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Do Convicts Have A Right to DNA Testing?

Posted by Osagie K. Obasogie on March 12th, 2009

On the heels of the Innocence Project’s 200th exoneration last year through post-conviction DNA testing, the United States Supreme Court has decided to take up a case that will determine whether all prisoners should have a right to such tests. Many of the requests for new DNA tests come from prisoners convicted prior to the widespread use of genetics in criminal cases or before the technology reached its current level of sophistication. Six states currently do not have laws to allow prisoners access to DNA evidence after their conviction.

Although the right to further testing may seem obvious, victims rights groups, most states, and the federal government are in strong opposition. They are concerned with frivolous claims, overburdening the system, and the need for finality. This is unfortunate; all of these parties should be heavily invested in making sure innocent people aren’t languishing behind bars.

While the use of DNA in the criminal justice system raises a number of issues (see Chapter 3 of Playing the Gene Card?), there’s an important difference between using genetic technologies to exclude those wrongly accused and using them to fish for suspects. Given that many speculate that the 200+ people freed by the Innocence Project is only the tip of the iceberg regarding false convictions, it will be interesting to see how the Supreme Court balances these competing interests. 

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How to Destroy Civilization with Nanotechnology

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on March 12th, 2009

Animator Ransom Riggs published this entertaining animated short on the "gray goo" nanotechnology scenario over at Mental Floss:

Stem cell opinion round-up

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on March 11th, 2009

Here is a sampling of opinion and commentary on the change in federal human embryonic stem cell research policy from President Obama:

New York Times editorial:

President Obama was appropriately cautious, warning that the full promise of stem cell research remains unknown and should not be overstated. Some of the benefits, he said, might not appear in our lifetime or even our children’s lifetime....

Other important embryonic research is still being hobbled by the so-called Dickey-Wicker amendment. The amendment, which is regularly attached to appropriations bills for the Department of Health and Human Services, prohibits the use of federal funds to support scientific work that involves the destruction of human embryos (as happens when stem cells are extracted) or the creation of embryos for research purposes.

Until that changes, scientists who want to create embryos — and extract stem cells — matched to patients with specific diseases will have to rely on private or state support.

Washington Post editorial:

"We will develop strict guidelines, which we will rigorously enforce, because we cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse," the president said yesterday at the White House. But he offered little indication of where he would draw those lines....

The White House said that Mr. Obama doesn't want to prejudge the NIH guidelines but that this will not be the last we'll hear from Mr. Obama on this subject. We hope not. Some of these ethical questions need to be dealt with in the political arena, and not just by scientists.
Art Caplan, bioethicist:

This reversal of former President George W. Bush's ban on such funding is good news for the science needed to find treatments for currently incurable conditions and for the ethics at stake in the issue....

The utter ethical incoherence of the policy that Obama is now happily putting to rest was reflected by Bush never doing anything to close American infertility clinics.  Studies I conducted and that others have done show that human embryos are routinely destroyed at many IVF clinics for a variety of reasons as an unavoidable part of the effort to help the infertile to have children. 

Not only do some clinics destroy embryos, others accumulate them — in huge numbers. When a doctor is not an immoral lunatic like the one who treated the recent mother of octuplets, Nadya Sulemin, he or she puts aside some embryos so as to avoid the tragedy of mega-multiple births. 

Daniel Callahan, bioethicist, cofounder of the Hastings Center:

[H]owever much we may disagree on the morality of using stem cells for research or clinical purposes, everyone would do well to recognize that there is a fundamental difference between ethics and science. That difference has been systematically obscured by the widespread argument of research proponents that opposition to the research is opposition to science.
Will Saletan, columnist, Slate:
The best way to understand this peril is to look at an issue that has become the mirror image of the stem-cell fight. That issue is torture....

We [anti-torture liberals] believe, as Obama does, that it's possible to save lives without crossing a moral line that might corrupt us. We reject the Bush administration's insistence on using all available methods rather than waiting for scrupulous alternatives....

The same Bush-Rove tactics are being used today in the stem-cell fight. But they're not coming from the right. They're coming from the left. Proponents of embryo research are insisting that because we're in a life-and-death struggle—in this case, a scientific struggle—anyone who impedes that struggle by renouncing effective tools is irrational and irresponsible. The war on disease is like the war on terror: Either you're with science, or you're against it.
Yuval Levin, fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center:
But science policy is not just a matter of science. Like all policy, it calls for a balancing of priorities and concerns, and it requires a judgment of needs and values that in a democracy we trust to our elected officials. In science policy, science informs, but politics governs, and rightly so.

There are, of course, different ways for politics to exert authority over science. To distort or hide unwelcome facts is surely illegitimate. But to weigh facts against societal priorities -- economic, political and ethical -- in making decisions is the very definition of policymakers' duty. And to govern the practice of scientific techniques that threaten to violate important moral boundaries is not only legitimate but in some cases essential. ...

Science policy questions do often require a grasp of complex details, which scientists can help to clarify. But at their core they are questions of priorities and worldviews, just like other difficult policy judgments.

Modern science offers tremendously powerful means of knowing and doing. It is the role of elected policymakers to consider the knowledge that science offers and the power it gives us, and to balance these with other priorities -- be they economic as in the case of environmental policy, strategic as in the case of nonproliferation or moral as in the case of embryonic stem cells. In all these areas, politics ought to govern, with science merely its handmaiden. Science is a glorious thing, but it is no substitute for wisdom, prudence or democracy.

Nicholas Wade, New York Times journalist:

Members of Congress and advocates for fighting diseases have long spoken of human embryonic stem cell research as if it were a sure avenue to quick cures for intractable afflictions. Scientists have not publicly objected to such high-flown hopes, which have helped fuel new sources of grant money like the $3 billion initiative in California for stem cell research.

In private, however, many researchers have projected much more modest goals for embryonic stem cells. Their chief interest is to derive embryonic stem cell lines from patients with specific diseases, and by tracking the cells in the test tube to develop basic knowledge about how the disease develops.

Andrew Pollack, New York Times journalist:

But Mr. Obama’s decision, announced Monday, has removed the original raison d’être for the California program and others like it. And with most states facing severe budget pressures, it may prove difficult to justify spending the money.

Bernadine Healy, former director, National Institutes of Health:

With the many advances in stem cell research of the past eight years because of both private and public dollars, this is a good time to critically analyze the promise of embryonic stem cells, particularly as replacement cells to cure dread illnesses like diabetes, Parkinson's, and Alzheimer's. That evaluation must be done without bias and be based on the best science available. But science itself must remain within the bounds of a society that trusts and supports it. In that sense, its research has always been constrained by an ethical, legal, and social framework that reflects far more than the needs and perspectives of scientists.

Obama on stem cell policy change

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on March 10th, 2009

Yesterday's removal of restrictions on federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research by President Obama was both big and welcome news, and not just because the restrictions were unpopular and unduly restrictive. Obama also called for "strict" federal oversight of stem cell research:

We will develop strict guidelines, which we will rigorously enforce, because we cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse.
The President also unequivocally condemned human reproductive cloning, both for safety and social reasons:
And we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction. It is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society.

Furthermore, the President's rhetoric was cautious, in sharp contrast to the boosters of human embryonic stem cell research who imply that cures are just around the corner:

[S]cientists believe these tiny cells may have the potential to help us understand, and possibly cure, some of our most devastating diseases and conditions.... (emphasis mine)

Ultimately, I cannot guarantee that we will find the treatments and cures we seek. No President can promise that.

But if we pursue this research, maybe one day -- maybe not in our lifetime, or even in our children's lifetime -- but maybe one day, others [will be cured].

And he emphasized the need to balance the potential benefits and costs:

I can also promise that we will never undertake this research lightly. We will support it only when it is both scientifically worthy and responsibly conducted.

However, the devilish details remain to be determined. The President’s executive order does not say which stem cell research will be eligible for federal funding. Instead, it merely revokes Bush's policies and calls on the National Institutes of Health to develop guidelines "consistent with applicable law and subject to the availability of appropriations" within 120 days.

In contrast, Congressional bills to overturn Bush's restrictions were clearly limited to lines derived from embryos not needed by fertility clinics and which had proper informed consent. Considering Obama's language both during and after his presidential campaign, we hope the NIH will stake out a similar position.

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