December 2012 Archives

The Ethics of Gene Theft

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I was reading more about surrogacy online, and as so often happens on the internet, I found myself interested in a different, yet somewhat related topic I had never heard about before- the ethics of gene theft. In this article, bioethicist Jacob M. Appel explains that gene theft involves acquiring someone's DNA, usually from a public area, without his or her consent. Given the ease of genetic testing, which requires only minute samples of DNA to produce accurate results, DNA can be harvested from numerous objects that the source comes into contact with such as hairbrushes, drinking glasses, or items of clothing. Although many of the motives behind gathering DNA without permission are malicious in intent, there are also benign reasons for doing so. Questionable to nefarious motives include acquiring DNA to challenge paternity, prove infidelity, and identifying private medical conditions or susceptibilities. However, stealth DNA testing can also be used by amateur detectives to investigate cold cases or by historians to examine genetic links for historical figures in unwilling descendants. According to the article several states including Minnesota allow for civil lawsuits by the person whose genes have been stolen, and the United Kingdom has criminalized genetic testing on any human samples without the source's consent. Appel argues that national legislation should be created to prohibit nonconsensual genetic testing due to the havoc the genetic information could create.

I think that gene theft is an interesting issue that will likely become a major concern as DNA testing becomes cheaper and more easily accessible to the average person. At the core of the issue is whether a person continually owns the DNA (or the information contained within it) that he or she leaves behind in public places. I find it to be uncontroversial that someone's DNA taken from a private residence is wrong because it is stealing in the same way as if a thief had instead taken a computer from the person's house. But when someone leaves behind DNA at a supermarket or restaurant, is it still owned or is it left like garbage at the end of a driveway- free for anyone to dig through and use? A major difference between garbage and DNA is that a person willfully throws out garbage whereas most DNA is left behind without anyone's consent due to human physiology. So then to me the problem becomes more similar to whether it is okay to take a laptop or ipod that someone has seemingly lost. Both the laptop and the DNA are unintentionally left behind and are of at least relatively great value to its original owner. If the laptop were a pair of mittens or a dollar bill, I think most people would call 'finders keepers' possibly due to the virtual impossibility at finding the item's actual owner. But when the item is of larger value, I think that most people feel that at least some attempt should be made at finding the item's rightful owner and would feel wrong in just keeping it. If this were translated back to DNA, one would need not to feel any obligation to return the item, but due to its high value should feel wrong by using without consent. I think another way to look at gene ownership is as an extension of medical information ownership. Currently, and I think rightfully, an individual owns all of his or her own medical information and no doctors, nurses, or otherwise can give out that information. I remember how much these laws were stressed when I volunteered at the Fairview Medical Center. As far as I can remember, it is only okay to anonymously discuss patient's conditions with others. If DNA is seen as a portable extension of medical information then it too would be wrong to delve into without its owner's permission.

If, however, gene testing without consent is made illegal I wonder what impact it will have for the scientific community and for law enforcement. I think that scientists would be able to gather DNA for testing in mass quantities that they would unlikely be able to do if consent was needed, and from this they could advance human knowledge. Also, if nonconsensual gene testing were illegal, it seems that law enforcement authorities would need a warrant in order to DNA test material at crime scenes, which could hinder or slow the resolvement of cases. Plus, there may well be other legitimate or innocent reasons one might want to test DNA without an owner's consent. Given these concerns and my previous reasoning, I think that DNA is probably owned by its producer no matter where it is left behind, but I'm not one hundred percent sure I think it should be made illegal to test without consent, especially since the malignant uses likely involve other things that are already illegal- such as crime scene tampering.

Appel, Jacob M. "'Gene-nappers,' like identity thieves, new threat of digital age." New Haven Register, 5 Nov 2009. Web. 23 Dec 2012.

The article "Commodification and Commercial Surrogacy" by Richard J. Arneson raises many of the same criticisms and concerns of Elizabeth Anderson's "Is Women's Labor a Commodity?" as I had in the previous blog post, but the author also brings up several points that I had not considered. Arneson argues that commercial surrogacy (CS) is not "baby-selling" because one cannot truly own a child in the same sense that one can own a toothbrush, house, or vehicle. With property the owner has the legitimate right to dispose of it or use it as desired. However, as I touched on in the previous post, with one's pets or children one does not have any right to dispose of them or use them to any end, and instead is required to provide at least a level of basic care. Also, all persons involved in an exchange must consent to the exchange, but since an infant cannot consent the transaction necessarily requires some regulation to ensure that the child is not wrongfully harmed.

Another interesting point that Arneson raises is that Anderson's argument fails to identify why women's labor is unique in regards to being a noble labor where performance for pay is degrading. Many other types of work considered to be noble are also regarded as appropriately done in exchange for money. Its seems to me that work as a doctor is a noble pursuit which is not considered particularly degrading when done for pay. So are there significant differences between the two labors? I'm not really sure, birthing a child definitely seems more physically and emotionally invasive than a doctor's average daily work would be. Is that enough of a distinction? Again- maybe, but I do wish Anderson had illustrated exactly why she considers women's noble labor to be uniquely degrading. Arneson then points out that Anderson fails to explain, that even if women's labor is degrading, why it is necessarily subject to moral condemnation and possibly legal prohibition. I find this to be a strong point because in cases where the general welfare of both the SM and the child are maintained (by either a fair and reasonable contract or government regulations), I see no reason why the degradation of the SM should result in justifiable moral condemnation. Even if such a scenario is less "good" than an ideal situation, that does not necessarily make it morally reproachable.

Arneson, Richard J., "Commodification and Commercial Surrogacy" in What's Wrong: Applied Ethicists and Their Critics, ed. David Boonin and Graham Oddie (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 340-345.

"Is Women's Labor a Commodity?" by Elizabeth S. Anderson


In "Is Women's Labor a Commodity?," Elizabeth S. Anderson argues that commercial surrogate motherhood is morally wrong because it treats both women and children as commodities to be produced and sold, which is an inappropriate valuation of persons. Anderson begins by assuming that slavery is wrong because it devalues persons worthy of respect and instead treats them as commodities to be bought and sold and valued only for their usefulness. She argues that this may be the appropriate way to produce and distribute things or items, but is wrong when applied to persons who merit respect independently of their usefulness to others. Next Anderson goes on to explain why she finds commercial surrogate motherhood to treat both surrogate mother and child as commodities. In the case of the child, Anderson says that in the case of commercial surrogacy the surrogate mother exchanges the child for money which amounts to selling the child. And in Anderson's words, "To sell a child is to treat it as a mere commodity... as if it were of value only for its usefulness to others... [and it] fails to value the child in the way he or she should be valued..." (331). In the same way, Anderson finds that the surrogate mothers are also valued as commodities because the pregnant women is not "treated in a manner that fully respects her own perspective on her pregnancy" as is the case under typical circumstances. Instead, how the woman is treated is based upon economic forces and viewed as an "incubation machine" rather than a person (331). Anderson concludes that due to the commoditization of the surrogate mother and child, commercial surrogate motherhood is morally wrong and, furthermore, should be made illegal.

To put it bluntly, I disagreed with almost every aspect of Anderson's argument. To start off, I think that the author came to the table already biased against the issue. For instance, she describes the practice of commercial surrogate motherhood as being a contract involving three parties: "the intended father, the broker, and the surrogate mother" (334). Yet this is usually not the case because with the intended father is often an intended mother. I think Anderson's may have left out this important member in order to make it seem as though the surrogacy contract is a power struggle between two men (if the broker is also a man) and a woman in need of money. However, this is more speculation about the author's possible hidden intentions to garner sympathy on part of the reader than a solid case against the argument itself.

An important problem with Anderson's argument is commercial surrogate motherhood (from now on CSM), is the comparison to commoditization in the same way that slaves are devalued as persons. There is a huge difference between slavery and CSM because slaves do not get the choice to be a slave and neither do they get compensated for their efforts. Surrogate mothers do, however, have the choice to be SMs, the choice to back out of the process when the seriousness of the agreements are put forth by lawyers, the social workers, the prospective parents, and common sense, and they have the choice to be compensated for their efforts or to do so for only the costs involved. The SMs are not forced into the agreements nor are they "manipulated," as Anderson maintains, since they are made aware of the circumstances before freely agreeing to them or choosing to decline to go through with the process. Anderson says that "To respect a person is to treat her in accordance with principles she rationally accepts- principles consistent with the protection of her autonomy and her rational interests" (337). I maintain that SMs (minus ones with mental or emotional incapacities who ought be screened out) have rational interest for choosing to become surrogate mothers because they otherwise would not choose to become one. To think otherwise is to deny a SMs ability at rational thought or ability to weigh factors of self-interest, in other words, to deny the very concept of personhood that Anderson argues SMs should have. I think that this article devalues women by assuming that they don't have the mental capacity to choose what is right for themselves and to do as they wish with their own bodies, including taking on emotional and physical risks for financial/emotional/altruistic incentives.

Another issue I have is with Anderson's assumption that even the SMs and the children are bought and sold as commodities, that they necessarily lose rights in the process and are devalued as persons. She says "... widespread acceptance of commercial surrogacy... would change the way children are valued by people... from being loved by their parents and respected by others, to being sometimes used as objects of commercial profit making" (336). Pets are bought and sold on a regular basis, yet they maintain some basic rights and are no less loved by good owners than if they pet had come to them freely. In the same way, the children born from SMs will be loved and cared for by qualified potential parents. The only reason most parents would consider this arduous and expensive route to have their child is because for some medical reason they failed to get pregnant themselves. Even if the parents had questionable or selfish motives for choosing to have the child, this is no different a situation than if they had had the ability to get pregnant themselves. Once the child is with his or her parents, the same rules and laws apply as with all children: the child must be reasonably be cared for and not neglected or the parents risk having the child removed from their care. Furthermore, the SM is not truly "selling" the baby to the potential parents, but giving the child to them with money as an incentive to deal with the intensive process. This is the same as in the case of plasma donations, where the donor is also compensated. The money provides an incentive for SMs or plasma donors to choose to go ahead with the process, without which there would likely not be enough to meet demand.

I think the strongest point of Anderson's argument is that because pregnancy is an intensely intimate situation it is possible for the SM to develop gestational ties or bonds with the baby and thus may wish to void the agreement with the potential parents and keep the infant. I agree that this situation is definitely problematic since it is natural for a mother to be emotionally bonded to her offspring and taking the child away, even if the SM agreed to it, seems potentially wrong or at least unnatural. However, I do agree with contracts and as the SM is made aware of the situation and of possible emotional ties ahead of time, I do feel that she should keep to the contract or pay for all of the costs that went into the arrangement. I think it is an incredibly difficult situation, but at the same time there are other intense situations where an individual makes a serious choice that they must live with. For instance, kidney donation too is a highly emotional, physically intense process that may reduce life expectancy. But even though the seriousness is the same as with CSM, there are no backsies with kidney donation. Plus, this whole issue may well be a relatively non-issue because according to a 2002 study by the Family and Child Psychology Research Centre SMs rarely have difficulty relinquishing rights to a surrogate child (see below for citation). This study was conducted 12 years after Anderson wrote her article, so she may be forgiven for lacking this information, but even if there were some cases in which the SM developed emotional ties, this would first support the argument for stronger screening methods for SMs who can handle the extreme situation and for better training of emotional detachment methods rather than immediate illegality of CSM. To further oppose Anderson's assumptions about the horribleness of CSM, the same study also found that the intended mothers showed greater warmth to the child than mothers conceiving naturally. Another study found that there was no negative impact on the SM own children and another found that that SMs felt empowered after going through the process rather than traumatized as Anderson assumed (see below for citations).

I think for me personally, my slight aversion to SM is that there are already so many unwanted children in the world, that it seems that instead of going through the challenging process of CSM the want-to-be parents should adopt. Of course adoption too is a lengthy, emotional, and expensive process so it is not saving the prospective parents anything on that regard. But it is not the parents fault that they cannot conceive a genetically related child naturally, so if it was fair to make them adopt rather than create new life, then it would only be fair that all parents be forced to adopt rather than procreate. This, of course, would be crazy and impossible, and it is evolutionarily understandable that people have a natural desire to care for their own genetically related children. Those who are willing to adopt are doing a commendable service. But perhaps if the adoption process were streamlined and less expensive, more families would choose to expand via adoption rather than through a surrogate.

Elizabeth S. Anderson, "Is Women's Labor a Commodity" in What's Wrong: Applied Ethicists and Their Critics, ed. David Boonin and Graham Oddie (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 333-340.

MacCallum F, Lycett E, Murray C, Jadva V, Golombok S (June 2003). "Surrogacy: the experience of commissioning couples". Hum. Reprod. 18 (6): 1334-42

British Fertility Society Press Release, Surrogacy does not have a negative effect on the surrogate's own children, Study:Children of surrogate mothers: an investigation into their experiences and psychological health], Susan Imrie, Vasanti Jadva, Susan Golombok, Centre for Family Research, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK retrieved 1/17/2012

Teman, Elly (2010). "Birthing a Mother: The Surrogate Body and the Pregnant Self". Berkeley: University of California Press.

"The Land Ethic" by Aldo Leopold


Aldo Leopold's "The Land Ethic" was written in 1949, yet surprisingly and somewhat sadly- much of it is still very relevant today. Leopold defines an ethic as being "a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence" or a "differentiation of social from anti-social conduct" (38). He maintains that an ethic of the land would not prevent the alteration or use of our 'resources', but it would affirm their right to continued existence and would change the role of humans from conqueror to citizen. He argues that at the time land use ethics were consisted entirely of catering to economic self-interest, which tends to ignore or destroy many elements of of biotic importance. Furthermore, this way of thinking about land tends to relegate to government many large functions which are too complex to be effectively regulated. Because of this, Leopold insists that an internal ethical obligation on part of the private landowner is the only way in which land can be conserved.

I think Leopold presents a strong and convincing argument. Even still it seems that people feel little to no ethical obligation toward land, especially that which is privately owned. Based upon my own un-empirical observations, people seem to feel that they have the right to manipulate their property at their own whims and desires and only feel that such a thing is wrong when their neighbors do something similar. At one point in the article Leopold mentions, however, that people have no economic incentive to preserve things such as wildflowers. I think here Leopold fails to consider that many people do have some incentive to preserve these things because of many people's intrinsic value of pretty things in nature, such as birds, wildflowers, and waterfalls. If people did not value nature at all our nation's national parks would receive far fewer visitors than they currently do. However, in general Leopold is correct in saying if there is any greater economic incentive than our value of nature, nature will likely be the loser- especially in cases of things in nature perceived as being ugly like beetles, swamps, and naked mole rats. I also agree with Leopold that unless society experiences an internal change where ethical conduct toward land is seen as being important and necessary, little is likely to change because land management and conservation concerns are too vast for our government to effectively regulate (and to monitor the effectiveness of those regulations). For instance, civil rights laws have not eradicated racism, but people's internal changes have made many people come to feel that people of differing races, sexes, and nationalities should be treated fairly and equally. In the same way, perhaps government environmental regulation could help motivate internal ethical change, but it would not prevent current and future land abuses. This leaves one with trying to figure out how to get people to feel an ethical responsibility toward the land. In the article, Leopold mentioned the education system's failure in creating an environmental ethical regard and I while agree with his sentiments about the current system, I do think that changes to the system could bring results. My interest in preserving the environment stems from my enjoyment of being in it while hiking, traveling, and nature watching. So, perhaps if children in schools were allowed more time outside and on field trips to natural locations they would feel more inclined to preserving what is there because their enjoyment of nature provides a greater incentive to do so. Their higher regard for the land would then be passed on to their children and so on, until it becomes a given that the land should be nurtured and respected.

Leopold, Aldo. "The Land Ethic" in Environmental Ethics, ed by Andrew Light and Holmes Rolston (Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2003), 38-46.

In the last post, I agreed with Peter Singer and Jim Mason's argument that we should choose foods which have a lower environmental impact. Anna Lappe maintained, in Diet For A Hot Planet, that one way to eat with a lower carbon footprint is to eat locally grown and produced foods. She found that these foods require far less energy input because they did not need to travel all the way across the country or even around the world just to get to the consumer. However, Mason and Singer point out that just eating locally is not as straightforward of a solution as seems at first glance. Some local vegetables are grown with heat, which uses more fuels than transporting them, even a great distance from warming regions. Also, locally produced foods are often delivered in small quantity to many different markets, which could use as much fuel as a large truck hauling a great amount of food. Else wise it is the consumers who must travel to the outlying local farms, which again can use more fuel instead of the one-stop shopping at a supermarket. Another consideration, although not environmental in nature, is that buying non-locally produced food often means that a consumer is supporting farmers in far away countries who are likely to be less well off than local farmers. Even a small increase in income to those in poverty would have a great impact to improving their quality of life. Thus, in stark contrast to Lappe's conclusion, Singer and Mason reason that buying local is too simple of a principle to provide sound ethical guidance.

I found the contrast in conclusions between the two books to be very interesting because it highlights the complexity involved in finding ethical solutions to the problems facing food sources and their production. In this disagreement, I find Mason and Singer's argument to be highly compelling and more thoroughly researched than Lappe's. However, when produce is grown in-season by local farmers or in a home garden, the emissions savings would definitely win out over buying local and one would then need to decide if this is more beneficial than supporting impoverished third-world farmers. Plus another benefit to buying locally is that consumers would get the chance to see and become more involved in the food production, which as I pointed out in the first posting of this series, factory farms actively seek to prevent. I think that the complexity involved in eating ethically may be a reason why consumers simply take the easy route of eating whatever they desire. It simply becomes too complicated to sort between contrasting opinions, some of which are generated by the factory farm companies, that arise everyday, kind of like with medical studies showing that red wine is both healthy and unhealthy. But even when potential solutions (such as to global warming) are relatively simple (such as reducing meat intake) consumers still fail to take action. So unless enforceable regulations are passed or factory farming companies actually take responsibility for environmental damage they are causing and pass the costs off to consumers by way of increased prices, everything will likely remain the same.

Singer, Peter and Jim Mason. The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter. Rodale Books, 2007. Print.

Lappe, Anna. Diet For a Hot Planet. New York: Bloomsbury, 2010. Print.

Another major ethical concern facing what we eat is the food production's environmental impact. In The Ethics of What We Eat, Jim Mason and Peter Singer find that the production of a number of different foods cause environmental concerns, including factory farm's meat production, some fishing methods, genetically engineered foods, and palm oil production. Of these meat production seems to be making the biggest negative impact. Mason and Singer find that one direct cause of pollution from factory farming is from the huge amount of manure chickens, pigs, and cattle produce. So much is made that farmers cannot work all of it back into cropland soil and the extra runs off into wetlands, lakes, and rivers where it creates algae growth that suffocates aquatic life. Poorly contained manure can also potentially devalue surrounding property, cause air pollution, and taint local resident's water supplies. Cows and pigs also create significant amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, thereby causing about 2.5% of the total effect of greenhouse gas emissions (206). One interesting note regarding emissions is that in Diet For A Hot Planet, Anna Lappe recommended farmers transition to organic and free range farming, but Singer and Mason found studies which show that these methods actually increase the amount of methane that the animals produce, due to their increased digestion of high fiber grass and hay. This would seem to be a point in favor of factory farming, except that the corn used in factory farming has more energy input than the grass and hay which grows naturally for the free range cattle, so perhaps this would equal out emissions or push it in favor of organic and free range beef.

Mason and Singer note that the reason these companies are able to make their products so cheap is because they are not responsibly paying for the pollution and environmental damage incurred. Instead, local fishers, homeowners, etc. are the ones paying the price in terms of damaged property and recreation areas. I don't know enough about environmental law, but it seems as though lawyers should be constructing numerous cases against these polluting farms and companies. With enough homeowners winning major cases against these polluters, there would seem to be enough of an incentive for the companies to prevent further damage on their own even without laws and regulations in place. However, since this seems not to be the case, I fully agree with the authors that consumers ought to refrain from purchasing these products because of the environmental damage they are causing. I think it is interesting that if companies were to take a longer term view on earning profit, it would be in their best interest to maintain the environment since the animals and their food sources need quality living and growing spaces- yet the companies are content with gradually degrading the areas and using high energy, expensive fixes like synthetic fertilizers. This makes me think that the best view a farmer could have is that he or she is a steward of the land, like Anna Lappe said, who is simply maintaining and utilizing it for future generations.

Singer, Peter and Jim Mason. The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter. Rodale Books, 2007. Print.

My parents didn't do much cooking while I was growing up. So when I left for college and started doing a lot of cooking and baking on my own, I would sometimes be incredibly surprised at what someone can make on their own, no food factory required. Take pasta, for instance, it is suppose to come dry out of a box, right? Who would have thought that someone could just take some flour, water and eggs and make fresh pasta right at home? I think our country's industrialized food has made it easy and cheap to get food fast, but it also makes it a rather thoughtless process, where foods like pasta are just kind of magically made and delivered to your local grocery store. So when I first read The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter by Peter Singer and Jim Mason a couple of years ago, I awoke to the fact that ethics could even concern something like food. Growing up, I had always had a low meat diet, partially because I didn't like a lot of it and partially because I loved animals. Reading Singer and Mason's book finally made me take the relatively small leap (since I wasn't eating much meat anyway) to becoming a vegetarian. After reading Anna Lappe's Diet for a Hot Planet recently, I realized that I still have quite a bit of room for improvement in my own eating ethics and decided to revisit The Ethics of What We Eat.

This book takes the reader to the grocery store with three different families and then looks into the ethical concerns regarding their choices. The first is the stereotypical american 'meat and potatoes' family; the second are the 'conscientious carnivores' who buy organic, limit the amount of meat, and overall pay pretty close attention to what they buy; the last family are vegans. Singer and Mason delve into many issues throughout the book, including eating locally, buying organics, fair trade, environmental sustainability, factory farms, and humane raised animals. For each of these topics the authors present information and evidence in order to draw ethical conclusions. Over the next couple of blog posts I will present some of the ethical topics that the authors presented as well as their conclusions and evidence.

One major concern about the meat products that are produced, is about how humanely the animals were treated and killed. Both Singer and Mason have written about the poor treatment of factory farm animals in previous works. They've found that in order to produce meat cheaply, factory farms keep large amounts of animals densely packed together, typically with no access to pasture, meaning that the animals have little room to move around, behave in normal ways, are more susceptible to diseases and thus need more antibiotics, and are generally uncomfortable. The animals discomfort increases as they make their way to slaughterhouses where they are packed even tighter together, mishandled, and then killed without the certainty of even being unconscious. Even reading the accounts of how the animals are treated makes me feel rather sick and uncomfortable, and the authors note that if these farms and slaughterhouses had glass walls more consumers would likely become vegetarians. Singer and Mason argue that if one cares about the treatment of these animals, consumers ought to at least buy certified humanely raised meat products. However, even these animals can be subject to mistreatment, and beef cattle are subject to the same slaughterhouses as factory farmed ones due to regulations. This would bring one to eating no meat. But, the authors point out that egg laying chickens often suffer worse conditions than do 'broiler' chickens, and that dairy products are still produced from cows living in densely packed, uncomfortable conditions, further ruling out these products from an ethical diet.

I obviously find Singer and Mason's argument to be compelling since it originally led to my becoming a vegetarian and I would like to decrease my use of dairy and egg products. Their main argument is simple: factory farmed animals are treated poorly; if you care about their well being don't eat them. Despite this the vast majority of people are not vegetarian, vegan, or only eat humanely raised animals. If I try to talk to my parents about it, for example, they simply say that they don't want to think about it and change the subject. So perhaps people refuse to acknowledge how animals are raised because it would be inconvenient to them by either not being able to enjoy meat at all or facing the higher humanely raised meat prices. It seems almost doubly unethical to me that not only do many people not want to stop the inhumane treatment of factory farmed animals, they want to pretend that it is not happening. But then again, perhaps many people were like I was with pasta, and think that the food magically gets from pasture- no harm done or ethics involved.

Singer, Peter and Jim Mason. The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter. Rodale Books, 2007. Print.

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