Friday, September 30, 2011

Organs transplanted from executed Chinese prisoners

My good colleague Art Caplan and a number of co-authors published a piece in THE LANCET, arguing for a boycott of Chinese (that's mainland Chinese) transplant programs, specialists etc. They seems to have two bones to pick with the Chinese approach to organ transplantation:

1) the country has no ethical system in place to decide who gets an organ. They suggest in their piece that it is odd indeed that there's brisk transplant tourism (ie foreigners getting deceased Chinese people's organs for hard $$ while there ain't enough organs to go around  for Chinese folks who would need those very same organs to survive). So, they allege queue jumping by the rich. That's a pretty good reason, if true, for criticizing the current transplantation policy modus operandus in China. Whether  or not that's a good enough reason to boycott Chinese scientists working in the area is questionable as the opportunity is removed to influence policy development in this context constructively.

2) Their second reason is a tad bit weaker, I think. Caplan and colleagues are upset that organs from executed Chinese prisoners are being utilized for transplantation purposes (often without their consent, they allege, or with consent obtained under duress - ethically invalid is how they describe it ). They also claim that prisoners on death row 'might' be executed (ie they don't seem to know, but suggest anyway) in order to meet demand for a particular transplant organ. It goes without saying that they argue (well, claim) that these executed prisoners' human rights are being violated by this practice.

This second argument I don't find persuasive (it could be persuasive, but the data required to make it persuasive are nowhere to be found in Caplan and co-authors' comments). My thinking goes like this: given that China executes prisoners regardless of the organ transplantation issue, it makes sense to me that the organs of deceased prisoners are utilized to preserve human lives that otherwise would be lost. Just to be clear, I am against capital punishment. I think it's a barbaric form of punishment, the risk of wrongful convictions is plain too high,  and there are other sound arguments against the death penalty. However, as long as the number of convictions in a country that executes prisoners on death row (as eg Caplan's country, the USA does) does not increase as a result of demand for  transplant organs, I wonder why we should not use their organs to preserve human lives that otherwise would wither. This in no way condones capital punishment, it simply suggests that IF a country has capital punishment we should make the best of a bad situation.

There could be empirical evidence that the number of death penalty verdicts increases in China when there's increased pressure to generate transplant organs. That would be a very good reason for being against such a practice, but there's no evidence in the article to suggests that this is actually the case. I did not realize that there is such a thing as human right to be buried with all your organs (at least not in international human rights documents that I am aware of). If this right existed, many countries would be in violation of this right, as there's plenty of countries these days where people have to opt-out to avoid having their organs used for transplantation purposes. In other words, the organs of all those who have died, and who didn't care to opt-out, forgot, were too lazy, etc, are fair game in these countries (Austria being just one of them), even though they never explicitly consented to having their organs used for this purpose.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Globe and Mail on End-of-Life Issues

Marina Jimenez of the Canadian national paper Globe and Mail initiated a meeting between three members of their Editorial Board and myself for a brief interview on end-of-life issues in Canada. The result is this Editorial and this interview. Check it out. Reading the spoken words now I realize how way more sophisticated written content is when compared to an interview transcript, let alone how typing errors like 'Advanced Directive' can sneak in (that can easily occur when one is not that familiar with the terminology). Interesting experience. I like the gist of the editorial, but be warned, do not assume that the views I express in the interview reflect necessarily the content of the Royal Society expert panel report that will be out later this year.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

'Balanced reporting'

Something bizarre is going on. It was likely triggered by faux news outlets like Fox in the USA. In a nutshell these rightwing news outlets claimed to have come into existence in response to the biased reporting (aka 'liberal bias') of the mainstream media that existed at the time. Those mainstream media have essentially responded by moving significantly further to the political right in order to demonstrate how balanced they are.

A few weeks ago I bumped into a hardcore zionist Jewish guy who went on and on and on how biased the BBC is in favor of Palestinian views. He wanted more 'balance'. There we go again, 'balance'. I'm not going to bore you with my views on this dreadful conflict. I am interested in the idea that 'balance' for news reporting purposes means inviting 'the two sides', whoever they are, and trying to locate oneself in the middle somewhere.

This is such a bizarre proposition. What this means is basically that if you want a debate to move into your direction, you need to be as close to lunatic fringe at your political end as can be, simply because by virtue of doing that the 'balance without concern for content' brigade would automatically shift the centre of the debate closer to your end. On the other hand, having sensible middle-of-the-road views would mean that you're already giving up too much political ground to the other side, so you lose before you even get started.

A good example of this lunacy in terms of reporting is CNN. These days, reasonably sensible people from the Washington Post are usually 'balanced' with the lunatic fringe represented by 'reporters' from the Washington Times. The Washington Times was deliberately created by the rightwing Moonie Unification Church to ride on the confusion in many people's minds about the difference between the Washington Post (the real deal) and the Washington Times (the joke). The cover photo I am displaying here shows what I mean, look at how keen the paper is to have Obama and bin Laden in its headline. That CNN today routinely invites agitprop staff (aka 'journalists') from the Washington Times shows you how far the 'balance' lunacy has got out of control. CNN is actually misleading us into thinking that the Washington Times is a legitimate news outlet to begin with.

How about focusing on substance instead of trying to get the most radical views at either end of the political spectrum (or any other matter) to demonstrate 'balance'?