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News: March/April 2008

News reports by Sue Roberts.

Organ Trading

Should you be allowed to sell your own organs for transplant? The ethicist Prof. Mark J. Cherry of St Edward’s University, Austin, Texas has called for the trade to be legalised. He believes this would destroy an existing black market and improve the conditions surrounding transactions. He made the proposal in Prohibitions, a book published by the Institute of Economic Affairs thinktank. In a radio debate he was opposed by an organ-recipient who felt that all donations should be altruistic. His proposal was welcomed cautiously by Prof. Nadi Hakim, the surgeon who performed the world’s first hand transplant. Having seen the changes possible in patients who receive transplanted organs, he said that such items were beyond price, but that any method to stimulate the supply of donors should be examined.

Are hybrid embryos human?

‘Ethical’ stem-cells can now be created without destroying embryos, which may meet objections to stem-cell research from some religious groups. However, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, currently passing through the British Parliament, remains highly controversial. If it becomes law, the Bill will give a green light to the creation of animal-human embryos (‘chimeras’) by injecting animal cells or DNA into human embryos or human cells into animal eggs. After use in medical research these hybrid embryos would be discarded. Leaders of the Catholic Church have protested that these embryos should be regarded as human and treated accordingly. In a relaxation of its usual strict party discipline, the ruling Labour Party has said that Catholic Labour MPs will be granted absolution if they abstain from the vote on the Bill.

Visa Rule Changes Threaten Visiting Appointments

Philosophers and other academics taking up visiting professorships at British universities could have the length of their stay slashed from twelve months to only three as a result of changes proposed by the Border and Immigration Agency. The agency is considering bringing the current academic visa concession in line with business visas in a new category called ‘special visitor’. Academics would then be entitled only to the three-month visa being proposed for business visitors instead of the full year they currently enjoy.

Alan Mackay, head of the University of Edinburgh’s international office said the move would be ‘a disaster’, particularly affecting visiting academics from the USA and Canada. It would in turn, he believes, have a serious impact on the many UK university departments that have well-established links with North America. The Border and Immigration Agency says it will listen to the views of academics before making a decision, but the low-key nature of the announcement has left most academics unaware of the proposed change.

Popper’s House Gets Blue Plaque

An English Heritage Blue Plaque commemorating Sir Karl Popper (1902-94) was recently installed at No.16 Burlington Rise, Barnet, London. Popper, who is famous for his theory of falsificationism in philosophy of science and for his advocacy of the ‘open society’, lived in the house between 1946 and 1950. At that time he was a rising star of the philosophy world, lecturing to great acclaim at the London School of Economics. The plaque was unveiled by its proposer, the author and philosopher Bryan Magee.

Eco-feminist Philosopher Dies

Val Plumwood, the well-known eco-feminist who in 1985 narrowly survived a harrowing crocodile attack, has died aged 67. Dr Plumwood was a fellow of the Australian Research Council at the Australian National University. She had also taught at Berkeley and the University of Sydney. Her experience of being nearly eaten by a crocodile, which left her with severe injuries after a miraculous escape, influenced her subsequent life and writings. Afterwards she appealed for the croc’s life to be spared, as species numbers were in decline and she felt she had intruded on its domain. Val Plumwood was once married to another environmental philosopher, Richard Routley. In the early 1980s he changed his name to Richard Sylvan to reflect his commitment to the woodlands, and she changed hers to honour the plumwood trees in the ancient Monga Forest near Braidwood, New South Wales, which she campaigned to save from logging.

Remember Your Tin-Foil Hat!

The journal Nature has reported the successful development of a mind-reading technique using MRI scanners normally used in hospital diagnosis. The team led by Dr Jack Gallant of the University of California at Berkeley recorded the activity in each subject’s visual cortex as they looked at a series of 120 black and white photos. (They did this by setting the scanner to indicate changes in bloodflow to different areas). The resulting brain activity images were stored in a computer. When the subjects were shown a photo again, and the new scan was compared with the stored ones, then nine times out of ten the computer could correctly predict which photo the person was looking at. With a thousand photos the accuracy dropped to 80%. Gallant warned that in 30-50 years, with more development, it might become possible to tell what a sleeper is dreaming about, or even decode the brain activity of unwilling subjects. Gallant said: “We believe strongly that no one should be subjected to any form of brain-reading process involuntarily, covertly or without complete informed consent.

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