Top Ethical Breakthrough, circa 1776: Individual Liberty

Time announced its year-end list. While everyone else is in freak-out mode about Putin being named “Man of the Year,” I’ll be in my corner noticing the perpetuation of the same silly myths through omission and a refusal to question. The top “medical breakthrough” of the year:

Circumcision Can Prevent HIV

In December 2006, the National Institutes of Health halted two clinical trials of male circumcision after an early review of the data showed that the procedure dramatically reduced transmission of HIV. Early this year, the details of those studies were published in the Lancet: In the two randomized trials, which included 7,780 HIV-negative men in Rakai, Uganda, and Kisumu, Kenya, researchers found that medically circumcised men were at least 51% less likely than uncircumcised [sic] men to acquire HIV during sex with women. The editors of the Lancet called the discovery “a new era for HIV prevention.” Scientists don’t know yet whether male circumcision can also provide protection for female partners — a new study on the hypothesis is forthcoming next year.

Aside from the general [sic] surrounding “prevention” in the title of its story, Time’s joined the mass blindness and ignored the two key words in the study, voluntary and adult. The glaring ethical problem created from the ommission of those two words means nothing, apparently. Of course, neither does the truth that researchers do not know the specific cause of this alleged benefit for men who engage in unprotected sex with HIV+ women, so I’m not going to fake surprise at this reporting.

Time’s reporting also ignores the potentially greater benefit provided by safe-sex education and the inherent fallacy in looking at data from a 21-month period in which the circumcised men were asked to refrain from sex for 6 weeks after the surgery and the latency period for the disease is up to 6 months. What’s 7.5 months over the long stretch of 21 months?

Please note that Time ranks this revelation ahead of such breakthroughs as a Test for Metastatic Breast Cancer, First Human Vaccine Against Bird Flu, and Early-Stage Test for Lung Cancer.


In related news, Time named this the top scientific breakthrough of the year. Now is a great time to mention how this improves the ethical debate. Instead of using human embryos, molecular biologist James Thomson figured out a way to create stem cells from “regular skin cells”. From Science Magazine (pdf):

Instead of cells from adults, Thomson and his team reprogrammed cells from fetal skin and from the foreskin of a newborn boy.

It’s a good thing we’ve resolved all the ethical issues in the stem cell debate, because taking the healthy skin of a living infant male is much better than taking cells from an embryo that will never be a living human. (Listen to an NPR interview on this story, with mention of Thomson’s use of an infant’s foreskin, here.)