Boyd Student to Present on Prosthetics

Mon, 02/11/2013

John NimanThird-year law student John Niman will be presenting a piece that could well be the subject of a summer sci-fi blockbuster.

Niman’s paper, "Prosthetic Technology: From the Peg Leg to Human Enhancement," will be presented at the Feb. 21-23 Southern Association for the History of Medicine and Science (SAHMS) annual meeting in Charleston, S.C.

“I've given a couple of talks [here at Boyd] so students have had the opportunity to listen to me talk, but this will be the first time where it’s people with doctorates and professors coming to hear me talk, so in that sense it’s new for me,” Niman said.

He added that he hopes those who hear his presentation will realize that the future could be much different than the present. “The fact that we can take a skin cell and work it back and create a heart cell, nobody is really following it. I want to clue them in that this stuff is out there,” he said. “And if they don’t realize it exists yet, they almost definitely haven’t thought about the ethical implications of it, so I want to get them thinking.”

Professor Stacey Tovino and student Bryn Esplin will also be speaking at the meeting.

“I can’t say enough good things about Professor Tovino. She has made me really enjoy my time at Boyd, and her support has been invaluable,” he said. "Bryn's done a great job chairing the Health Law Society this year, and she recently won an award for her work in neuroethics. I'm honored to be selected to present with her."

Niman said that his paper and presentation will have two main focuses.

“The first is going to talk about the history of prosthetics,” he said. “There’s this history of pirates with peg legs and it is a sort of prosthetic, but it’s obviously not really advanced. And that’s been true for a really long time.

“Then prosthetics underwent some very exciting breakthroughs. The interesting thing is we’ve been getting – since computerization got more advanced – some really advanced prosthetics.”

He discussed a new development where an amputee above the knee could have a “power knee” that could help a person get up out of a chair. Even then, however, he said it’s only probably about 20 percent of a full leg’s functionality. That said, it’s leaps and bounds above what once was the norm for amputees.

“Now we’re seeing people like Oscar Pistorius who is able to run at an Olympic level,” he said.

The second part of the article and presentation discusses the law of accelerating returns and that it can apply to prosthetics. As such, it can be assumed that prosthetics will eventually be more functional than actual limbs.

“The second part is going to deal with ethics. It seems plausible to me that people will go into doctors’ offices and say, ‘My arm is fine, but these prosthetics give so much more functionality that I’d rather have them instead.’”

This, Niman said, could raise a debate as to whether such a procedure would be medical or cosmetic, and how far people can go in order to improve their lifestyle.

“If a functioning organ is being replaced with one that’s better, then what do you do with the other one?” was a question Niman raised.

He said he became interested in this topic because he had been interested in science fiction; but over the time he’s been researching, it seems more like an actual possibility.

“[The issue of prosthetics has] started to move from science fiction into science fact in a lot of areas,” he said.

Niman said he plans to get a doctorate in philosophy after law school so that he can have as strong of a position as possible on these issues and provide a voice from outside the medical community.