a government endorsed organ procurement system. However, this procurement system has been internationally condemned by medical, scientific and human rights organizations. There were concerns about coercion, exploitation, undue inducement, non-existent consent, unjustified paternalism and the corruption of organ allocation. This organ procurement system used by China was legal under Chinese law. It is not clear to what extent illegal organ procurement – through transplant tourism and the black market sale of organs – was and is also taking place in China.

Continue reading

Remembering Alan Wertheimer: Not Only a Philosopher’s Philosopher but a Lawyer’s Philosopher

When I was young I wanted to be Alan Wertheimer. When I first read him as an undergrad in courses in ethics and in law and philosophy he was one of the twentieth century writers in the field I most admired (along with Bernard Williams, Joel Feinberg, and a few other august names). His clarity, his insight, and his thinking on topics like exploitation and coercion served to me as a model for what I wanted to do with my life.

Thus it was a true honor to, like Emily, get to know him personally over the last few years. To all the superlatives about him that jump out from the page I can add that in real life he was a real mentsch, an amazing reader and mentor, who I will miss very much.

What is perhaps most impressive about Alan is that he was not only a consummate philosopher’s philosopher, but also a lawyer’s philosopher. A quick search I did for his work in the secondary sources database in Westlaw show 442 separate law papers citing to his work. He has had a significant impact on not only bioethics, but contracts, law and sexuality, constitutional law, and the legal profession. Indeed, as a parting salute to this great thinker let me highlight one of his papers that never achieved the recognition I think it deserved (it inspired some of my own writing): The Equalization of Legal Resources from 1988 in Philosophy and Public Affairs.

Goodbye Alan, you will be missed, but very much remembered.

TWO Upcoming Events (5/7-5/9): “After Hobby Lobby: What Is Caesar’s, What Is God’s?” & “Law, Religion, and Health in America”

Pre-Conference Session

Hobby_Lobby_slide_270_174_85“After Hobby Lobby: What Is Caesar’s, What Is God’s?”
May 7, 2015, 4:00 – 6:00 PM
Wasserstein Hall, Milstein East BC
Harvard Law School,
1585 Massachusetts Ave.,
Cambridge, MA [Map]

As prelude to the 2015 Petrie-Flom Center Annual Conference, “Law, Religion, and Health in America,” please join us for a pre-conference session examining the role of religion in the American public sphere. Our expert panel will discuss the nature of conscience and conscientious objection, religious freedom, and religious accommodation from philosophical, theological, historical, legal, and political perspectives.

Panelists:

  • J. Dionne, Jr., Columnist, The Washington Post; Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution
  • Diane L. Moore, Senior Lecturer on Religious Studies and Education and Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard Divinity School
  • Charles Fried, Beneficial Professor of Law, Harvard Law School
  • Frank Wolf, Representative, Virginia’s 10th Congressional District, U.S. House of Representatives, 1981-2015 (retired)
  • Moderator: Daniel Carpenter, Freed Professor of Government, Harvard University and Director, Center for American Political Studies at Harvard University
  • Moderator:  Glenn Cohen, Professor of Law, Harvard Law School and Faculty Director, Petrie-Flom Center

The panel will be followed by a light reception at 6PM.

This event is free and open to the public, but seating is limitedRegister online!

 Full Conference:
stethoscope_bible_slide“Law, Religion, and Health in America”
May 8-9, 2015
Wasserstein Hall
Milstein East ABC

Harvard Law School
1585 Massachusetts Ave.,
Cambridge, MA [Map]

Religion and medicine have historically gone hand in hand, but increasingly have come into conflict in the U.S. as health care has become both more secular and more heavily regulated.  Law has a dual role here, simultaneously generating conflict between religion and health care, for example through new coverage mandates or legally permissible medical interventions that violate religious norms, while also acting as a tool for religious accommodation and protection of conscience. 

This conference will identify the various ways in which law intersects with religion and health care in the United States, understand the role of law in creating or mediating conflict between religion and health care, and explore potential legal solutions to allow religion and health care to simultaneously flourish in a culturally diverse nation.

Highlights:

Keynote Lecture: Religious Liberty, Health Care, and the Culture Wars

Plenary Session: The Contraceptives Coverage Mandate Litigation

The conference is free and open to the public, but seating is limited. View the full agenda and register online!

The pre-conference session is co-sponsored by the Petrie-Flom Center and the Ambassador John L. Loeb, Jr. Initiative on Religious Freedom and Its Implications at the Center for American Political Studies at Harvard University.

The 2015 Petrie-Flom Center Annual Conference, Law, Religion, and Health in America, is supported by the Oswald DeN. Cammann Fund.

Quality Measures and Doctor Behaviors

by Vadim Shteyler

Efforts to improve health care quality under the ACA have been directed towards expanding EHR use and health IT, improving care delivery by promoting care coordination and population health, and laying incentives for providers to meet quality measures. The 33 ACO quality measures include 8 measures to evaluate preventive care, 12 measures to address goals of managing 4 common diseases, and 7 to assess patient satisfaction. Though quality improvements have not been consistently shown, studies have found modest Medicare spending reductions. In fiscal year 2013, CMS began reducing health care reimbursement rates to hospitals with excessive 30-day readmission rates, as generalized by their readmission rates for heart attacks, heart failure, and pneumonias. These were extended to include readmission rates for hip and knee surgeries in fiscal year 2015. And, as readmissions were estimated to account for $17.5 billion of Medicare costs in 2012 (in part attributable to insufficient discharge services, access to outpatient care, and follow-up), efforts to curb them are expected to continue.

The ACO quality measures have been criticized for being too process oriented (as opposed to outcomes oriented). And, undoubtedly, so few quality measures can’t encapsulate all of health care. Noted shortcomings of readmission rates as a valid indicator of quality include that they do not differentiate between planned and unplanned readmissions and they don’t adequately control for different case-mixes between hospitals. As psychiatric illness is often poorly recorded in medical records, it is a major confounder that may impact different hospitals differently. In this blog post, I add the speculative concerns of a medical student from limited experiences on the wards. Continue reading

The Rights of Donor-Conceived Offspring

Guest Post by Naomi Cahn
Harold H. Greene Professor of Law at The George Washington University Law School
[Cross-posted from the Concurring Opinions Blog]

Today’s Washington Post prints an interesting article on regulation and the fertility industry.   One issue that it addresses is the rights of donor-conceived offspring to learn the identity of their egg and sperm donors. As I’ve written in numerous articles and books, it is a fundamentally important right for all donor-conceived offspring to learn the identity of their donors (the strength of my advocacy on this issue may not be clear from the Post article).

Other academics disagree with this position, believing it important to protect the identity of gamete donors for a variety of reasons.  I disagree, and I think the  law has a critical role to play in ensuring respect for the rights of donor-conceived people.   Parents can make the legal choice never to find out the identity of their donor.  By contrast, donor-conceived offspring have no such legal right in the United States: unless their parents opted into a known donor program, they are unable to learn the identity of their donors.  While their parents’ choices affect them as children, donor-conceived children grow up, and many become curious about their origins. Yet the law’s tight focus on the parent-child relationship excludes legal questions relating to donor-conceived adults. Continue reading

My Plan to Avoid the Ravages of Extreme Dementia

Guest Post by Norman L. Cantor
Professor of Law and Justice Nathan L. Jacobs Scholar Emeritus
Rutgers School of Law – Newark

The first signs of my friend Gertie’s descent into dementia were mild — confusion about days of the week and memory loss about recent events. These were troubling but understandable phenomena in my then 84 year-old friend. Aging inevitably entails some cognitive decline. Over time, though, her symptoms of mental deterioration worsened — disinterest in pursuits like reading and listening to music that had once occupied and entertained her, forgetting not just long-time friends, but even her devoted husband who had died years earlier, and obsessive repetition of certain thoughts and phrases. Now 89, Gertie barely recognizes the devoted caregivers around her. She cannot recall her distant or recent past, she no longer knows who or where she is. Gertie remains physically tenacious, with no life-threatening maladies. While dependent on assistance for dressing, eating, ambulating, bathing, and toileting, Gertie may continue in her mentally detached and dysfunctional limbo for years more.

I am determined to avoid Gertie’s fate. So I am now contemplating how to respond if and when I am diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s. My prime object is to avoid the precipitous mental deterioration accompanying advanced Alzheimer’s or similar dementia. My aversion is not based on prospective emotional distress and suffering. While some people in sharp mental decline may experience anxiety, frustration, embarrassment, confusion, or agitation, some, like Gertie, seem placid and indifferent to their debilitation. My aversion is grounded rather in my abhorrence of reduced mental function to a degree I deem intolerably demeaning. Such a status is unacceptable to me whether or not I would experience distress in a future demented state.

Keep in mind that I spent my work career as an academic. My personal satisfaction and self-image have flowed largely from intellectual functions like observation, reflection, and analysis. Inability to understand and process information is, for me, an intolerably undignified status. This preoccupation with future mental dysfunction reflects unwillingness to soil the lifetime image to be left with my survivors. I care mightily about posthumous recollections of my personality and I seek to shape my life trajectory (including a dying process) in a way that preserves a modicum of dignity. Continue reading

Highlights from the Consortium of Universities for Global Health Conference: Part III

By Guest Blogger Dan Traficonte 

In this third blog post covering my visit to the Consortium of Universities for Global Health Conference, I highlight some research from the conference focused on the importance of considering local social practices and belief systems into health policies and interventions.

Faduma Gure, a Master’s student in Interdisciplinary Health Sciences at the University of Ottowa, conducted fieldwork in Somalia to explore awareness of and attitudes to emergency contraception and their implications for health interventions. Somalia’s high fertility rate, high maternal mortality ratio, and low contraceptive prevalence rate coupled with restrictive abortion laws make addressing the lack of family planning services an extreme challenge. In conflict or post-conflict settings like Somalia, emergency contraception can be critical for pregnancy prevention, yet Somalia remains one of the few countries in the world without a registered progestin-only emergency contraceptive pill.

Ms. Gure conducted a qualitative, multi-methods study comprised of structured interviews with key informants, including physicians, non-governmental officials, government officials, local Somali pharmacists, and married and unmarried Somali women. Most participants showed little knowledge of existing family planning methods or emergency contraception, however, once contraception was described, all participants expressed tremendous enthusiasm for expanding access to post-coital contraceptive methods in Somalia. All participants expressed that an available emergency contraceptive would fill a major gap in reproductive health service delivery, and all government officials interviewed indicated that emergency contraception could easily be incorporated into the existing health system.

It is a common belief—and often a misconception—that people in conflict-torn and impoverished countries like Somalia reject modern medical technologies due to conflicting local practices and beliefs. Ms. Gure’s preliminary research indicates that the lack of emergency contraception in Somalia does not result from local beliefs, but from lack of knowledge and access to the technology.

Dan Traficonte is a 1L at Harvard Law School interested in the intersection of global health and international development.

Bioethicist Art Caplan: German Mom Expecting Quads at 65 is ‘Irresponsible’

A new piece by contributor Art Caplan on NBC News:

Berlin school teacher Annegret Raunigk is proudly prolific and, at age 65, not done making babies — pregnant with quadruplets that would enlarge her family from 13 to 17 children. Why?

Raunigk said she became pregnant again because her 9-year-old daughter asked for a younger sibling. (Her first 12 children — by five men — are ages 22 to 44). She told German tabloid Bild that donated eggs were fertilized and implanted at a clinic in Ukraine. Multiple attempts were required to get the eggs to fertilize. She did not say whose sperm was used or if the egg donor was paid.

Some media outlets have trotted out the usual fluffy descriptions of “miracle” and “gift” while trying to figure out if she is the oldest woman ever to have a child (she isn’t) or to have quadruplets (almost certainly she is). But this line of reporting completely misses the mark.

What she is doing is unethical. […]

Read the full article here.

Limiting D&E Abortions:  The Kansas Maneuver

Anti-abortion groups have found another way to limit previously legal abortions.  Building on the analysis in Gonzales v. Carhart, the 2007 case upholding the federal partial birth abortion law, Kansas has now prohibited “dismemberment” of fetuses.  This law would ban dilatation and evacuation (D&E) of the uterus by banning piecemeal removal of fetal parts, which is the standard way of performing second trimester abortions.  Several other states have similar legislation in the pipeline.

While 90% of abortions occur in the first trimester when suction aspiration or medication abortions are available, most later abortions occur by D&E, which involves several passes into the uterus with forceps or other instruments to remove the fetus.  The fetus is ripped apart and removed piecemeal.  The Kansas law would require that the fetus first be killed in utero by a KCL injection, and then removed piecemeal.  Alternatively, labor could be induced so that a very early nonviable fetus is delivered whole and dead.  If it is breathing, it is then not resuscitated because it is too immature to survive. Continue reading

Apply Now! 2015-2016 Petrie-Flom Student Fellowships

The Center and Student Fellowship  

The Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics is an interdisciplinary research program at Harvard Law School dedicated to the scholarly research of important issues at the intersection of law and health policy, including issues of health care financing and market regulation, biotechnology and intellectual property, biomedical research, and bioethics. The Student Fellowship Program is designed to support student research in these areas.  More information on our current fellows and their work, is available on the website.

Eligibility  

The student fellowship program is open to all Harvard graduate students who will be enrolled at the University during the fellowship year and who are committed to undertaking a significant research project and fulfilling other program requirements. Although the fellowship is open to all graduate students, including those in one-year programs, we encourage those who are in multi-year programs at Harvard to wait until after their first year to apply.

Resources

The Center will award each fellow a $1,500 stipend, paid at the end of the academic year once all fellowship requirements (including submission of an acceptable paper) are completed. Additionally, fellows may be eligible to request additional funding to cover reasonable costs associated with their research projects (e.g., copying, publications, conference fees, travel).

Application

Applications will be accepted on a rolling basis until 9 AM, Friday, August 7, 2015. Notifications of awards will be made by August 21, 2015.

Apply now! View the full requirements and application instructions on the call for applications.

Transatlantic Lessons in Regulation of Mitochondrial Replacement Therapy: Prospect of Disease-Free Children for Women Carriers through MRT

Cambridge, Mass., April 9, 2015 – A paper forthcoming on Friday in Science discusses the regulation of a new technology that gives hope to women who carry genetic disease. Mutant mitochondrial DNA gives rise to a broad range of heritable clinical syndromes. Cure of those affected remains out of reach. However, recently developed Mitrochondrial Replacement Therapy (MRT) – sometimes known as “three-parent IVF” — has raised the prospect of disease-free progeny for women carriers.

In the UK, legislation regulating the clinical application of MRT has recently been approved by the House of Commons and the House of Lords, after a 10-year process.

In the United States, the vetting of MRT, underway for a year, remains a work in progress. A new paper in Science released Friday, April 10, compares and contrasts the regulatory history of MRT in the UK and the United States, discusses the relevant ethical overlay, examines potential lessons learned, and charts the likely path forward in the United States. It is written by I. Glenn Cohen, Harvard Law Professor and Faculty Director of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School; Eli Adashi, Professor of Medical Science at Brown University; and Julian Savulescu, Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics at Oxford University and Director of The Oxford Centre for Neuroethics.

“There is much FDA and the U.S. can learn from the way in which the U.K. has evaluated and regulated MRT,” said Professor Cohen. “These lessons are particularly important because MRT is just one of a series of new reproductive and genetic technologies, including gene editing and In Vitro Gametogenesis, that FDA and regulators across the world will soon be confronting.”

Read the full paper now on the Science website.

TOMORROW at 12PM: Moral Decisions in the Law: What’s the Brain Got to Do with It?

Moral Decisions in the Law: What’s the Brain Got to Do with It?

brainscan_colored_slide_270_174_85April 8, 2015 12:00 PM

Harvard Law School
Wasserstein Hall, Room 3019
1585 Massachusetts Ave.
Cambridge, MA [Map]

Law – particularly criminal law – is infused with moral judgment and calls upon prosecutors, judges, and jurors to make morally-informed decisions. But where does morality come from? How do we “do” moral decision-making? Come join experimental philosopher and neuroscientist Fiery Cushman for a fascinating and provocative discussion of the current state of neuroscience research on morality. Dr. Cushman will present his computational models of learning and moral decision-making to describe how we learn what morality is within our own cultures, how we internalize moral rules, and how we make moral judgments about others. Amanda Pustilnik, Senior Fellow in Law and Applied Neuroscience at the Petrie-Flom Center and the Center for Law, Brain, and Behavior at Massachusetts General Hospital, will respond.

This event is free and open to the public. Lunch will be provided.

 Part of the Project on Law and Applied Neuroscience.

TWO Upcoming Events (5/7-5/9): “After Hobby Lobby: What Is Caesar’s, What Is God’s?” & “Law, Religion, and Health in America”

Pre-Conference Session

Hobby_Lobby_slide_270_174_85“After Hobby Lobby: What Is Caesar’s, What Is God’s?”
May 7, 2015, 4:00 – 6:00 PM
Wasserstein Hall, Milstein East BC
Harvard Law School,
1585 Massachusetts Ave.,
Cambridge, MA [Map]

As prelude to the 2015 Petrie-Flom Center Annual Conference, “Law, Religion, and Health in America,” please join us for a pre-conference session examining the role of religion in the American public sphere. Our expert panel will discuss the nature of conscience and conscientious objection, religious freedom, and religious accommodation from philosophical, theological, historical, legal, and political perspectives.

Panelists:

  • J. Dionne, Jr., Columnist, The Washington Post; Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution
  • Diane L. Moore, Senior Lecturer on Religious Studies and Education and Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard Divinity School
  • Charles Fried, Beneficial Professor of Law, Harvard Law School
  • Frank Wolf, Representative, Virginia’s 10th Congressional District, U.S. House of Representatives, 1981-2015 (retired)
  • Moderator: Daniel Carpenter, Freed Professor of Government, Harvard University and Director, Center for American Political Studies at Harvard University
  • Moderator:  Glenn Cohen, Professor of Law, Harvard Law School and Faculty Director, Petrie-Flom Center

The panel will be followed by a light reception.

This event is free and open to the public, but seating is limitedRegister online!

 Full Conference:
stethoscope_bible_slide“Law, Religion, and Health in America”
May 8-9, 2015
Wasserstein Hall
Milstein East ABC

Harvard Law School
1585 Massachusetts Ave.,
Cambridge, MA [Map]

Religion and medicine have historically gone hand in hand, but increasingly have come into conflict in the U.S. as health care has become both more secular and more heavily regulated.  Law has a dual role here, simultaneously generating conflict between religion and health care, for example through new coverage mandates or legally permissible medical interventions that violate religious norms, while also acting as a tool for religious accommodation and protection of conscience. 

This conference will identify the various ways in which law intersects with religion and health care in the United States, understand the role of law in creating or mediating conflict between religion and health care, and explore potential legal solutions to allow religion and health care to simultaneously flourish in a culturally diverse nation.

Highlights:

Keynote Lecture: Religious Liberty, Health Care, and the Culture Wars

 Plenary Session: The Contraceptives Coverage Mandate Litigation

The conference is free and open to the public, but seating is limited. View the full agenda and register online!

The pre-conference session is co-sponsored by the Petrie-Flom Center and the Ambassador John L. Loeb, Jr. Initiative on Religious Freedom and Its Implications at the Center for American Political Studies at Harvard University.

The 2015 Petrie-Flom Center Annual Conference, Law, Religion, and Health in America, is supported by the Oswald DeN. Cammann Fund.