In addition to my work as an historian, I am also a JD/MA Bioethics candidate at the University of Minnesota Law School. Ever since I first read David Eagleman's book Incognito (2011), I've been enamored with the field of "neurolaw," i.e. the intersection of law and neuroscience. I've been lucky to pursue this interest professionally, setting out … Continue reading The Legal Implications of Detecting Alzheimer’s Disease Earlier
In the fall 2012, I briefly left the University of Minnesota Morris to do a series of directed studies in Houston, TX. One of these included attending Dr. David Eagleman's "Neuroscience and Law" course at Rice University, which required that we write for the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law's blog. This was originally published September 26, … Continue reading Once again we are reminded that not every brain develops the same
If a fundamental question in neurolaw is how the legal system should move forward with the specific brain on trial, then the major role neuroscience can play in the courtroom is in the sentencing process. In fact, after identifying the biology that may have predisposed an individual to criminal behavior, attention must be paid to how sentencing - the rehabilitation process - can effectively be carried out. For example, if it was a malformed frontal lobe that unfairly led an individual to give in to an irresistable impulse, neuroscience plays the dual role of identifying this malformity and how best to correct it. ...
In an article titled "Can Neuroscience Challenge Roe v. Wade?" William Egginton, professor in the Humanities at John Hopkins University, cautions us to be careful in how we use the natural sciences to shape public policy. In this case, abortion rights. Egginton writes about attorney Rick Hearn's suits against Idaho's Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act "and others like it that cite neuroscientific findings of pain sentience on the part of fetuses as a basis for prohibiting abortions even prior to viability." The reason for this is because Hearn believes that the government is using results from the natural sciences "as a basis for expanding or contracting the rights of its citizens." The logic goes like this: if it can be proven that fetuses are capable of pain then they are conscious and thus a person deserving of their full rights under the constitution. This clearly has political overtones. ...
According to neurolaw, a successful and just legal system will be one that concerns itself with the steps moving forward with the specific brain on trial. If our behavior is influenced by our biology and circumstance, it is irreducibly complex to assess a criminal’s culpability in a way that is both satisfying and scientifically-informed. Instead of comparing and judging the sizes of one’s frontal lobe or another part’s propensity for firing (or not firing) certain chemicals while also factoring in one’s upbringing and the effects social institutions can have on our behavior, our legal system should focus on rehabilitation rather than strict punishment. ...
This is my “Voices in Bioethics” write-up of last month’s Atlanta Neuroethics Consortium. It was my first foray into the law and neuroscience world — and I loved it. What I don’t talk about is my experience using Couchsurfing.com (great!) or why I missed the Sunday panel.
With my flight leaving Sunday evening, I spent the morning walking to the Carter Presidential Library but gave up when I realized I’d never make it. Compensated by visiting the Martin Luther King Historic Site. Very good.
by Joshua Preston •
Recently, I attended the Atlanta Neuroethics Consortium’s (ANEC) conference on Neuro-Interventions and the Law: Regulating Human Mental Capacity (September 12-14). Hosted by Professor Dr. Nicole Vincent, it was my first foray into the “neurolaw” world. Most of the attendees and keynote speakers were pulled from the MacArthur Foundation’s Law and Neuroscience Research Network, and because of this, I was impressed by the cross-disciplinary representation. The conference included experts in the biological sciences and psychiatry as well as legal scholars and practicing judges. Additionally, I must add, it was free, which is the best price.
The opening keynote from Vincent laid out the major topics that would be explored over the next three days. In it she outlined her taxonomy of the relationship between responsibility and mental capacity (i.e., how does an individual’s cognitive abilities affect our expectations of them?). Each panel addressed…
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Did you know that you don’t have a constitutional right to die and physician-assisted suicide is legal in only five states? Here’s my latest article for Columbia’s Voices in Bioethics. In it I discuss the death of Gillian Bennett and euthanasia laws in both Canada and the United States.
by Joshua Preston •
“I want out before the day when I can no longer assess my situation,” wrote Gillian Bennett, a Vancouver woman, in an open letter to be published after her death. “[I] will be physically alive but there will be no one inside.” Addressing the dementia she had been living with for three years: “[M]uch faster now, I am turning into a vegetable … Dementia gives no quarter and admits no bargaining.” So, dragging a mattress to her favorite spot, on August 18, 2014, Bennett, age 83, self-administered a lethal dose of barbiturates and passed with her husband holding her hand.
In Canada, physician-assisted suicide (PAS) is illegal, leaving individuals with degenerative illnesses to make these decisions on their one without the resources available to most hospitals. As Bennett observed, if she wished to resist becoming a vegetable, this was her only option –…
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Here’s my second article for Columbia’s “Voices in Bioethics.” In it I review a paper by Dr. Annabelle Littoz-Monnet and discuss the problems inherent at the intersection of bioethical “expertise” and government. In short, there’s no such thing as the neutral state.
by Joshua Preston •
In a new paper published by Dr. Annabelle Littoz-Monnet, an associate professor of political science at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, she asks whether government bioethics experts bolster or inhibit democratic control of policy. To answer this, she cites the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies’ (EGE) role in the European Union’s early-2000s debate on whether to fund human embryotic stem cell research. Drawing upon news articles, reports, and personal interviews, Dr. Littoz-Monnet observes that when the debate reached a stalemate, the European Commission (the EU’s executive body) sought out the EGE’s recommendations. What followed was the use of the EGE as a means for “control[ling] the policy process despite the presence of a salient and publicly debated conflict (17, italics in original).
Although the case study is itself interesting, the value of Dr. Littoz-Monnet’s paper lies…
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Recently I’ve become a staff writer for Columbia University’s “Voices in Bioethics.” Here’s my debut article on US v. Hendrickson, a recent district court sentencing opinion that draws upon neuroscience. In it Judge Bennett cites the work of my boss, Dr. David Eagleman.
by Joshua Preston •
If there was any doubt whether bioethics scholarship was impacting the legal system, District Judge Mark W. Bennett’s recent sentencing opinion in US v. Hendrickson (2014) removed it. Referencing society’s evolving view of addiction and disease, he noted that “advances in science continue to outpace advances in law” and that even though addiction is no longer regarded as a moral failing but rather an illness:
the law still responds to drug abusers with punitive force, rather than preventative or therapeutic treatment. It is therefore unsurprising that, since 1980, the number of federal prisoners serving drug-related sentences has skyrocketed.
Although the medical community recognizes that addiction affects a victim’s judgment and behavior, Judge Bennett wrote that, within the legal community, there is no consensus whether courts should treat it as a mitigating circumstance. Instead, some judges insist it is mitigating only when it falls outside convention…
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