Top Bioethics News Stories of 2013: Technology


In our last commentary, I highlighted the top six bioethics news stories of 2013, in the area of public policy. This week, we’ll focus on the top six in technology. I’m going to give you a thinking challenge. At least one of these stories has less-than-obvious ethical issues. Which one is it? I’ll tell you at the end.

#1. In April, President Obama announced the $100 million BRAIN Initiative. The goal is to map the human brain, so we can better understand how it works, and, perhaps, gain insights into mental illness.[1]          

#2. In May, the DSM-5 manual was released. It’s called the ‘bible’ of the psychiatric field. Along with including people who have slipped through the cracks of mental health care in the past, the manual added several new categories of mental illness, including things like caffeine addiction and unresolved grief.[2]

#3. A research team in Oregon announced in May that they had successfully cloned embryonic stem cells tailored to match the patient. They used egg cells from paid donors, as well as fetal skin cells.[3] Within a few weeks, the paper was shown to have some minor, though controversial, errors.[4]         

#4. Just a few months later, researchers in Israel announced the creation of induced pluripotent stem cells with nearly 100% efficiency. This could rapidly speed development of new therapies, without creating or destroying any human embryos.[5]     

#5. In July, we learned about two studies highlighting a possible breakthrough in gene therapy. Several children who were born with serious immune disease recovered their ability to walk and talk after their DNA was corrected. And, the gene therapy boosted their immune system as well.[6]

#6. Finally, you may remember the case of Sarah Murnaghan, a 10-year-old girl who successfully fought to be added to the adult waiting list for a lung transplant, and an exception was added to the transplant guidelines. Sarah’s first lung transplant failed, and she received a second one.[7]

Several of these stories relate positive breakthroughs.

So which one has hidden dangers?  It’s a close call, but I chose the revisions to the DSM-5 manual. It accelerates the trend of classifying more and more normal human behavior and experiences as mental illness. This invites all of us to see life as full of problems that medicine can fix.

Meanwhile, conditions that used to be considered mental illness, and some that once were considered criminal, have been removed from the manual.  What used to be called evil is now ‘normal.’ What we know to be normal is now categorized as a disease. Biblical wisdom and discernment is called for, in order to tell the difference. Don’t count on a psychiatric manual for that. And don’t look to medicine to cure the effects of sin.

[1] Alison Abbott, “Neuroscience: Solving the Brain,” Nature, July 17, 2013.

[2] David Adam, “Mental Health: On the Spectrum,” Nature, April 24, 2013. Christine S. Moyer, “DSM-5 finally debuts, markedly changed from earlier editions,” American Medical News, June 3, 2013.

[3] David Cyranoski, “Human Stem Cells Created by Cloning,” Nature, May 15, 2013.

[4] David Cyranoski and Erika Check Hayden, “Stem-Cell Cloner Acknowledges Errors in Groundbreaking Paper,” Nature, May 23, 2013.

[5] Monya Baker, “Stem Cells Made with Near-Perfect Efficiency,” Nature, September 18, 2013.

[6] James Gallagher, “Gene Therapy Trial ‘Cures’ Children,” BBC News, July 11, 2013.

[7] “Judge Moves Sarah Murnaghan onto Adult Lung List,” BBC News, June 6, 2013. Sidney Lupkin, “Sarah Murnaghan Had Two Lung Transplants, One Failed,” ABC News, June 28, 2013.


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