Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938


Quandary column

Fertility on Ice

By Michael Cook

Cryopreservation and eventual transplantation of ovarian tissue may delay menopause, but what are the consequences?

One seldom-mentioned element in the bioethicist’s skill set is a wild imagination. Perhaps that’s why I’m a journalist and not a bioethicist.

Take the novel technique of fertility insurance through ovarian tissue cryopreservation (OCT). So far, nearly 30 babies in the US and Europe have been born to mothers who had a slice of their own frozen tissue grafted onto an ovary to restore their fertility. In all these cases the surgery was needed because the woman was about to have chemotherapy, which would destroy ovarian function.

Michael Cook is editor of the online bioethics newsletter BioEdge.

Should Olympic athletes be allowed to use performance-enhancing drugs?

By Michael Cook

Some bioethicists are arguing that athletes should be allowed to take performance-enhancing drugs.

The London Olympics have arrived and with them come familiar controversies over drug cheats. IOC President Jacques Rogge said yesterday that tests had identified more than 100 cheats in the lead-up to the Games. Years of tough restrictions appear to be bearing fruit, with fewer scandals every time the Olympics are held. In Athens in 2004 26 athletes were caught; in Beijing in 2008, only 14 athletes and 6 horses.

Cracks in the Edifice of Science

By Michael Cook

A tenfold increase in the number of retractions over the past 10 years raises questions about the infallibility of peer review of scientific research.

The novels of Sinclair Lewis (1885–1951), the first American Nobel laureate for literature, seem rather clunky nowadays but he had a knack for channelling the Zeitgeist. In Arrowsmith, published in 1925, an old German professor eulogises scientists:

Michael Cook is editor of the bioethics website BioEdge.

Is It Better Never to Have Been Born?

By Michael Cook

Bioethicists are questioning legal judgements that dismiss “wrongful birth” cases by challenging the belief that it is better to be born than not born.

In 2006 a Sydney couple sued doctors for the “wrongful life” of their severely disabled son. The case failed in the High Court, which ruled that it was impossible to measure the merits of existence versus non-existence. Earlier this year the couple returned, this time with a lawsuit based on “wrongful birth”.

Similar cases have cropped up in the United States and Europe as well, but they have almost always failed for similar reasons – being alive is better than not being alive. But is it?

Michael Cook is editor of the online bioethics news service, BioEdge.

Eugenics Tackles Climate Change

By Michael Cook

Can a proposal to genetically modify children that are smaller to reduce their carbon footprint be taken seriously?

Newspapers have their “silly season” of shock-horror absurdities in the slow news summer months. How about bioethics journals? Judging from recent media splutterings it must be in February and March.

Exhibit A in the journal Environment, Ethics and Policy is all we have room to discuss here. The authors propose to combat climate change with human engineering. People who are smaller and shorter and eat less meat will help reduce both their own carbon footprint and bovine flatulence (a significant contributor to greenhouse gases).

Michael Cook is editor of the online bioethics news service BioEdge.

Jagged Little Pill

By Michael Cook

If a morality pill can induce moral behaviour, what could governments do with an “immorality pill” to control its citizens, law enforcers and soldiers?

Not long ago, Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer, together with research assistant Agata Sagan, proposed a “morality pill” in a column in the New York Times. They speculated that moral behaviour is at least in part biochemically determined, so why not engineer moral behaviour with drugs? Here is the scenario that they painted:

Michael Cook is editor of the bioethics newsletter BioEdge.

The Bioethics of Geoengineering

By Michael Cook

Ethical guidelines are urgent when considering high-risk technologies to avert the climate crisis.

Croatian scientist Fritz Jahr coined the word “bioethics” back in 1927 to describe the ethics of dealing with living beings, but nearly all bioethicists have limited themselves to solving human medical dilemmas. Has the time come to revive the broader global interpretation?

Michael Cook is editor of the internet bioethics newsletter BioEdge.

Is the End Coming for Embryonic Stem Cells?

By Michael Cook

Embryonic stem cell research is looking increasingly like a dead end as clinical trials are cancelled in favour of adult stem cells.

Remember the saying “ethics is playing catch-up with science”? It was one of the trusty clichés of Australian science journalists in the lead-up to a heated debate in Federal Parliament in 2005 over embryo research, therapeutic cloning and embryonic stem cells.

From a layman’s point of view, the nub of the issue was that adult stem cells were ethically acceptable but multipotent, while embryonic stem cells were ethically contentious but pluripotent. Why use a pen knife when you had a Swiss Army knife?

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge, an internet newsletter about bioethics.

A Hard Sell for European Scientists

By Michael Cook

A milestone case in the European Court of Justice sheds light on opposition to human embryo research.

“Medicine thrown into crisis by stem cell ruling” was the dramatic headline in the British newspaper The Independent after a landmark ruling from the European Court of Justice in October. “This is a devastating decision which will stop stem cell therapies’ use in medicine,” said Prof Peter Coffey of University College, London. “The potential to treat disabling and life-threatening disease commonly using stem cells will not be realised in Europe.”

Michael Cook is editor of the internet bioethics newsletter BioEdge.

America’s Bioethics Shame

By Michael Cook

President Obama’s bioethics commission finds that US experiments in post-war Guatamala turned a blind eye to ethical concerns.

For the past year it has been bioethical bow, scrape and grovel time in Washington DC. After learning that American public health researchers had infected hundreds of Guatemalans with venereal diseases between 1946 and 1948, President Obama had to telephone his Guatemalan counterpart to apologise. He then set up a commission to investigate the appalling story of coercion and deception. A detailed historical report was published on 13 September.