Kudos to Ann Althouse for finding this monstrosity: “3D Printing and the Murky Ethics of Replicating Bones.” Ann quips, “The murkiness in getting to the point of what’s murky in the ethics is evidence of what a sensitive problem it is.”
The forum, ironically enough, is RealClear Science, and the author is Sarah Wild, a South African science journalist and author. It may help to know that she hails from Undark, an e-mag that purports to to “explore science in both light and shadow, and to bring that exploration to a broad, international audience.” Should I be suspicious of the magazine because Charles M. Blow is on its board? No…but I am.
The article is incompetent structurally because it doesn’t begin to explain exactly what the “murky ethics issues” are until about half way through a very long article, and it’s hard to read when one is asleep. Even after the issues are drip-drip-dripped out, it is never made clear by the author what established ethical principles are involved. The ethics issue of scientists taking bones of unidentified people from burial sites in other nations has always been, for me, an ick vs. ethics controversy. The original owners of the bones are not harmed in any way, and if those individuals’ families aren’t aware of the whereabouts of the remains and have taken no steps to assert control over them, they are not harmed either.
I may have missed something, but I think the main “murky ethics issue” justifying this endless exposition is that 3-D printed bones allow scientists to profit from the body parts of others, and the author is suggesting that the profits should be somehow distributed to the descendants, following an expensive inquiry into who they might be. I don’t call that “murky.” I call it “contrived.” That is, of course, if I’m correctly interpreting the turgid, verbose and soporific prose that Wild gives us. Maybe she’s making a religious point, except the desecration of burial spots has taken place with the real bones, not their copies. Is it disrespectful of ancient religions to make a 3-D copy of the result of a grave desecration? Gee, what a fascinating question….
Mostly what the article generates is a strong, echoing, “Who cares?” in my brain, and this is what the vast majority of scholarly ethics writing has been for centuries. It’s unethical to make ethics so technical and obtuse that normal people lose interest.
But I’ve said too much already: read this thing, if your sock drawer is in order, and see if you can figure out what vital technology ethics issue is being revealed. I’m eager to be enlightened.