Art Caplan New Op-Ed: When Does Human Life Begin?

Art Caplan has a new Op-Ed on The Council for Secular Humanism about when human life begin.

From the piece:

“When does human life begin? For those in the “personhood” movement in the United States, there is no doubt about when that happens—it is at conception, when the sperm meets the egg. The personhood movement has gained a foothold among antiabortion activists who are looking to pass laws that define embryos as people with full rights. Personhood advocates aim to outlaw all abortions, along with in vitro fertilization, embryonic stem-cell research, and emergency contraception. Granting embryos personhood would also mean that someone who killed a pregnant woman at any stage in her pregnancy would be at risk of prosecution for a double homicide. And in those states that restrict a woman’s right to utilize a living will if she is pregnant, no living will could apply from the moment of conception..”

Read the full article.

Art Caplan Says Vasectomy Has No Place in Plea Deal

Art Caplan has a new opinion piece on NBCNews on the controversy over the case of Jessie Herald, in which he was offered a plea bargain that involved sterilization for a reduced sentencing. From the piece:

Jessie Lee Herald was facing five years or more in prison after a crash in which police and prosecutors said his 3-year-old son was bloodied but not seriously hurt. But Herald cut a deal. Or more accurately, the state agreed to reduce his sentence if he would agree to be cut. Shenandoah County assistant prosecutor Ilona White said she offered Herald, 27, of Edinburg, Virginia, the opportunity to get a drastically reduced sentence if he would agree to a vasectomy. It may not be immediately clear what a vasectomy has to do with driving dangerously and recklessly. It shouldn’t be. There is no connection.

Read the full article.

Animals are Already Legal Persons: On Steven Wise, the Nonhuman Rights Project, and Misguided Personhood Debates

The New York Times Magazine has just published an interesting piece on the Nonhuman Rights Project and Steven Wise, whose mission is to change the common law status of at least some nonhuman animals from “mere things” to “legal persons.”  (I have previously written on their work here).  It is widely agreed, among both advocates and opponents of Wise’s work, that granting legal personhood to animals would be revolutionary.  I think that this view is mistaken.  To understand why, it is helpful to clarify and differentiate between three possible conceptions of what it might mean to be a “legal person”—a term that is often used in imprecise ways.  Doing so reveals that animals are already legal persons, and that personhood does not itself count for very much. Continue reading

TOMORROW: Frances Kamm’s Bioethical Prescriptions: Book Talk and Panel Discussion

Please join us on February 27 at 2:00pm in Wasserstein 1019 at the Harvard Law School as we launch Professor Frances Kamm’s latest book, Bioethical Prescriptions: To Create, End, Choose, and Improve Lives (Oxford University Press, January 2014). The book showcases Professor Kamm’s articles on bioethics as parts of a coherent whole, with sections devoted to death and dying; early life (on conception and use of embryos, abortion, and childhood); genetics and other enhancements (on cloning and other genetic technologies); allocating scarce resources; and methodology (on the relation of moral theory and practical ethics).

Panelists include:

  • Frances Kamm, Littauer Professor of Philosophy & Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School of Government; Professor of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts & Sciences, Harvard University; Former Senior Fellow, Petrie-Flom Center
  • Norman Daniels, Mary B. Saltonstall Professor of Population Ethics and Professor of Ethics and Population Health, Harvard School of Public Health
  • Thomas (Tim) Scanlon, Jr., Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity, Faculty of Arts & Sciences, Harvard University
  • Moderator: Christopher T. Robertson, Visiting Professor of Law, Harvard Law School; Associate Professor, James E. Rogers College of Law, University of Arizona

This event is free and open to the public. For questions, please contact petrie-flom@law.harvard.edu or 617-496-4662.

Sponsored by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and BioethicsEdmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University; and the Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard Medical School; with support from the Oswald DeN. Cammann Fund.

2/27: Frances Kamm’s Bioethical Prescriptions: Book Talk and Panel Discussion

Please join us on February 27 at 2:00pm in Wasserstein 1019 at the Harvard Law School as we launch Professor Frances Kamm’s latest book, Bioethical Prescriptions: To Create, End, Choose, and Improve Lives (Oxford University Press, January 2014). The book showcases Professor Kamm’s articles on bioethics as parts of a coherent whole, with sections devoted to death and dying; early life (on conception and use of embryos, abortion, and childhood); genetics and other enhancements (on cloning and other genetic technologies); allocating scarce resources; and methodology (on the relation of moral theory and practical ethics).

Panelists include:

  • Frances Kamm, Littauer Professor of Philosophy & Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School of Government; Professor of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts & Sciences, Harvard University; Former Senior Fellow, Petrie-Flom Center
  • Norman Daniels, Mary B. Saltonstall Professor of Population Ethics and Professor of Ethics and Population Health, Harvard School of Public Health
  • Thomas (Tim) Scanlon, Jr., Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity, Faculty of Arts & Sciences, Harvard University
  • Moderator: Christopher T. Robertson, Visiting Professor of Law, Harvard Law School; Associate Professor, James E. Rogers College of Law, University of Arizona

This event is free and open to the public. For questions, please contact petrie-flom@law.harvard.edu or 617-496-4662.

Sponsored by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics; Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University; and the Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard Medical School; with support from the Oswald DeN. Cammann Fund.

Art Caplan on “Accepting Brain Death”

Art Caplan has a new piece, co-authored with David C. Magnus, Ph.D. and Benjamin S. Wilfond, M.D., in the NEJM, addressing the legal and medical reasons for accepting brain death as death. From the article:

Over the past several decades, brain death has become well entrenched as a legal and medical definition of death. It is clearly defined by the neurologic community [...], standards for diagnosis are in place, and it is established in law. It has become the primary basis of organ-procurement policy for transplantation. Ironically, the other standard for defining death, irreversible cessation of circulation, lacks consensus about diagnosis.

The concept of brain death has periodically come under criticism.4  Continue reading

Would Marlise Munoz’s Fetus Have Survived? Should It Have?

This is post is part of The Bioethics Program’s ongoing Online Symposium on the Munoz and McMath cases, which I’ve organized, and is cross-posted from the symposium. To see all symposium contributions, in reverse chronological order, click here.

Had the hospital not relented and removed the ventilator from Marlise Munoz’s body, could the Munoz fetus have been brought to term, or at least to viability? And if so, would the resulting child have experienced any temporary or permanent adverse health outcomes? Despite some overly confident commentary on both “sides” of this case suggesting a clear answer one way or the other—i.e., that there was no point in retaining the ventilator because the fetus could never be viable or was doomed to be born with catastrophic abnormalities; or, on the other hand, that but for the removal of the ventilator, the “unborn baby” was clearly on track to being born healthy—the truth is that we simply don’t know.

Before getting into the limited available data about fetal outcomes in these relatively rare cases, a bit of brush clearing. The New York Times juxtaposed reports about possible abnormalities in the Munoz fetus with the hospital’s stipulation about the fetus’s non-viability in ways that are likely to confuse, rather than clarify:

Lawyers for Ms. Muñoz’s husband, Erick Muñoz, said they were provided with medical records that showed the fetus was “distinctly abnormal” and suffered from hydrocephalus — an accumulation of fluid in the cavities of the brain — as well as a possible heart problem.

The hospital acknowledged in court documents that the fetus was not viable.

Whether intentionally or not, the nation’s newspaper of record implies — wrongly, I think — that the hospital conceded that the fetus would never be viable because of these reported abnormalities. In court, the hospital and Erick Munoz stipulated to a series of facts, including that Marlise was then 22 weeks pregnant and that “[a]t the time of this hearing, the fetus gestating inside Mrs. Munoz is not viable” (emphasis added). The hospital conceded nothing at all about any fetal abnormalities. In short, the Times, and many other commentors, have conflated “non-viability” as a function of gestational age with “non-viability” as a way of characterizing disabilities that are incompatible with life. As I read this stipulation, the hospital was not at all conceding that the fetus would never have been viable, had the ventilator remained in place. Rather, given the constitutional relevance of fetal viability, the hospital was merely conceding the banal scientific fact that the Munoz fetus was, at 22 weeks, not currently viable. There is nothing surprising in the least about the hospital’s “concession” about “viability” in the first sense, above: 22-week fetuses are generally not considered viable. Continue reading

Media Matters: Fetal Abnormalities in the Munoz Case

Nadia N. Sawicki

The tragic case of Marlise Munoz is finally at an end, now that John Peter Smith Hospital has, pursuant to an order by Judge R. H. Wallace, Jr., taken Ms. Munoz off life support and released her body to her family.  A few questions about the media’s role in this case linger in my mind, however; I will be addressing them in a series of posts.

In the days immediately preceding the court’s ruling, media reports frequently mentioned that the fetus Ms. Munoz was carrying was “distinctly abnormal.”  My impression is that these reports were intended to strengthen the case, at least in the public’s eyes, for withdrawal of life support.  Maintaining a dead body on life support against the family’s wishes in order to preserve the life of an able fetus is one thing, commentators seemed to suggest, but the case for doing so when the fetus suffers from hydrocephalus, heart problems, and deformation of the lower extremities is less compelling.

In the eyes of pro-life advocates committed to preserving the potentiality of life at all costs, however, the fetus’ medical condition seems irrelevant.  Unless a fetus is definitively not viable (which in this case the hospital finally conceded it was), a true commitment to the preservation of fetal life would not waver in the face of likely disability upon the child’s birth.

The fervent media reporting about the abnormality of the Munoz fetus seems, at least to me, to reflect a disconnect between the public’s perception of the significance of fetal disability in such cases, and its significance to disability advocates and advocates of pro-life policy.  What lessons, if any, can we learn from this disconnect?

Online Symposium on Munoz and McMath Cases

UPDATE: Following Friday’s court order (discussed below), the hospital today (Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014) removed the ventilator from Marlise Munoz, who has met the criteria for brain death since Nov. 28, 2013.

Two high-profile, rapidly evolving cases involving death by neurological criteria — better known as “brain death” — raise vexing and sometimes novel legal, ethical, and medical questions at the edges of life and death. I’m organizing an online symposium on these cases over at The Bioethics Program Blog, and will be cross-posting my contributions here, beginning with this introduction to the symposium, which brings readers up to date with legal developments through today. Please contact me if you’re interested in participating.

The Marlise Munoz Case

On November 26, 2013, Erick Munoz found his wife, Marlise, unconscious on their kitchen floor. She was then 14 weeks pregnant with their second child. Erick resuscitated her and she was transported, alive, to John Peter Smith Hospital, where she was placed on a ventilator to assist her breathing and given other life-sustaining treatment. Not long thereafter, however, Erick says that the hospital told him that Marlise was brain dead.

Although Marlise did not have a written advance directive, according to Erick, both he and Marlise had

worked as paramedics during their marriage, and thus were knowledgeable of and had personally witnessed injuries that resulted in death, including brain death. Erick and Marlise frequently discussed their requests, beliefs and desires with each other, and expressed clearly to each other, family members and friends, their respective desires not to be resuscitated should either of them become brain dead.

Erick requested, with the “full support” of Marlise’s parents, that the ventilator be removed from her body and that he be given possession of it for burial.

The hospital refused. It argued that § 166.049 of the Texas Advance Directives Act (TADA) — which provides that “a person may not withdraw or withhold life-sustaining treatment under this subchapter from a pregnant patient” — prohibits it from removing the ventilator. It was not entirely clear whether the hospital believed that Marlise was in fact dead or not. The media was reporting as late as December 24 that the hospital had said that Marlise was in “serious condition,” and the hospital had not released Marlise’s medical records, which Erick said would show a diagnosis of brain death, to him.

After the jump, this week’s developments in the Munoz case, the McMath case, and a list of symposium participants.

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Animals in Court: Does Personhood Matter?

In 1386, a female pig was put on trial in France for causing the death of a child by tearing his face and arms.  Trials such as this were not uncommon in medieval Europe. As E.P. Evans describes in The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, the same procedural rules applied to human and animal defendants, and the defense counsel for animals often raised complex legal arguments on their behalf.  In this case, the sow was found guilty, and under the law of “eye-for-an-eye,” the tribunal ordered that she be maimed in the head and upper limbs and hanged in the public square.

Animals today hold a very different place in our law.   As the subject of extensive legal protections and the beneficiaries of private trusts, they are no longer defendants in our courts, but rather aspiring plaintiffs.

Earlier this week, a series of habeas corpus petitions were filed on behalf of chimpanzees being held in confinement for various purposes in the state of New York.  (Court documents available here). The petitions, filed on behalf of the chimpanzees by the Nonhuman Rights Project, ask the court to recognize that the chimpanzees are legal persons with a right to bodily liberty, and to order that they be moved into the care of the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance.  This is the first time that a habeas petition has been filed on behalf of an animal in the United States.

Of the many important and interesting issues raised by these petitions, I will in this post focus the significance of granting legal personhood to animals.

While courts in the US have not previously been asked to recognize an animal as a person with a common law right of liberty, they have been confronted with a remarkable number of cases in which animal species are listed as lead plaintiffs—most often in suits brought to enforce provisions of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) and Endangered Species Act (ESA).  In one such case, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the endangered bird species at issue was a party with “legal status and wings its way into federal court as a plaintiff in its own right.”

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Now Available: Bioethical Prescriptions by Frances M. Kamm

Bioethical Prescriptions: To Create, End, Choose, and Improve Lives

By Frances M. Kamm, Littauer Professor of Philosophy and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Professor of Philosophy in the Harvard University Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Petrie-Flom Academic Fellow alumna

This book is a collection of Frances M. Kamm‘s articles on bioethics, which have appeared over the last twenty-five years and which have made her among the most influential philosophers in this area. Kamm is known for her intricate, sophisticated, and painstaking philosophical analyses of moral problems generally and of bioethical issues in particular. This volume showcases these articles – revised to eliminate redundancies — as parts of a coherent whole. A substantive introduction identifies important themes than run through the articles. Section headings include Death and Dying; Early Life (on conception and use of embryos, abortion, and childhood); Genetics and Other Enhancements (on cloning and other genetic technologies); Allocating Scarce Resources; and Methodology (on the relation of moral theory and practical ethics).

Dov Fox on Roe v. Wade

In a new piece at the Huffington Post, Bill of Health Contributor Dov Fox explores “The Forgotten Holding of Roe v. Wade — that states have a valid reason to regulate reproductive conduct because of an interest in “potential life.”

That “the State may [legitimately] assert” that interest, Roe held, “as long as at leastpotential life is involved,” explains why the government may, as a constitutional matter, restrict stem cell research that destroys human embryos, for example, whether or not those frozen embryos might otherwise be brought to term. That the fetus “represents only thepotentiality of life,” on the other hand, and accordingly lacks any interests of its own under the Constitution, explains why states may not, as many have tried, accord the legal status of personhood to human life beginning at conception.

The potential-life holding helps to resolve these and many other disputes over embryo contracts, fetal pain, and sex selection, for example, as I show in a forthcoming article. Arecent lawsuit exemplifies the enduring significance of Roe‘s potential-life holding. The case marks the first-ever federal challenge to fetal protection laws that punish women for using drugs during pregnancy.

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Peter Singer on Animals and Ethics

Video of the lecture is now available online.

By Chloe Reichel

Last Friday, Princeton ethicist Peter Singer joined Petrie-Flom for a lecture on “Ethics and Animals: Where are we now?” Singer began his talk with a historical look back at various religious and philosophical views of the relationship between humans and animals. He traced the lineage of thought from the view of dominion, which entails the idea that man has been granted free reign over animals by God (first found in Genesis, and also espoused by Aristotle); to the notions developed by Thomas Aquinas and Immanuel Kant, who believed that abuse of animals was not itself morally problematic except to the extent that it may inculcate bad habits in those who practice it; to the early English Utilitarians, who recognized the capacity of animals to suffer; to Charles Darwin, whose groundbreaking theory of evolution muddied previous distinctions between human and non-human animals.

Singer went on to discuss modern views of proper animal treatment. He articulated the prevailing view that humans have some obligations to treat animals well and without cruelty, but that human interests exceed those of animals. Singer then laid out his main principle regarding the treatment of animals—that of equal consideration of interests. In other words, the interests of non-human animals should be considered equally with human interests. To favor human interests over animal interests is a speciesist stance, similar in nature to other –isms, like racism and sexism, and equally morally indefensible, in Singer’s view. Singer carefully noted that while equal consideration of interests would mandate better treatment of many animals, such as those raised as livestock, his principle does not imply that humans and animals should receive the same treatment.

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CFP: Perspectives on Abortion, Assisted Reproductive Technologies, and Judicial Review

Call for Papers: Intersections in Reproduction:

Perspectives on Abortion, Assisted Reproductive Technologies,

and Judicial Review

Abortion and reproductive technologies have historically occupied separate realms in law, policy, and academia. In spite of some obvious and natural overlap, scholarship exploring the relationship between abortion and assisted reproduction is sparse. In 2014, Judith Daar (Whittier Law School) and Kimberly Mutcherson (Rutgers Law-Camden) will co-guest edit an issue of the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics devoted to articles reflecting on this relationship. JLME is a peer-reviewed journal published by the American Society of Law, Medicine & Ethics.

The guest editors are open to a wide range of scholarship from authors steeped in various aspects of reproductive justice, reproductive rights and reproductive technologies who can explore the future of assisted reproduction and abortion as matters of scholarly concern and legal regulation, especially when viewed as part of a larger movement for reproductive rights and reproductive justice. The term reproductive technologies should be interpreted broadly in this context to go beyond IVF and include a range of techniques used in conjunction with assisted methods of conception.

Questions papers might choose to tackle include, but are in no way limited to:

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