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Welcome to the first Bioethics Digest, brought to you in association with the editors of the Bioethics Forum. This digest aims to bring you commentary on today’s most topical bioethics issues. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and not The Hastings Center.
One of the long-term contributions of Earth Day, which occurred on April 22, is that it offers a regular, semi-official reminder that a sense of the sacred is a vital part of environmentalism. But in the era of biotechnology, the notion of sacredness can pull in other directions.
A recent public form on synthetic biology hosted by Friends of the Earth and some other civil society groups effectively brought out how the notion of sacredness is woven into objections to genetically modifying microorganisms to produce fuel, cosmetics, medicines, and other chemicals. The event was titled “Sacred versus Synthetic: Competing Visions for Life on Earth,” and what was especially remarkable and helpful about it was that the presentations continually brought concerns about the possible practical harms of GM microorganisms back down to concerns about the very idea of GM microorganisms. To the speakers, the genetic modification of an organism is by definition a harm to nature, and it is perhaps the most fundamental harm to nature.
The goal of protecting life and preserving nature is a good moral starting point, writes Gregory E. Kaebnick, a research scholar at The Hastings Center and editor of the Hastings Center Report and author of Humans in Nature: The World as We find It and the World as We Create It. But a concern to preserve the natural world still requires careful thinking about which ways of altering nature constitute fundamental harms to nature.
“When I first began reading and writing about the genetic modification of organisms, I, too, felt that there was something particularly unattractive about it, that a sense of life’s value should guide us away from all forms of it,” Kaebnick writes. “I now believe that the real friends of earth should look at the big picture–at ecosystems and biodiversity, at the land, at the earth–and that the modification of DNA, per se, is not really the issue. The real issues have to do with the overall human-caused damage to the planet. We should focus on the problems of global climate change, pollution, ecosystem destruction, and human-driven extirpation of species.”
The idea that we can get better grades at school and advance our careers by taking drugs that improve concentration and other brain functions is at once controversial and tempting. Is this cheating, or is it in the same realm as drinking coffee to increase alertness? Bioethicists, medical professionals, and the general public are divided on this question.
What’s not contested is that teenagers and adults in the United States are using prescription medications such as Ritalin for nonmedical purposes in an attempt to enhance normal cognitive functioning. People are getting the drugs from doctors, or from patients (such as classmates) with prescriptions for neurological conditions who are willing to sell or share their pills.
Against this Wild West backdrop, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (PCSBI) has taken a significant step by issuing recommendations on the ethical use of medications and other means of “neural modification,” which includes drugs and interventions such as deep brain stimulation that might either treat neurological disorders or augment normal brain function. The recommendations are part of its final report, Grey Matters: Topics at the Intersection of Neuroscience, Ethics and Society.
Those who firmly believe that college students without ADHD who take Ritalin before finals are cheaters or that people in hard-driving careers who use drugs to sustain a seemingly inhuman output of work are frauds (or victims of coercion in a hypercompetitive job market) are likely to be disappointed by the commission’s report, writes Susan Gilbert, editor of Bioethics Forum, the blog of the Hastings Center Report. It is guardedly optimistic about the prospects for neural modification for enhancement purposes, stating that “contemplating novel methods of improving such functions as learning and memory in school or performance in competitive professions is truly exciting.” The commission does not assume that cognitive enhancers will necessarily promote injustice (by benefiting mainly those who are able to afford them) or help level the playing field (by enabling people with below average but still normal memory and other brain functions to perform better). But it concludes that it’s worth finding out.
A 78-year‐old man in Iowa, Henry Rayhons, was charged with third‐degree felony sexual abuse for having sex with his wife, who had severe Alzheimer’s, in her nursing home last year. Though Rayhons was acquitted last month, the case raises questions about the capacity to consent in cases of severe dementia, an issue that is not limited to sexual relations, writes Bonnie Steinbock, a Hastings Center Fellow, who is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University at Albany, State University of New York and a professor of bioethics at Union Graduate College’s Center for Bioethics and Clinical Leadership. It also comes up also in cases where patients with dementia initially resist food and water, but can be coaxed to eat. Does opening one’s mouth and ultimately swallowing indicate consent?
The importance of consent in sexual relations is well recognized, but this case is clearly not a case of spousal rape. No one suggests that Mrs. Rayhons resisted sexual contact with her husband, nor were there any signs of abuse. Indeed, by all accounts, theirs was a loving and affectionate relationship, and Mrs. Rayhons was always pleased to see her husband, even in the final stages of her dementia.
In other contexts, the absence of affirmative consent to sexual relations may be the right criterion for rape or other sexual abuse. On many college campuses, the movement is away from “no means no” (absence of consent) to a standard of affirmative consent. That is, both partners must give affirmative consent, whether verbal or otherwise, for sex to be consensual.
However, using affirmative consent as the standard for patients with severe dementia would deprive them of sexual relationships, because few retain the capacity to articulate a desire for sex. That would be a shame, because of the importance for human beings—including those who have dementia — of physical intimacy.
Brought to you in association with the editors of:
Bioethics Forum, the blog of the Hastings Center Report, publishes thoughtful commentary from a range of perspectives on timely issues in bioethics. Starting this month, Philosopher’s Eye will bring you a digest of the most relevant commentary from Bioethics Forum and Hastings Center scholars. With over 100 contributing bloggers working in a variety of positions, the blog supports a breadth of topics relevant to researchers, medical practitioners, health care professionals, ethicists, and philosophers. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and not The Hastings Center.
The Hastings Center Report has a long-standing history of exploring the ethical, legal, and social issues in medicine, health care, public health, and the life sciences. Wiley is proud of our continued partnership with the Hastings Center and their publications. For more information on this publication, take a look at their free sample issue for 2015.
Nurses, doctors, and physicians, our every-day heroes of the the medical profession, grapple with the delicate balance of philosophy and ethics as a practitioner. To them, the philosophical debates of medical ethics is actualized throughout their jobs on an actionable level. In celebration of its 20th anniversary, The Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice has compiled a special issue on the philosophy of ethics. The issue offers a variety of articles on the topic of philosophy and ethics in healthcare, with focuses from evidence-based medicine to person-centred care.
Wiley has an array of journals dedicated to bioethics and medical ethics that explore the crucial scholarly work surrounding the philosophy of ethics within health care. Also free until May 22nd, an additional collection of resources on the topic includes three of the top 10 journals by impact factor for medical ethics, Developing World Bioethics, Bioethics, and The Hastings Center Report. Special Collection in Medical Ethics is freely available until May 22, 2015. Read Here.
The Southern Journal of Philosophy has just published an annual Spindel Supplement on animalism and a new theory of personal identity. The problem of personal identity is one of the most bewitching puzzles in all of philosophy. Consider how much each of us changes during our lifetimes. In so many ways—biologically, psychologically, socially, physically—you are today very different from the person you were last year or twenty years ago or on the day of your birth. And yet just one person has persisted through these changes. The first facet of the problem of personal identity focuses our attention on this question: what exactly are the conditions under which beings like you and me persist through time and change?
Until quite recently, most philosophers subscribed to the answers to these questions advocated by the seventeenth-century British philosopher, John Locke. Locke held that our fundamental nature is given by our status as self-conscious, rational agents (“persons”) and that the conditions under which we persist through time and change are thus to be accounted for in terms of psychological continuity. Central to this view is a sharp distinction between the person and her animal body.
But today’s Lockeans face a powerful new challenge to the distinction underlying their core commitments. According to the view known as animalism, there is no distinction to be drawn between human persons and their animal bodies. You do not “have” a body in the sense that you are one thing and the animal located where you are is something else. Rather, on this view, human persons just are their animal bodies: the primate located where you are is you.
Though Aristotelian in spirit, animalism is a relative latecomer to the debate over personal identity, having been articulated and defended only within the past twenty-five years or so. During these first two and a half decades of work, advocates of the view sought mainly to specify and defend its central claims and to understand its relation to the Lockean opposition. While highly important work along these lines continues to be done, a second, overlapping wave of work on animalism seems now to be emerging. This new wave is beginning to broaden animalism’s import beyond metaphysics and philosophy of mind into a diverse array of fields and topics, including ethics, philosophy of language, conjoined twinning, epistemology, evolutionary theory, philosophy of religion, death, and so on.
The guiding aim of the thirty-second annual Spindel Conference on “The Lives of Human Animals” (University of Memphis, September 26–28, 2013) was to spotlight and facilitate this second wave of work by providing a forum in which metaphysicians and philosophers of mind working on animalism were brought together with philosophers who are presently engaged in pertinent debates in other areas of philosophy. The Spendel conference and supplementary issue were organized by Stephen Blatti, former SJP editor and associate professor of philosophy at the University of Memphis.
Wu’s article has just been published in the September 2014 issue of Mind & Language and is free to access until the end of the year.
According to the influential dual systems model of visual processing (Milner & Goodale 1995/2006, Goodale & Milner 2004), information present in the dorsal processing stream does not contribute to the specific contents of conscious visual experience. “Visual phenomenology,” A.D. Milner and Melvyn Goodale write, “can arise only from processing in the ventral stream, processing that we have linked with recognition and perception…. Visual-processing modules in the dorsal stream, despite the complex computations demanded by their role in the control of action, are not normally available to awareness” (Milner & Goodale 1995/2006, 202). In his article, Wayne argues that certain types of information arising in the dorsal stream, contrary to Milner and Goodale, do play a role in realizing the contents of visual experience. In particular, he argues that information carried in dorsal stream areas such as VIP and LIP support awareness of visual spatial constancy across saccadic eye-movements. Wayne also adduces evidence that dorsal stream areas play a role in conscious visual motion and depth perception.
In the years following Nobel Prize-winner Paul Crutzen’s 2006 landmark editorial essay on atmospheric albedo enhancement (Crutzen2006), the idea of engineering a technical solution to climate change has seen a surge of interest. The suggestion that the “perfect moral storm” (Gardiner 2011a) of climate change might be solved by turning an intractable social, economic, and political problem into a solvable technical and scientific one has created a giddy sense of relief in some quarters and a dark sense of foreboding in others. Although there is a rapidly growing literature on the ethics of geoengineering (Gardiner 2011a; Svoboda et al. 2011; Preston 2012a), very little has been written about its gender and justice dimensions. Given that the ethical considerations pertinent to geoengineering include challenges about participation, potential harm to the marginalized, hubristic attitudes about control, and the emblematic question of “whowould get to set the global thermostat?” it is clear this is an area ripe for gender analysis.
Geoengineering has been helpfully defined as “the intentional manipulation of the earth’s climate to counteract anthropogenic climate change or its warming effects” (Corner and Pidgeon 2010, 26). An early report by the UK’s Royal Society on the main technical and governance issues of geoengineering established what has become a canonical distinction between methods focusing on solar radiation management (SRM) and methods involving carbon dioxide removal (CDR). Whereas CDR would slowly remove atmospheric carbon to restore a safe level of greenhouse gases, SRM would cool the planet more rapidly by reflecting back a portion of the sun’s energy before it has the chance to warm the earth, the oceans, and the atmosphere. Examples of proposed SRM techniques include shooting aerosols into the stratosphere using ballistics, fighter jets, or specially erected hoses and pipes; spraying seawater into the air from ships with tall towers; launching mirrors into space to act as a shield; and wrapping deserts in shiny polyethylene-aluminum sheeting. Examples of the CDR “family” of technologies include afforestation, ocean fertilization, capturing carbon directly from ambient air, and burying biochar to sequester carbon within the earth (Launder and Thompson 2010; SRMGI 2011).
This two-part division of the technologies might already seem gendered for its Freudian imagery: tall spraying devices, nozzles, ejections, dressing up the earth versus fertilizing the oceans, burying things, and sequestering away material. The commonly portrayed risk profiles of the two approaches are also suggestive of a matching gendered slant. SRM gets the attention as a technologically advanced, bold, and risky method. Deployment of an atmospheric shield to deflect solar radiation suggests an Apollonian type of confrontation demanding quick action, steely nerve, and technological prowess. The Royal Society characterized CDR, by contrast, as “a longer term approach to addressing climate change” with “fewer uncertainties and risks” (Royal Society 2009, 54). CDR is usually perceived as slower, gentler, and more natural. Pollution control, if that is what CDR really amounts to, may lack some pizzazz, but it is something almost everyone can get behind, especially if it involves planting trees and engaging citizens.1
Our intention in this paper is not to address this question of whether the SRM/CDR distinction is gendered, though it may be an interesting question in its own right. We plan to look at engineering the climate more broadly in order to examine where gender appears—and where it ought to appear—in the politics, ethics, and science of geoengineering. We intend to suggest areas where the geoengineering discussion should be opened up to issues of gender. Moreover, the need is urgent given that preliminary discussions of geoengineering are rapidly moving toward field-testing and plans for the governance of future deployments.
The Gender Dimensions of Geoengineering
There are a number of compelling reasons to raise gender awareness across several geoengineering axes. From a sheer numbers perspective, half of those who will be affected by geoengineering are women, though women are currently represented at only a fraction of this proportion within the geoengineering community. From an impacts perspective, some women are particularly susceptible to the negative effects of climate change (Dankelman 2002; Cuomo 2011) and in these cases might have more to gain from the benefits geoengineering promises. At the same time, the exact impact of many geoengineering strategies on precipitation and other climate parameters is uncertain and may remain so. Some women may have more at stake in this uncertainty, for example, if they lack access to typical adaptive coping mechanisms, such as migration to cities, access to capital, or educational opportunities to pursue different types of work. From a history of science standpoint, the narrative of masculine attempts to control earth systems introduces many fascinating questions. This means that from a political, funding, and purely pragmatic perspective, geoengineering is particularly vulnerable to an ecofeminist critique, and a failure to acknowledge gender-associated concerns could easily derail the geoengineering agenda. No matter where you sit—as a citizen, policy-maker, natural or social scientist, historian, ethicist, engineer, or lobbyist—to understand what geoengineering means for society in anything more than a superficial sense, the gender-and-geoengineering dynamic must be an integral part of the conversation.
In the discussion below, we consider four contexts in which geoengineering appears to have important gender dimensions: (1) the demographics of those pushing the current agenda, (2) the overall vision of control it involves, (3) the design of particular technologies, and (4) whom geoengineering will most impact and benefit. Our treatment of these areas is intentionally introductory; we aim only to open up discussions deserving greater attention. Following that, we explore three ways the geoengineering discussion could potentially become more gender-aware.
Who Is Pushing Geoengineering?
In an article written in 2011 for the UK’s Guardian newspaper, Australian environmental commentator Clive Hamilton lambasted what he called “the geoclique” currently responsible for much of the geoengineering discourse. Using a term coined by Eli Kintisch (2010), Hamilton argued that global debate on geoengineering is dominated by a remarkably short and recurring list of individuals. According to Hamilton, this group is made up of “a very small group of North American scientists”—harboring mostly “Promethean” views of a “science-as-saviour” culture—who have made themselves the “go to guys” on climate engineering (Hamilton 2011). Hamilton suggested this clique lacks an appreciation, more common in Europe, for the “complexity and capriciousness” of the earth.
Although Hamilton’s characterization may be critiqued—some European governments are actively funding geoengineering research—it is beyond question that the geoengineering discussion is not being driven by a representative sample of those with a stake in it.
An early study of media reports on geoengineering counted the assertions made about geoengineering in print and online news articles through mid-2010, and found that women made just 3% of those assertions (15 out of 500). Women were simply not being quoted on this topic (Buck 2013).2 In geoengineering science, women author research less often than men. A look at the top 100 journal articles sorted by relevance in EBSCO Academic Search Premier—a multidisciplinary database—revealed that 17% of authors were women.3 A similar level of representation was found at the IPCC expert meeting on geoengineering held in Lima, Peru in June 2011, where 8 of the 51 attendees were women (15%) (IPCC 2012, 97). Furthermore, when women do appear in the discourse, it is frequently—though not exclusively—within domains peripheral to the “hard science” of geoengineering: social science, policy, and ethics.
Women’s under-representation in engineering more generally has been highly criticized, often out of concerns about women accessing opportunities to succeed in these fields or about lost innovation opportunities. Part of our disquiet about women’s under-representation here, however, lies not so much in the idea that women/society are missing out on geoengineering careers/discoveries, but in the framing and decision-making powers that participation in geoengineering research implies. Women’s under-representation in the early discussions of geoengineering is consistent with a more general pattern of “power inequalities in decision-making” about natural resources (Arora-Jonsson 2011, 749). In a draft report written for the Green Political Foundation, Christa Wichterich notes a persistent glass ceiling and lack of “recognition of feminine expertise” in climate matters:
Only after 14 rounds of negotiations, did the UNFCCC secretariat finally call on the parties to carry out gender-sensitive measures in 2008. When UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon assembled an advisory group on Climate Change Financing in 2010, however, he appointed 19 men. Following vehement protests, the high-level body was expanded to include then French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde. (Wichterich 2012, 4)
These low figures provoke all sorts of questions (Denton 2002). Emerging technologies are subject to rapid and contentious framing in the print and electronic media. Exactly how (and by whom) the technology gets framed has broad implications for which of the numerous ethical and political dimensions of geoengineering are seen as most salient (Nisbet 2009; Scott 2012). Women currently have a minority voice in explaining what geoengineering is and in influencing how it is presented in the media.
Of course, the gender breakdown of the participants in these types of discussions does not tell the whole story. Equally important as who is doing the talking and the framing is what are they talking about. Matters here appear to be improving, but progress is slow and still mixed (Dankelman 2002). Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) does now consider women and gender issues when considering impacts, adaptation, and vulnerabilities (for example, IPCC 2007), but only in 2011 were efforts to include references to gender throughout the Green Climate Fund finally successful (Wichterich 2012, 14). A submission by the Asia-Pacific Women’s Group to the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in June of 2012 did add a gender component to the nascent geoengineering discourse, stating that:
Women are greatly concerned by corporate driven technological solutions to climate change that are harmful to the planet and people. Such technologies must be subject to rigorous, transparent and participatory assessments including the implications on women’s and children’s health and well being. (APWMGS 2012, 18)
Yet a meeting held simultaneously in Lima, Peru that discussed geoengineering at the IPCC for the first time did not include the words “women” or “gender” anywhere in its ninety-nine-page meeting report. The report mentioned the word “justice” only once. Although it’s certainly imaginable that these sorts of omissions might be justified by the nature and intent of any one particular meeting, the omissions raise questions about whether decision-making power is already skewed (Dankelman 2002; Arora-Jonsson 2011) and the geoengineering agenda currently reflects only the visions of those who dominate it.
Geoengineering and the Domination of Nature
Path-breaking work in ecofeminism in the 1980s and 1990s found the roots of the environmental crisis in a masculinist approach to nature that favored objectification and domination of the nonhuman world (Merchant 1980; Plumwood 1994). Reductivist and mechanistic trends coupled with a Baconian view of scientific knowledge as “power over nature” led to the idea of science best serving human needs only through complete and total control of the nonhuman, transforming nature “from a teacher to a slave” (Merchant 1980, 169). The image of nature as machine, devoid of animus, ready to be molded to serve a technology-driven civilization was the outcome of a sequence of ideas from European men such as Bacon, Harvey, Descartes, Newton, and Boyle. The machine image asserted a “new confidence in control as well as the narrow and instrumental view of nature associated with a technological outlook” (Plumwood 1994, 109). Faith in the predictability of mechanistic nature reached its apogee in the claim made by Pierre Laplace that, if given the position and the velocity of every particle in the universe, an intellect vast enough could predict all future states. For such an intellect, Laplace asserted, “nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes” (Laplace 1951, 4). The quest for certainty hinged on an understanding of nature as passive, determinate, and entirely predictable.
The old mechanist’s dream of predictability still lives on in much research, from the “hard” sciences to economics, quantitative social science, and geopolitical scenario-building. Carolyn Merchant writes: “the assumption of order is… fundamental to the concept of power, and both are integral to the modern scientific worldview” (Merchant 1980, 230). A growing appreciation of nonlinear dynamics and chaotic systems means that the confidence of early mechanists has today been replaced by a more sanguine approach to the possibility of perfect prediction in certain domains. Climate science offers a powerful example of a case where, despite huge advances in observation and modeling, the ability to precisely predict and control is limited. Although scientists can predict general trends with great confidence (IPCC 2007), the ability to model the exact nature of local impacts remains constrained. The complexity of the climate system provides a distinct caution against the flight to objectivity (Bordo 1987) and the quest for certainty.
These features of climate science spill over into a dilemma about geoengineering. On the one hand, the climate is obviously a physical system subject to the influence of incoming short-wave solar radiation, the composition of the atmosphere, and numerous chemical and hydrological parameters. Mechanistic principles clearly apply. Such a system might invite the “imposition of human purposes and treatment as an instrument for the achievement of human satisfactions” (Plumwood 1994, 110). The flavor of old hopes lingers within the geoengineer’s dream. On the other hand, the nonlinearity in the system makes the exact nature of geoengineering’s outcomes uncertain, especially on local and regional scales (Pongratz et al. 2012). This uncertainty is something almost all contemporary geoengineers are careful to acknowledge, if to differing degrees. Alan Robock thinks that the “inherent risks and uncertainties” are enough to prevent SRM from “ever be[ing] implemented on a global basis” (Robock 2012, 202). Juan Moreno-Cruz and his colleagues suggest that regional inequalities “may not be as severe as is often suggested” (Moreno-Cruz et al. 2011, 649).
In the first article written by an ethicist on geoengineering, Dale Jamieson lamented the hubris in “attempts to manipulate nature in order to make it conform to our desires rather than forming our desires in response to nature” (Jamieson 1996, 331). Jamieson suggests caution with the mechanistic and manipulative metaphors that have informed technological endeavor since the scientific revolution. To the extent that those metaphors can still be found within geoengineering, Carolyn Merchant’s and Val Plumwood’s ecofeminist critiques will apply as much to the age of geoengineering as they have to earlier technological endeavors.