An ethical dilemma on human testing

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The Utilitarian
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An ethical dilemma on human testing

Postby The Utilitarian » Fri Oct 23, 2009 7:55 pm UTC

Disclaimer: This topic deals with sexual orientation, but is not intended as a discussion of gay rights, marriage, or other opinions on the subject. I ask you to assume some hypothetical viewpoints which you may not share, if you are not comfortable with adopting these viewpoints, please refrain from contributing, as the validity or possibility of these hypothetical viewpoints is not intended to be the subject of discussion.

I appoligise if I inadvertently offend anyone in posing this question, it is not my intent and I have tried to be as uninflamitory as possible


Presently, when we look for neurological causes for psychological phenomena in humans we are limited to correlational studies which can never provide us with causation. We can perform tests on rats to say that, for instance, stress causes health problems, but we cannot ethically conduct a test in which we attempt to give a person health problems by stressing them.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexually_dimorphic_nucleus

A lot of current research into sexual orientation suggests that there may be a section of the brain (the Sexually Dimorphic Nucleus, or SDN), which determines sexual orientation. Examination of both humans and rats have revealed that the SDN begins at a constant size for both sexes, but during early development (prior to birth in humans, after birth in rats), increases in size by about four times in males. Experiments on rats have shown that depriving males of testosterone in this critical period will cause them to have smaller, female sized SDNs, whereas suppling female rats with excess testosterone has a reversed effect, causing them to develop the larger male sized SDNs.

Rats with these altered SDNs exhibit sexual behavior appropreate to the size of their SDN, rather than their natural behavior. Females act like males and males act like females, despite a lack of the apporpreate genitalia.

Autopsies done on many deceased homosexual men have revealed smaller than normal SDNs, suggesting that this might play some role in sexual orientation in humans as well as rats.

The problem we are faced with, of course, is that we cannot currently run any kind of test on persons, for ethical reasons, to determine if there is a causal relationship present, or if this is just a correlation caused by a third factor.

Scenerio:

Consider, the following hypothetical scenerio:
As a result of the Abortion debate, unborn children have been declared non-persons, and decisions regarding that fetus are left to the mother. (You, or I, might not agree with this, but allow it hypothetically for the moment)

At the same time, sexual orientation has become a non-issue in society, where being gay, straight, or bisexual is treated no differently than hair color, eye color, or any other trivial difference between individuals.

Under these two hypothetical situations, would it be ethically sound to conduct an experiment in which pregnant mothers volunteer to have testosterone levels of their fetuses altered to change the size of the SDN in order to attempt to determine whether different sizes of the SDN really do determine sexual orientation in humans?

Because the fetus has no rights as a person, (in this hypothetical situation) the mother can volunteer for the experiment, and because sexual orientation is regarded as being no different than hair or skin color, we cannot say that we are somehow damaging the future person's life by potentially altering his sexual orientation (we wouldn't say it was unethical to potentially give a future person brown hair, would we?)
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Re: An ethical dilemma on human testing

Postby Azrael » Fri Oct 23, 2009 8:10 pm UTC

Unless someone was trying to market the treatment, then you wouldn't have to go through the rigor of human testing in order to verify the theory. If this enlargement is visible on brain CT or MRI scans, any research body sufficiently interested in testing the hypothesis could conduct a scientifically rigorous study on the matter.

Given the lack of need, and that non-invasive alternative to satisfy scientific curiosity is (assumed above to be) readily available , it would be very difficult indeed to justify human testing. Regardless of how one views the fetus, the testing would still be taking place on a human. And, in considering the scenario you laid out, there would be no possible benefit to said human -- that last factor alone would almost certainly invalidate the approach from a medical ethics standpoint.

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Re: An ethical dilemma on human testing

Postby The Utilitarian » Fri Oct 23, 2009 8:18 pm UTC

Azrael wrote:Unless someone was trying to market the treatment, then you wouldn't have to go through the rigor of human testing in order to verify the theory. If this enlargement is visible on brain CT or MRI scans, any research body sufficiently interested in testing the hypothesis could conduct a scientifically rigorous study on the matter.

Given the lack of need, and that non-invasive alternative to satisfy scientific curiosity is (assumed above to be) readily available , it would be very difficult indeed to justify human testing. Regardless of how one views the fetus, the testing would still be taking place on a human. And, in considering the scenario you laid out, there would be no possible benefit to said human -- that last factor alone would almost certainly invalidate the approach from a medical ethics standpoint.

But such a study would still only provide correlational data. Without an experiment including random sampling and controls for environmental factors we still wouldn't be able to satisfy strict causation.
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Re: An ethical dilemma on human testing

Postby Azrael » Fri Oct 23, 2009 8:24 pm UTC

The words 'verify' and 'theory' were placed in that sentence on purpose. In this case there is no worth associated with proof. No worth, no ethical justification. Curiosity can be satisfied with a statistically valid & scientifically conducted study of correlation. More importantly, a non-invasive study of correlation in humans could result in the hypothesis being disproven without having to pursue human testing.

Just because correlation isn't causation doesn't mean that correlation, when applied correctly, is valueless. Theories: They're still important.

EDIT: Random sampling and environmental controls can *certainly* be built into an MRI/CT study.

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Re: An ethical dilemma on human testing

Postby YourReality » Fri Oct 23, 2009 11:00 pm UTC

Some would argue that there are ethical concerns involved in tampering with even such a benign feature as hair colour. I can't say that I'm behind them because pragmatism wins every time for me and hair colour really doesn't make a difference in anything at all.

However, I think that unless it could be demonstrated that no harm of any kind might come from participation in this procedure then the risks would not outweigh the benefits in the eyes of an ethics committee. Because there are no tangible benefits involved in such a study (it wouldnt' be treating a disease, curing a defect, making life better in any discernable fashion) there would essentially have to be no risk at all for the risks not to outweigh the benefits. It's difficult to know exactly what a given person's reaction would be to an artificial spike of testosterone.

That said, would I personally authorize such a study? Sure I would. I'm interested enough in knowledge for the sake of knowledge that I wouldn't see any significant risks in that experiment. Would it ever get past an ethics board? Mmmm.... I don't think so.

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Re: An ethical dilemma on human testing

Postby gmalivuk » Sat Oct 24, 2009 12:00 am UTC

The Utilitarian wrote:But such a study would still only provide correlational data.

All we observe is correlation, though. Luckily, cleverly designed research can look at a wide variety of different correlations and deduce a probable causal relationship between variables.
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Re: An ethical dilemma on human testing

Postby mypsychoticself » Sat Oct 24, 2009 4:49 pm UTC

The problem with this study is that all the gay men had died of AIDS. As far as I know, the straight men had not. Thus, the size differences may be the result of disease.

Do I believe that pregnant women should be able to volunteer their fetuses for scientific research? Yes, absolutely.

Do I believe that this specific study would be valuable? No, not at this time. Human testing is generally the last thing scientists do -- after they have sufficient evidence that they [probably] won't accidentally kill anyone. I'd like to see a better study on cadavers, some more studies on rats, and possibly some studies on larger animals before I thought that this idea was ready for human testing.
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Re: An ethical dilemma on human testing

Postby mmmcannibalism » Sat Oct 24, 2009 4:58 pm UTC

Under your assumption that orientation is trivial; the study would have no value other then learning about a trend that isn't very important.

Additionally, the idea of manipulating humans in the long term for research that wouldn't be gaining anything(since orientation isn't signifigant) seems to be the definition of unethical. If we were talking about risking some fetuses that would have died anyway because it might cure cancer it would be one thing; but manipulating life for trivial means is rather unethical.
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Re: An ethical dilemma on human testing

Postby Mokele » Sat Oct 24, 2009 11:20 pm UTC

Honestly, no, the suggested experiment wouldn't be of any use, for a variety of pragmatic factors:

1) It wouldn't be in the mother's best interest. Abortion, whether you agree with it or not, is not a trivial procedure - it is *major surgery* that carries significant risks due to the fact that you're working in an incredibly vascularized organ with direct communication to the peritoneal cavity. The further along the pregnancy is, the greater the risk. You'd be asking these women to put themselves in significantly greater risk of potentially life-threatening complications for research that has no direct or obvious medical influence.

2) No control is possible - each of these women have different genetics, different nutritional states prior to pregnancy, different lifestyles, different natural hormone levels, different numbers and sexes of prior kids, etc. Even if you *could* control all extenal variables, you'd still need a MASSIVE sample size in order to conclude anything, and even then, it would be essentially a "data fishing expedition".


Also, don't assume there has to be explicitly maniulative experiments at every step along the way. We've done manipulative work in lab animals, and found the same correlation in humans, so there's no good reason to assume the causation demonstrated in other species doesn't hold true.

If science is anything, it's pragmatic - we do the best the we can with the data we can get. If we can't get data due to ethical limits, extinction, unworkable spatial or temporal scale, etc., we'll figure ways around it as best we can.
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Re: An ethical dilemma on human testing

Postby Greyarcher » Sun Oct 25, 2009 3:09 am UTC

The Utilitarian wrote:Because the fetus has no rights as a person, (in this hypothetical situation) the mother can volunteer for the experiment, and because sexual orientation is regarded as being no different than hair or skin color, we cannot say that we are somehow damaging the future person's life by potentially altering his sexual orientation (we wouldn't say it was unethical to potentially give a future person brown hair, would we?)
It's almost a non-issue. But it sort of depends. Some people tend to consider human life to be "special" and human experimentation is viewed as a violation of dignity, autonomy, or possibly as a dangerous step along a slippery slope, or something similar. And it's hard to say how much of that is tied up with "personhood", and how much of that would disappear if people removed all notion of the personhood of a fetus. I can imagine there still being a stigma attached to using a human in an experiment--even an innocuous one--but I can just as easily imagine people thinking it's totally fine.

So...yeah, probably still controversial.
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Re: An ethical dilemma on human testing

Postby gmalivuk » Sun Oct 25, 2009 3:29 am UTC

Doing invasive research on fetuses that you aren't planning on destroying before they develop into people is a problem because they'll develop into people. Who you've fiddled with without their consent for research purposes. It doesn't matter whether or not the fetuses themselves are considered special.
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Re: An ethical dilemma on human testing

Postby Greyarcher » Sun Oct 25, 2009 6:58 am UTC

gmalivuk wrote:Doing invasive research on fetuses that you aren't planning on destroying before they develop into people is a problem because they'll develop into people. Who you've fiddled with without their consent for research purposes. It doesn't matter whether or not the fetuses themselves are considered special.
The pertinent issue there isn't so much consent, but rather social mores about acceptable treatment. After all, people have to engage in a vast number of activities that affect a human long before they reach an age where they can give consent (e.g. everything a parent does when raising an infant). So the issue in this hypothetical scenario is not "the fetus cannot give consent" but "what do people consider acceptable treatment of a fetus?" After all, if everyone in Hypothetical Land thinks it's acceptable for a fetus to be involved in some harmless experiment, those mores will be learned by the kid too and there will be no problem. Consent isn't an issue unless we're already condemning the experimentation.

I get the impression that you're inclined to condemn the experimentation on other grounds, but your post doesn't particularly indicate the basis of your condemnation.
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Re: An ethical dilemma on human testing

Postby gmalivuk » Sun Oct 25, 2009 3:10 pm UTC

I'm condemning it because it's fucking with someone for purely research purposes. The other things parents do generally come down to, well they've got to do *something*. But this is wholly unnecessary genetic fiddling. Even if there were no social stigma whatsoever against one sexual orientation or another, I still think I personally would resent my parents for intentionally trying to choose mine before birth.
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Re: An ethical dilemma on human testing

Postby Steax » Sun Oct 25, 2009 3:26 pm UTC

My problem here lies with the fact that this is an experiment. It's designed to test a hypothesis, which may or may not be true. What if something goes wrong in the procedure and the result is a deformed child or an unhealthy baby? That could bring about negative long-term effects, and since it's always a possibility, we can't say for sure the experiment will go as planned until we're absolutely sure nothing else can go wrong.

And since it would be near impossible to say that absolutely nothing can go wrong, I'd say it's not a good idea to try the experiment. Not if it could end up ruining someone's life.
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Re: An ethical dilemma on human testing

Postby gmalivuk » Sun Oct 25, 2009 3:29 pm UTC

Steax wrote:I'd say it's not a good idea to try the experiment. Not if it could end up ruining someone's life.

And, to be clear here (at least about my own view): the reason potentially ruining someone's life is an unacceptable risk is that the benefit of the experiment isn't of similar magnitude. If you were trying to correct some horrible ruinous disease and ended up accidentally ruining the person's life in some other way, I'd have less problem.
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Re: An ethical dilemma on human testing

Postby Steax » Sun Oct 25, 2009 3:35 pm UTC

gmalivuk wrote:And, to be clear here (at least about my own view): the reason potentially ruining someone's life is an unacceptable risk is that the benefit of the experiment isn't of similar magnitude. If you were trying to correct some horrible ruinous disease and ended up accidentally ruining the person's life in some other way, I'd have less problem.


I agree. It's not worth the threat on someone's entire life, from birth to death, just to validate a hypothesis. (That is, if I've properly read the OP that the experiment is to see if the SDN has an effect on orientation.)

For that matter, I don't really understand what that research has to benefit from being validated. It sort of sounds like the "just to make sure that X is for Y" instead of "we need to make sure X is for Y to develop Z". Sure, one day we might need to know for sure, but then we'll probably have better testing methods by then. And, since we assume sexual orientation is not an issue in society or anything else of importance so far, why would that matter, either?
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Re: An ethical dilemma on human testing

Postby The Utilitarian » Tue Oct 27, 2009 12:55 am UTC

Thanks to everyone for their opinions, I was expecting a generally uniform response of "unethical" but I was suprised at how consistantly the responses were based mainly on the grounds of the experiment being unneccissary. A win for the prevalence of pragmatism it seems.
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