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Suspended Ethics?

What a US trial of suspended animation treatment means for the future of patient choice.

surgeon

The recent news that selected patients are to be placed in suspended animation without their consent has far-reaching implications. In order to test a new experimental procedure for the first time, Doctors at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh will try to save the lives of 10 victims of gun and knife wounds by placing them in suspended animation.

The procedure involves replacing the patient’s blood with a cold saline solution in order to slow down cellular activity. It’s exciting news from the cutting edge of medical science, but also raises some troubling questions about our thirst for immortality and our willingness to overlook issues such as patient choice in the process.

We spoke to American philosopher and sociologist, Steve Fuller, to find out what such news says about our relationship with medical science.

What does a story such as this say about research ethics?

The story highlights two rather opposite things at once: on the one hand, the overriding societal value placed on the extension of life, such that you can violate research ethics codes when one is on the verge of death, to allow that person to undergo treatments that would otherwise be prohibited; on the other hand, the story also underscores the excessive restrictiveness of the research ethics codes already in existence. It seems that you have to be on the verge of death with no other treatment available to be allowed to become involved in risky experiments that offer the promise of something more. 

Do you see potential ethical problems here with regards to lack of patient choice?

The case reveals the absurdity of the idea of 'patient choice' in the current research ethics regime, which presupposes an overriding value on sustaining the lives of the already living. Basically patients are allowed to be exposed to a wider range of treatments when they are almost dead than when they are fully alive. The message sent is that one's personal encounters with cutting-edge scientific research should happen only in the last resort, not on a regular basis. Under the circumstances, there's little surprise that people are easily led to believe that a scientifically enhanced future will be scary! 

Does this link out to broader issues around medical ethics?

It seems to me that just as society places an overriding value on extending the lives of the already living by scientific means, it should also place a similar value on people being routinely recruited for scientific experiments even when they are healthy. In other words, the risks that people are being allowed to undertake when they are on the verge of death should also be undertaken as a matter of course in their lives.

I see this very much on the model of compulsory national military service. Just as people are expected to bear arms when their lives are threatened (a la US Constitution 2nd amendment), they should also be compelled to participate in military service, if only to understand better all that is involved and at stake in maintaining one's life. Indeed, I would welcome compulsory 'scientific service' replacing compulsory military service in the long term.

Steve Fuller is at this year’s HowTheLightGetsIn festival where he is giving a solo talk on Friday 30th May under the title ‘Humans are not Homo Sapiens’. He is also taking part in several other debates throughout the festival.


Image credit: James Mutter

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