ICYMI: Top 2012 Bioethics Headlines


I often receive emails with the subject line: ICYMI. It stands for “In Case You Missed It.” Here’s my ICYMI to you, the top bioethics stories from 2012.

Healthcare took center stage in this year’s presidential campaign, particularly after the Supreme Court upheld most of the Affordable Care Act in a controversial 5-4 decision at the end of June.[1] Employers filed lawsuits against HHS, claiming that the mandate to provide health insurance coverage for contraception, including some abortifacients, violates religious freedom.

For all of the political back-and-forth on healthcare, genetics took the spotlight for the top bioethics stories. In one widely watched court case, Myriad Genetics successfully defended its patents on genes for breast and ovarian cancer. The U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that Myriad can patent the genes, but cannot patent the methods for analyzing or comparing the DNA sequences.[2]

The most prolific topic of 2012 was the promises and pitfalls of genetic testing. Pre-natal genetic tests using the mother’s blood offer a less-intrusive way to identify fetal defects; but, easier detection of defects likely will increase the number of fetuses being aborted. Meanwhile, do-it-yourself genetic test kits were promoted to predict your own diseases. Overall, people are confused over how reliable these tests are and what to do with the information.

Assisted reproductive technology wriggled its way into genetics stories. In October, scientists announced the successful production of a human embryo from three genetic donors, two female and one male.[3] While the three-parent embryo may bypass certain genetic diseases, it also raises significant ethical questions of paternity, identity, and genetic manipulation.

This just in: “junk DNA” isn’t junk! The ENCODE project published its results from years of investigating what used to be called “junk DNA.” [4] The project demonstrated that this non-coding DNA plays an important role in stem cells, cancer, and cell regulation.

Media coverage of stem cell breakthroughs was relatively low key. The big announcement was the awarding of the Nobel Prize to scientists from Japan and Britain, for their discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells.[5] Because no human embryos are destroyed, these cells are an ethical source for medical research.

Finally, the Internet buzzed with the story of Feng Jianmei, a young Chinese woman who was kidnapped and forced into a late-term abortion. [6] We now have a face and name linked with China’s barbaric enforcement of its one-child policy.

Those are the highlights, not to mention state ballots on physician assisted suicide, nanoparticles in food and cosmetics, black market kidneys, the death of a surrogate mother, sex selective abortion, and thought control of artificial limbs.

What a year it was in bioethics! I can’t predict the future, but I can safely say that bioethics will be in the news again in 2013. And I’ll be there to help you sort it out.

[1] Liptak, Adam “Supreme Court Upholds Health Care Law, 5-4, in Victory for Obama” New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/29/us/supreme-court-lets-health-law-largely-stand.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&_r=0 (accessed January 3, 2013).

[2] Reuters “Court Reaffirms Right of Myriad Genetics to Patent Genes” New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/17/business/court-reaffirms-right-of-myriad-genetics-to-patent-genes.html?partner=rss&emc=rss (accessed January 3, 2013).

[3] Roberts, Michelle “Three-person IVF trial ‘success’” BBC http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-20032216 (accessed January 3, 2013).

[4] Maher, Brendan “ENCODE: The Human Encyclopedia” Nature News http://www.nature.com/news/encode-the-human-encyclopaedia-1.11312 (accessed January 3, 2013).

[5] Ringstrom, Anna “UK, Japan Scientists Win Nobel for Adult Stem Cell Discovery” Reuters http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/10/08/us-nobel-medicine-idUSBRE8970AB20121008 (accessed January 3, 2013)

[6] Gu, Bo “Gruesome Photos Put Spotlight on China’s One-Child Policy” NBC News http://behindthewall.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/06/14/12222877-gruesome-photos-put-spotlight-on-chinas-one-child-policy?lite (accessed January 3, 2013).



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