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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Miracle anti-radiation meds bring up ethical challenges

From YNet:
Medication that can protect humans against nuclear radiation has been developed by Jewish-American scientists in cooperation with a researcher and investors from Israel. The full story behind the dramatic discovery will be published in Yedioth Ahronoth's weekend edition.

The ground-breaking medication, developed by Professor Andrei Gudkov – Chief Scientific Officer at Cleveland BioLabs - may have far-reaching implications on the balance of power in the world, as states capable of providing their citizens with protection against radiation will enjoy a significant strategic advantage vis-à-vis their rivals.

For Israel, the discovery marks a particularly dramatic development that could deeply affect the main issue on the defense establishment's agenda: Protection against a nuclear attack by Iran or against "dirty bomb" attacks by terror groups.

Gudkov's discovery may also have immense implications for cancer patients by enabling doctors to better protect patients against radiation. Should the new medication enable cancer patients to be treated with more powerful radiation, our ability to fight the disease could greatly improve.
Read the whole thing. This is big.

It also brings up a fascinating moral dilemma. Should this medicine be distributed to hostile or potentially hostile nuclear states?

If Iran gets the medicine, it may feel more empowered to attack Israel with nukes. Conversely, if Western nations have the medicine and Iran does not, it could dissuade Iran's nuclear ambitions.

On the other hand, denying any country access to lifesaving medicine would be considered, by most definitions, immoral.

One might argue that, since no Western state would initiate nuclear hostilities with Iran, that there is no moral dilemma to withholding that medicine, as the only way they would need to use it is if they strike first - which makes the morality of withholding it identical to the morality of a nuclear response as if that medicine never existed. Both ways there are going to be huge civilian casualties, which is considered the price to pay for starting a nuclear war and is the logic behind MAD.

Perhaps the medicine is analogous to having a defensive anti-missile capability. It is certainly not immoral to try to gain a military advantage by putting up defenses that the enemy does not have access to. One is not morally obligated to provide your enemy with a defense system on par with yours. In this situation, access to the medicine could possibly be considered a defensive weapon.

The only problem is...medicine is defensive but it is not generally considered an instrument of war, and there is something distasteful about withholding it. However, that idea is certainly not less moral than the increase of the chances of a nuclear war that would follow its widespread introduction. The only time Iran would need it is if it decided to send nukes first, and withholding a medicine that would never be needed is not immoral.

For these reasons, I would argue that it would be more moral to withhold the medicine from Iran or Pakistan than to give it to them.

(belated h/t Katie)