Ethics in Science

In science, there are many questions that can be argued based on logic, or evidence, or adherence to scientific method. However, there are always other questions where disagreements are based upon morale beliefs - like the point made in Jurassic Park, when the character accused the scientists on being so focused on the question of whether they could clone dinosaurs, no one had asked whether they should be doing it. We will discuss many such questions currently being posed in different areas of science.

Answer these questions on a separate piece of paper. For this exercise, as long as you understand the question, there are no wrong answers. One requirement for the answers is that you aren't allowed to just answer the question - you must give some reason for your answer. The reasons don't need to be supportable, or "scientific," they just need to explain your feelings somewhat - even if you have no opinion, there should be some reason for that.

1. Reliable results in scientific experiments demand that the experiment itself be matched with a control test, something to compare the experiment's results to and find the real actions of those things being tested. Controls in drug tests involve a group of patients with the proper disease, given all aspects of the drug (pills, injections, whatever) but not the actual drug - they get a false treatment, a placebo. Some of them will get better, showing you how many in your experiment might have gotten better regardless of the drug. For curing headaches or acne, this is pretty straightforward - but is it right, when the disease is a terminal one, to have a control group who will get a placebo rather than the experimental treatment?

2. Drugs are tested for very specific applications before the FDA approves them and allows them to be sold. Once on the market, though, if it seems like a drug might have some other uses, it's currently legal to prescribe them for other things they were never officially tested for (although the American Medical Association advises its members not to prescribe drugs for problems that they haven't been tested on). Should drug prescriptions be restricted to just their original tested purposes?

3. The Food and Drug Administration has strict testing rules for any kind of new drug. However, "new" materials that can be found in foods - any substance that can be found in things that people eat - are not required to be tested, even if the material is extracted and concentrated in pill form containing much more than anyone could actually eat. Should such materials be sold without testing?

4. The government often forces food manufacturers to add extra nutrients to their foods - Vitamin D in milk, or protein in bread. Recently, bread manufacturers have been told to add extra folate, a B Vitamin, to bread. A lack of folate during pregnancy can lead to some very serious nervous system birth defects - about 1000 babies a year are born with such defects. However, a disease of about a million older people, pernicious anemia, can be hidden when extra folate is in the diet - without extra folate, symptoms appear early and are completely curable, but with folate, symptoms don't appear until irreversible nerve damage has occurred. Should that extra folate be in the bread?

5. A close relative is dying or brain dead, and you are the only relative available to give consent for organ donation. But you have no idea how this relative felt about donating their organs. Would you consent?

6. Many cultures and legal systems through the ages have decided when people become people - that is, when or how they become protected under the laws. Here in the U.S., full protection begins at birth, with some protection for the last three months of a pregnancy. When do you think that an embryo or fetus should get full legal protection, if at all?

7. Stem cells, cells usually taken from very early embryos, might be used to treat many serious diseases where an adult�s body cannot make proper cells to replace damaged ones. There has been much debate on whether the government should allow research in these areas. Is it right to use embryo cells experimentally?

8. A clone, as it's currently being discussed, is an embryo grown from a body cell of an already- existing human, so it produces a baby "identical twin." Should such a process be legal?

9. If there were a serious epidemic for which vaccines are available, it is likely that there would not be enough vaccine to go around. On what basis do you think access to vaccine should be prioritized - who should be put "first in line," with the understanding that only a few groups can be vaccinated, leaving everyone else at risk for a life-threatening disease?

10. Animals are often used to train health professionals - the animals are practice "stand-ins" for people, such as when medical students dissect anesthetized dogs to study active insides of something close to human size. Should animals be used this way?

11. Spraying chemicals to control pests or to do other tasks has had many bad effects, so labs are trying to develop substitutes from living things - bacteria, mostly, that can be better "aimed" at the problems: germ pesticides that should go only after the pests and leave other animals alone, or bacteria that will eat up an oil spill and then die when the food runs out. Unlike chemicals, bacteria can be much more specific and less likely to spread into the water table or up the food chain, but they also will be able to reproduce on their own and, presumably, to change and evolve. Once developed and tested, the only way to use these things is to release them into the open environment. Is that a good idea?

12. Food plants are also being genetically engineered - genes are being inserted into crop plants to help them fight off pests or resist herbicides, or to make them frost-resistant, among other things. More crops could be produced per acre for less money, eventually, or that is the aim. The inserted genes often come from non-food plants, so their effects on consumers are not known, and there is the possibility that the inserted genes could "jump" to weeds from the crop plants. Several countries have banned such genetically-altered foods. Would you support such a ban?

13. Government regulations on the environment often assume that once we know the effects of something at, say, 100 times the typical exposure, the effects of a typical exposure are exactly 1/100th of that. So, when huge amounts of artificial sweetener give mice cancer, that sweetener is outlawed, and when asbestos workers get lung disease, it's assumed that the tiny amounts of asbestos in buildings can produce similar disease. Is this a reasonable way to make the rules?

14. To determine the toxic properties of pesticides, some companies test them directly on paid human volunteers. The results are more reliable indicators of effects on humans than the usual animal tests, but should such testing be allowed?

15. If a country's population is exploding out of control, what sort of ethical laws do you think could be passed to reduce the birth rate?

16. For question 15, what sort of laws would you find to be totally unacceptable, no matter how serious the population problem?

17. Researchers are looking into the genetics of behavior - how much of the way we act is really in our genes? One area being looked at is antisocial, violent criminal behavior. We might be able to identify children with genetic tendencies (they'd always be tendencies - human behavior is never a sure thing) toward such behavior early in life. What sorts of positive things might be done with such knowledge?

18. For question 17, what harm might come from such knowledge?

19. Some diseases are genetic. Some are almost 100% predictable - if you've got the gene, you'll get the disease. Many of these diseases strike later - 40s, 50s - and have no treatments or preventatives yet - knowing you're carrying it would give you no advantage over the disease. If such a disease ran in your family, would you take the test to see if you were going to get it?

20. Research is being done into cryogenics, which is freezing people in suspended animation. Your chemistry, including aging, is totally stopped until you get thawed. What is planned is that people with terminal diseases can be "put on ice" until they can be revived and cured. If you were diagnosed with a terminal disease, would you consider doing this?

21. For the situation of question 20, what if it were your child who had the terminal disease? Would you consider cryogenics for them?



First Written 1986;  Original Web Version 2001;  Last Update August 2004,  M. McDarby




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