'Medicalized' weapons, fair trade in biotechnology and more in the Hastings Center Report

January 26, 2010

(Garrison, NY) The latest issue of the Hastings Center Report features articles on "medicalized" weapons that temporarily incapacitate targets, sharing the benefits of newly found biological resources, and applications of GINA (the Genetic Information Nondisclosure Act).

Highlights:

"Medicalized" weapons.

Should physicians and other medical workers participate in the development of "medicalized" weapons? These nonlethal weapons - which rely on advances in neuroscience, physiology, and pharmacology to temporarily incapacitate their targets - are designed to reduce casualties, especially in "asymmetric" wars in which nations are pitted against insurgent forces. They include lasers that cause temporary blindness and disorientation and chemical agents that depress the central nervous system.

"Not since international law prohibited the development and use of biological and chemical weapons (in 1972 and 1993, respectively) have medical personnel been so directly involved with the design, manufacture, and testing of a weapon," writes Michael L. Gross, a professor of political science and chair of the Division of International Relations at the University of Haifa, Israel. "Do the principles of medical ethics - particularly the axiom `do no harm' - permit medical personnel to build nonlethal weapons?" Gross argues that they do. Even though these weapons can cause temporary harm and possibly even kill some people, they offer the prospect of reducing casualties and protecting civilians.

Bioprospecting.

The search for natural biological resources of value to medicine and other industries is carried out mainly by people from wealthy countries and takes place mainly in developing countries that often lack the capacity to profit from it. While there is widespread agreement that the benefits should be shared with indigenous people, an article in the Hastings Center Report explores the challenges involved.

What benefits are owed, and to whom, is often difficult to determine for various reasons, writes Joseph Millum, of the Clinical Center Department of Bioethics and the Fogarty International Center at the National Institute of Health. For example, in many cases property rights are held collectively, instead of by individuals. "Consequently, the community as a whole is the appropriate party for bioprospecting negotiations, and its share of benefits should be apportioned equally among its members," Millum writes. "Determining a fair share of benefits is not straightforward, but must be linked to the market value of access, which will be established partly by negotiations."

GINA and employment.

An essay examines a dispute in Ohio that raises new questions about DNA sampling and the protections under the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). A policy approved by The University of Akron last summer - before GINA took effect - required criminal background checks for nearly all prospective employees, including the possibility of DNA samples. The policy was retracted following public outcry, but it left uncertainty about how GINA applies to employers' law enforcement efforts. "Congress should address any disparate or unethical outcomes that threaten to undermine the goals of GINA and other civil rights legislation," write Shawneequa L. Callier, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Genetic Research Ethics and Law at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine; John Huss, an assistant professor of philosophy at The University of Akron; and Eric T. Juengst, a professor of bioethics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.
-end-
Gregory Kaebnick, editor of the Hastings Center Report, discusses these and other articles in the November-December issue in a podcast here.

The Hastings Center is a nonpartisan bioethics research institution dedicated to bioethics and the public interest since 1969. The Center is a pioneer in collaborative interdisciplinary research and dialogue on the ethical and social impact of advances in health care and the life sciences. The Center draws on a worldwide network of experts to frame and examine issues that inform professional practice, public conversation, and social policy. Learn more about The Hastings Center at: www.thehastingscenter.org

The Hastings Center

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