Friday, March 6, 2015

Moments of Science History

This week I've been discussing history in light of the Women's Studies literature I've read, looking into "where did we go wrong?" Today I want to discuss some of the historical issues with science.

This is a complicated post to write, as I believe in STEM careers, and the ability of science to improve our world... while recognizing that sometimes science has gotten it wrong. It is relevant to several current topics of discussion, most notably the vaccine debate.

There is a meme, "Science can tell you how to clone a dinosaur. The humanities can tell you why that is a bad idea."  The case studies of scientific ethics that I was aware of to begin this post, appear largely to have come after the fact, in reaction to scientific decisions rather than preventative.

My Catholic education has long taught me that the question "Can we?" must also consider "Should we?" on scientific concerns. At the time, it was most applied to reproductive issues, both In-Vitro Fertilization and looking forward to the potential for "designer babies" in the future.

As I search for appropriate links and sources of data, I find that scientists themselves have long shared concerns about what will be done with their research.

In fact, the issue of scientific ethics is also connected to the modern internet concept that "information wants to be free"... which I have always seen as problematic. This essay "Theories of Intellectual Property" appears on quick read to cover the history and multiple issues involved in today's world.

1) The Tuskegee Syphilis experiment, 1932-1972. A longitudinal study intended to track the effects of syphilis, it is most problematic because a) participants were not told their diagnosis, and b) when a treatment (penicillin) was discovered, the patients were not treated. Additional concerns include informed consent for painful medical procedures.

2) Henrietta Lacks and HeLa cancer cells. In 1951, cervical cancer cells were removed from her body. Without her knowledge or permission, the cells were taken by a researcher, and discovered to survive, grow, and divide unlike any cell line found before. HeLa cells were used in the development of the polio vaccine.

Henrietta herself died of her cancer in 1951, however her family was not informed of the existence and use of these cells in research until 20 years after her death.  Additional modern concerns about information privacy are described in the March 2013 New York Times article, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the Sequel."

There is also a book, which I have purchased but not yet read:

3) Additional concerns about vaccines: Here is a link to the National Catholic Bioethics Center FAQ about vaccine ethics. There is a Catholic concern that some vaccines are made in cells descending from a fetus aborted 40 years ago.  Key takeaway for vaccine promoters:
What do I do if there is no alternative to a vaccine produced from these cell lines?One is morally free to use the vaccine regardless of its historical association with abortion. The reason is that the risk to public health, if one chooses not to vaccinate, outweighs the legitimate concern about the origins of the vaccine. This is especially important for parents, who have a moral obligation to protect the life and health of their children and those around them.
What support is there in Church teaching for this position?
A statement from the Pontifical Academy for Life issued in 2005 holds that one may use these products, despite their distant association with abortion, at least until such time as new vaccines become available.
While an evangelical atheist might disregard these concerns, I think it's important to acknowledge religious concerns and attempt to address them.

There is more, but this is enough for today.