Neuroscience and Human Rights

Can human rights principles and neuroethics become more integrated in future discourse?

During the final panel of the International Neuroethics Society (INS) annual meeting, moderator Stephen Marks, from the Harvard School of Public Health, noted the absence of the human rights framework from key literature in the neuroethics field, and challenged the panelists to address this gap and identify areas where neuroscience and human rights overlap.

To set the stage for the discussion, he outlined clusters of human rights:

  • Autonomy of the human being
  • Human dignity, identity, privacy
  • Right to health
  • Right to education
  • Right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress

Joining Marks on the “Neuroscience and Human Rights” panel were Mariana Chilton, Dana Alliance member Judy Illes, and S. Matthew Liao. Chilton and Liao detailed examples of areas where human rights and neuroscience intersect within their areas of interest, while Illes responded to the larger question of the relationship between human rights and neuroethics, while also listing essential areas to apply a human rights lens.

Chilton, an associate professor at the Drexel University School of Public Health, presented on early childhood development in the U.S., and the rights of the child, taking into account many of the rights listed above. She spoke about toxic stress, which includes violence, neglect, and the burdens of economic hardship, and its effect on brain development.

Because of her work as the director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities, Chilton zeroed in on nutritional deprivation through food scarcity, noting the negative effects on children’s health, including cognitive and emotional development. She drew particular attention to the first three years of life, which she said are a critical time for brain growth and forming new connections in the brain.

As of 2012, more than 17.6 million U.S. households were reported to be food insecure. In response to this staggering number, Chilton supports a human rights framework to reposition how people think about the right to food, and also to pressure government to act on its people’s behalf. In a paper for the American Journal for Public Health, she wrote:

We suggest that the United States adopt a new approach to address food insecurity that openly and explicitly engages a human rights framework. A human rights framework repositions our understanding of food insecurity to acknowledge and actively address its social and economic determinants. It provides a venue for public participation in the food and nutrition discourse from people most affected by food insecurity. Perhaps most importantly, it provides a mechanism through which the general public can hold the US government accountable for making progress in ending food insecurity.

Chilton encouraged those in the INS audience to also get involved in the effort, by advocating on behalf of assistance programs that aid in food scarcity, such as WIC, food stamps, and school breakfasts and lunches, and also to push the US to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. [Full document here.]

S. Matthew Liao, a professor of bioethics and philosophy at NYU, tackled a much less tangible right, though one that is still important to the health and development of the child: the right for children to be loved. He believes parental love is a human right because it is “a fundamental condition for children to pursue a good life.” He cited a 2012 study from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis that demonstrated the positive effects of parental nurturing on the brain development of 92 children; those nurtured early in life had a larger hippocampus—an area important to learning and memory. Studies measuring the effects of toxic stress on humans and monkeys have shown negative effects, he said. You can read more about his argument for love as a human right here. [Further reading offered on his website].

This argument raised interesting (and controversial) questions: Should biological parenting be licensed? Do we have a duty to adopt? How can parents command themselves to love?

Judy Illes, an INS board member and professor of neurology and the Canada Research Chair in Neuroethics at the University of British Columbia, took a reflective view on the relationship between human rights and neuroethics, calling neuroethics a silent partner rather than an absent one.

She pointed to a number of neuroethics areas that could use a human rights perspective, among them:

  • Neurobiology of brain development (as discussed previously)
  • Neurobiology of aging
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Mental Health
  • Pain
  • Criminal justice system
  • Neurotechnology
  • Drug development

Looking at practical next steps, she called on human rights experts to become more involved in the neuroethics dialogue, saying, “Human rights people need to come to the table more and more loudly.” She also highlighted the need for the real experts—the populations in question (such as impoverished parents)—to join the discussion in order to help identify functional targets to address.

To learn more about neuroethics and the variety of topics under that umbrella, visit the INS website and the Dana Foundation Neuroethics page. The Dana Foundation has been a supporter of the INS since its inception.

–Ann L. Whitman

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