By: Suanu Bakor
Bioethicists would argue that, based on core bioethical principles, good was done to this man by allowing him to sense touch where he has not for over a decade. This argument would assert that researchers were acting with benevolence in their efforts to help people and, since they are not forcing the prosthetic on any individual, personal autonomy is also respected. The people involved with this project are doing work that could one day help many people who were born with, or acquired, a disability. Because the disabled community has historically seen a lack of care, research meant to directly improve their lives is, thus, a moral imperative. Scholars do not conduct such research with the intent of disrupting disability culture or identity. However, it is not up to the bioethical community to determine whether or not a life is improved. Only the individual using or considering the technology can determine that. We can look to the case of cochlear implants among the deaf community and how the creation of such technology posed a threat to Deaf culture as a way to explore how this technology may impact its users' disability identity.
What this means for procedures like the prosthetic arm is that neither the government, bioethicists, DARPA, nor other healthcare professionals can guarantee the effect that such technology would have on the disabled community, that it will be welcome, or that the resources necessary for the technology would be equally distributed to those that desire and need it. Wealthier nations with wealthier citizens would get this technology first and others who cannot afford such a procedure would be left without much societal support to help them live with their disability – which is exactly the type of situation that disability advocates fight to avoid. Also, devices like the prosthetic arm require maintenance. One report on the technology noted that because the electrode array is implanted onto the brain, scarring can occur which dulls the signal that the brain is sending out and receiving from the arm. This means that further surgery and maintenance on the arm itself is necessary to maintain practical use of the prosthetic. These added costs could make the procedure all but impossible for many individuals.
In conclusion, the development of greater technologies that can improve the wellbeing of its intended audience can be a very powerful advancement for the individuals that need such advances. Making efforts to improve the lives of others is a virtuous endeavor and most people with disabilities would not take a stance against helping members of their own community, even if it meant potentially “losing” that member. However, the disability perspective will always argue that the implementation of such technologies needs to be analyzed for what it could mean on a larger scale for an entire community like people who are Deaf. Increased use of such technology may lead to societal pressures towards those who live with such a disability, leading to potential discrimination based on non-use of a technology. Advocates for the rights of disabled people seek to avoid this pressure because of the disability rights mantra is that a disabled life is a life worth living. They would argue that the researchers and bioethicists working on this prosthetic arm, cochlear implants, or other projects that involve creating a device meant to reverse or ameliorate a bodily condition need to consider the larger and, often unintended, consequences that such technologies can have on the very same people they are trying to help.
1. Vaughn, L. (2013). Bioethics: Principles, issues, and cases. New York: Oxford University Press.
2. Bonnie, P. T. (1998). Deaf culture, cochlear implants, and elective disability. The Hastings Center Report, 28(4), 6-14.
3. Sparrow, R. (2005). Defending Deaf Culture: The Case of Cochlear Implants. Journal of Political Philosophy, 13, 135–152. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9760.2005.00217.x