Ethical Questions Raised over Implantable Chips

In Chattanooga, Tenn., people with mental retardation are being offered a device that could save lives in the case of a medical emergency. It's a microchip that would be implanted under the skin. But there are questions about giving this cutting-edge technology to people who can't make decisions for themselves.

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And now a story about a very different kind of gadget. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, people with mental retardation are being offered a device that could save lives in the case of a medical emergency. It's a microchip that would be implanted under the skin, but there are questions about giving this cutting-edge technology to people who can't make decisions for themselves. NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO reporting:

Start with the device, called the VeriChip. It's implanted under someone's skin.

Dr. RICHARD SEELIG (Medical Director, VeriChip): It's about the size of a grain of rice, two by 11 millimeters.

SHAPIRO: That's Dr. Richard Seelig, medical director for VeriChip. He's got one implanted under his skin.

Dr. SEELIG: There's a little bit of a capacitor, a small microchip and a small antenna. So the only information that is stored on the chip that can be read is a unique 16-digit identification number.

SHAPIRO: A hospital with the right scanning equipment can read that ID number, then get to a computer site with a patient's medical records. The Food and Drug Administration approved the device a year ago. About 2,000 people have bought it. One interested customer is Dr. Rick Rader. He runs programs at the Orange Grove Center in Chattanooga. It provides housing and work for several hundred adults and children with mental retardation and other cognitive disabilities. Raider's had clients wander off, get lost or get sick in the middle of the night.

Dr. RICK RADER (Orange Grove Center): They're brought to emergency rooms with no medical logs or their caregivers are new staff or replacement staff and they're not familiar with the complex medical histories. The potential for a negative outcome is apparent in these situations.

SHAPIRO: Rader invited VeriChip to come to Tennessee and discuss implanting his clients. He says the company offered to waive the $200 cost of the chip. The company wants to show the benefits for people with cognitive disabilities like Alzheimer's or mental retardation. Dan LaGraph(ph), a parent who heard the presentations; his 24-year-old son Jordan(ph) has mental retardation and autism and does not use words. LaGraph first heard about the device being used to identify lost dogs and cats.

Mr. DAN LaGRAPH (Parent): And you heard about it in pets and I thought, you know, why not for our son? The fact that he can get up and take off and not be able to tell anybody who he is, what he is, what kind of medication he's on, the fact that he does have a living will, all of this comes into play on this new VeriChip.

SHAPIRO: LaGraph and Rader say other parents and guardians are, for the most part, positive, but some wonder how helpful a chip would be. Just 62 hospitals nationwide have the scanning equipment needed to read the chips. Others worry whether patient privacy would be protected. Steve Eidelman says they're right to be concerned.

Mr. STEVE EIDELMAN (University of Delaware): You know, if they were offering everybody a toy Yo-Yo, nobody would object to that, but that's not what this is. This is taking something, implanting it under your skin and it's got some of the most personal information about a person you could possibly want to have.

SHAPIRO: Eidelman teaches disability studies at the University of Delaware. He's not against the chip but he's cautious.

Mr. EIDELMAN: For people with disabilities, this technology has potential, but there's such a bad history of doing this with people with intellectual disabilities and institutions of doing research without them being able to give informed consent. I mean, the classic example, though there are dozens of others, is what happened at Fernald in Massachusetts when they spiked people's oatmeal with, as I recall, things that were radioactive in nature and caused other problems.

SHAPIRO: Those radiation experiments were in the 1940s and '50s. Officials at Orange Grove Center and at VeriChip were surprised when that kind of history was raised. They say there's nothing experimental about the implantable microchip. Getting one is voluntary and the device is already approved by the government. Parent Dan LaGraph has thought about the ethical issues.

Mr. LaGRAPH: You know, they think that you're taking away somebody's liberty by sticking this Big Brother pin in his arm and saying, you know, `Now you've been labeled like an animal or something.' I said, `No, no, no. I don't feel that way at all.' If my son could speak and he could say yes or no, then fine. It would be his decision, but the parents--I'm his guardian. I've got to make some decisions for him. This is in his best interest.

SHAPIRO: But before LaGraph's son can get the chip, a local hospital must first agree to install the scanning equipment need to read it.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

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