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Jack Sisson's Life Ethics Blog

We must find new ways through many ethical issues, especially regarding bioethics, medical ethics, and criminal justice. Jack Sisson's 'Life Ethics' blog focuses on numerous areas of concern, including the philosophical and ethical dilemmas surrounding stem-cell research, abortion, medical research, and health care.

 
Since I contribute to this blog so often, it’s only natural that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about when human life begins. I’ve also talked to many people about it. One thing I’ve learned is that, for many, the question is simple and the answer is plain. Conception.

For others, it’s more complex. Some look to brain life for the answer, reasoning that since we’ve managed to adopt a socially acceptable (for the most part) definition of brain death, the reverse should work as well. (This is the route taken by Sass, whose theory was an impetus for creating this blog.) Many evaluate various levels of brain development, finding their answers at four weeks, eight weeks, six months, and points in between. Others consider various stages of embryonic development – implantation, differentiation, quickening, viability, etc.

Sometimes I think how nice to be as sure as those who never question their belief. How peaceful to be free from doubt, to never feel compelled to think beyond one’s accepted answer. This is what I believe. Slam. No questions asked.

I am cursed, however, with an inability to NOT question. I am condemned to ask, decide, second-guess, reconsider, waffle, fence-straddle, flip-flop, and worry myself to death with “buts” and “what ifs.” Of one thing am I certain. I will never know the serenity of certainty.

Which brings me to my latest explorations into the beginning of human life. My next few posts will address the multiple paths an embryo might take before it implants in the uterus. I think I’ll start with twinning.

 
Recently I've been reading the writings of the Stem Cell Extremist, a frequent double-publisher both on a personal blog and Pro-Life Blogs. He (I think he?) left a very nice reply to the comment on I left here.

It's interesting the comment comes at this time with Toni in the midst of writing about embryonic anomalies. The reply was much more articulate than the usual railings I get and considerably less offensive so that's a good start. Too bad it's it's the same dismissive content that comes in.

Once the sperm and egg are fused the process (to a certain point) is the same whether you're an ant, a while or human. The mitosis starts immediately and the DNA is in place. Once it starts it will continue on the all-sexual-path it will not divert into a human-only path until a little bit later. Our mouths form first where an ant's anus forms first. The argument against DNA being the only defining characteristic should only be acceptable upon our DNA's exclusive production path. Once we're on that path though to end a life would be, without a doubt, ending a human life. And ending human life is bad--so at least we agree on that. Contrary to popular believe we are firmly against the abortion of human beings or the harvesting of human beings for research.

My girlfriend was watching a show on Ferral Children this evening. While I did not see the whole show I did catch enough to know that some of these poor children did not exhibit any signs that were exclusively human. Was the DNA human? Sure. *Could* they have had humanistic characteristics if given enough time? Absolutely. But they don't. And oh boy, do I know the can of worms can be opened from this topic but I think it's worth discussing.

In reply to the excluding of members--why not? Because there are no two embroys that develop the same way in the same amount of time? Ok, that's true and a very valid point. I have to contend against that there may not be a specific time but there is a specific feature. We could debate all year on what that feature is but to say it's not there denies the science that the good Lord has given to us.

If God didn't want us to figure things out, s/he certainly could have designed a human body that we couldn't unravel or a brain too small to understand it.

Finally, I think The Extremist gives us a very strong example of how Pro-Lifers feel in a way we've done a pretty mediocre job of capturing. A permanent link to his site has been added to our sidebar so go give him a good read--it's totally worth it.

 
The AP just published an article today saying:
"Injections of human stem cells seem to directly repair some of the damage caused by spinal cord injury, according to research that helped partially paralyzed mice walk again."

Oh boy, if the Right wasn't in an uproar already. Injecting maybe-babies into mice. Now-walking mice, I might add.

 
With all of the coverage on Katrina lost in the news-flurry was the resignation of Leon Kass, the chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics. But with tens of thousands of our most desperate citizens suffering in toxic waste, who cares?

Me. That's Who. For all the idiocy that has surrounded the Bush presidency his appointment of Leon Kass was fantastic. Truly a balanced man, he embodied both the Bio and the Ethicist halves of his title. He recognized the benefits of stem cell research as well as sympathetically listening to those who had justifiable reasons to hate it. He was interested in the dialog that came from the vociferous butting of heads. He didn't just shrug his shoulders and say, "Well, these are irreconcilable differences". He made strides to bring people together.

Kass in '08.

 
The stem cells of mice have now been used to repair heart damage in sheep. Pretty amazing, eh? Coming from a family that is constantly battered by diseases of the heart I'm all for this. Like I said in my previous post I'm firmly aware this is not going to happen in my lifetime. And that's ok. But it would be nice if my children's children might benefit from it.

Even if you're 100% against the use of stem cells you have to admit that the concept of it is pretty amazing. If only they could be harvested from trees. Alas.

 
Let's go back in time. The year isn't really important but we should do it anyway. Howabout...489 (literally a random smacking of keys). It doesn't matter 1894, 1722, 179 whatever. You're now standing in that year with all of your pre-modern pals eating whatever was palatable at the time and chit-chatting about technology. "Oh yes" you say, "we've got it all". We can import sugar from anywhere in the world/We can control the flow of rivers/We can live to ripe old age of 40/insert something modern-for-the-time-here. Now we're back in 2005. We look back and say, "Big deal. Sure you could import sugar but we can grow our own that costs less than a dollar a pound--we're sure not paying a year's salary for a bag. Sure, you can control rivers but we can do so much more than just divert them into our fields. Sure, you can live to 40 but we're averaging almost twice that long now! You're not advanced!

We are fortunate enough to live in an era where the growth of technology is doubling every two years. If I want to talk to a friend in Manila I can get online, connect to a VoIP and bam--Imelda Marcos' shoes in no time. But like every other generation in the history of the world we're dillusional. We think we're going to see all of these remarkable things with stem cells in our lifetimes when that's not going to happen. And who knows what developments might arise within the next two generations that will be make it more/less controversial then? The point is that this is an inevitable course of action and we can either embrace it or deny it and possibly push it back another 20 years. No matter what it's not going to affect our treatments but think of your grandchildren. Or your cloned grand-children-puppies.

 
I like Republican living as much as the next guy...the complaining about taxes...complaining about big government...complaining about liberals...

But I can't STAND Jesse Helms. Talk about a closed-minded, dillusional moron. If he had his way we'd still most likely have a slave-driven economy. Yould would think having lived through the Civil War would have changed his mind...

Mr. Helms had the audacity to compare abortion to the September 11th attacks and (get this) the holocaust. I could be wrong on this one so feel free to correct me but...abortions are legal (right?). And terrorist activities and the slaughter of thousands for race isn't (right?).

Newsflash: NO ONE LIKES ABORTIONS It's not some crazy stunt people do for fun. In a perfect world, as Toni put a few post ago, every child would be wanted, loved and taken care of by sane people. Sadly, this is not the case. You can either live in reality or deny it. Jesse Helms does not live in reality--my reality anyway. Maybe in Richville, NC every pregnancy is wanted. But according to the 2004 census not all of America lives in Richville. And I have a sneaking suspicion that there might have been a handful of "unexpected" babies even in Richville.

No one wants abortions. But until someone smarter than any of us comes up with an idea to ensure all babies are: wanted by the parents, loved by the parents and will be taken care of by the parents we need to admit that a life where a child is not loved, wanted or taken care of is no life at all.

 
News out of the Roslin Institute in the UK (the same place that cloned Dolly the Sheep) states they found a way to get a human egg to start dividing without the "aid" of a sperm.

How is this relevant for us? From these dividing eggs come stem cells. Although they're not quite to that point yet ("At the moment we have not managed to get stem cells from these embryos but that continues to be our ambition," Roslin's Dr Paul De Sousa told the British Association's Festival of Science in the Irish capital.) it seems that they will have such a device is the not-too-distant future.

This appeases me, as a conservative, because this type of reproduction is found throughout nature. This is not a bunch of test-tube wielding scientists tinkering with God--it's taking advantage of the things He has set as a blueprint.

"Parthenogenesis (out of the Greek for "virgin birth") occurs quite naturally in a number of lower animals. Insects such as bees and ants use it to produce their drones. Some larger animals can also reproduce this way..."

Another success for the cohabitation of the two mindsets.

 
Chapter 4 of the book Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, is titled "Where Have All the Criminals Gone?" The surprising answer in this fascinating book is that they never were.

From the book:
In the early 1990s, just as the first cohort of children born after Roe v. Wade was hitting its late teen years-the years during which young men enter their criminal prime-the rate of crime began to fall. What this cohort was missing, of course, were the children who stood the greatest chance of becoming criminals. And the crime rate continued to fall as an entire generation came of age minus the children whose mothers had not wanted to bring a child into the world. Legalized abortion led to less unwantedness; unwantedness leads to high crime; legalized abortion, therefore, led to less crime.
The authors knew that this theory was bound to shock a lot of folks, so they did a little research to back up their claim. Five states had legalized abortion at least two years before Roe vs Wade -- New York, California, Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii. Research revealed that these states' crime rates went down earlier than in the other states.
Between 1988 and 1994, violent crime in the earlylegalizing states fell 13 percent compared to the other states; between 1994 and 1997, their murder rates fell 23 percent more than those of the other states.
Not satisfied that they had enough data to sway the skeptics, they next looked for "a correlation between each state's abortion rate and its crime rate." Well, guess what? They found it!
...the states with the highest abortion rates in the 1970s experienced the greatest crime drops in the 1990s, while states with low abortion rates experienced smaller crime drops. (This correlation exists even when controlling for a variety of factors that influence crime: a state's level of incarceration, number of police, and its economic situation.) Since 1985, states with high abortion rates have experienced a roughly 30 percent drop in crime relative to low-abortion states.
So, it wasn't improved law enforcement, or gun control, or even a growing economy. It was the simple fact that fewer unwanted babies were being born. And it's those unfortunate unwanted babies who are more likely to grow up to pursue criminal activities.

The anti-choice group does not like to consider arguments like this. Or if they do, they raise their well-worn, rose-colored standard -- adoption! Remember, this is the answer to what to do about the 400,000 frozen embryos in this country. God forbid they should be used for life-saving research. No. Now the solution is embryo adoption. Not that there's anything wrong with couples adopting embryos. I'm all for it if that's what some couples choose. But it's ludicrous to suggest that adoption will take care of 400,000 embryos. Just about as ludicrous as thinking that adoption would save all the unwanted babies from a hellish existence and, possibly, future life of crime.

I don't know if the Freakonomics theory holds water or not. But it sure bears looking into. Especially when it's given further credence by statistical data like this:
...there was no link between a given state's abortion rate and its crime rate before the late 1980s-when the first cohort affected by legalized abortion was reaching its criminal prime-which is yet another indication that Roe v. Wade was indeed the event that tipped the crime scale.

 
Let me state clearly right up front -- I do not like abortions. I wish desperately that they were never needed (or wanted). I wish every single pregnant woman in the world planned and conceived her baby with love, wanted it desperately, and was old enough, physically healthy enough, mentally competent enough, and financially solvent enough to give birth to and raise a healthy, happy child.

Okay, that's the fantasy. Trouble is, we live in a real world, with real problems, where nothing's easy, much is complicated and, as Gilda Radner used to say, "It's always something." Yes, it is. And often that something is an unwanted pregnancy that a woman feels she just cannot, for any of a multitude of reasons, continue. So she chooses to have an abortion. Not an easy choice for most women. But it's a choice that only they should be able to make. Take away that choice and you force women into a) breeding for the state, or b)having illegal and possibly unsafe abortions that may cost them their lives.

Women have had (or have induced) abortions for centuries. From The Hope Clinic for Women, Ltd.:
2600 BC –First recorded recipe for an abortion producing drug.
1850 BC –Egyptians record recipe for contraceptive pessaries, one made from crocodile dung.
4th Century AD –St.Augustine lays down Catholic dogma sanctioning abortion up to 80 days for female fetus and up to 40 days for male fetus.
13th Century AD -St.Thomas Aquinas states Catholic dogma justifying sexual intercourse only for procreation.
1564 AD -Italian anatomist, Fallopius, discoverer of Fallopian tubes, publicizes condoms as anti-venereal disease devices.
1588 – Pope Sixtus forbids all abortions. [I plan to return to the Catholic Church's varying positions on abortion in a future post.]
1591 – Pope Gregory XIV rescinds Pope Sixtus’ edict against abortion.
1803 – Great Britain makes abortion a misdemeanor.
1821 – Connecticut outlaws abortion after quickening, early abortions are legal.
1860’s – All states pass comprehensive, criminal abortion laws. Most remain until 1973.
Some of the methods reportedly used include:
* physical exertion designed to bring about a miscarriage
* abdominal massage
* receiving blows to the abdominal area
* attempted removal of the fetus with a coat-hanger or similar device inserted into the uterus through the vagina
* attempted piercing of the fetus with a knitting needle or similar device inserted into the uterus through the vagina
* ingesting abortifacients, high quantities of vitamin C, or other substances believed to induce miscarriage.
* douching with substances believed to induce miscarriage (beginning in the 1960s, many women used Coca Cola for this purpose, although its utility is at least dubious)
It should be obvious that "many of the above named methods present significant dangers to the life or health of the woman."

So, long before Roe vs Wade, women had abortions. They found sympathetic doctors, they found unscrupulous doctors, they found criminals pretending to be doctors. Through word of mouth (a friend of a friend) they heard about this doctor or that method. In the early 1940s, my aunt was one of those women.

Unlike many who sought illegal abortions at that time, my aunt was married. She was just 21 , beautiful in the old family photos, and the favorite of her five siblings. She was also married to a man who hit her, often. After much anguish and many secret conversations with one of her sisters, she decided that she couldn't safely bring a child into such a volitile situation. (Like many women married to abusive men, she still loved her handsome husband and believed he could change.)

Her sister loaned her some money and took her to the appointment with one of those "doctors," who, like drug dealers, could always be found by people who needed them. He performed the procedure and sent them on their way. Later that night, it became obvious that something was wrong, but my aunt was too scared to tell anyone what she'd done and wouldn't let her sister seek help. She bled through the night. In the morning her sister, by then quite fearful, ignored her pleas and phoned for an ambulance. She died on her way to the hospital, several years before I was born. While I was growing up, I was told I looked just like her. I was also told she'd died of a throat infection.

Just one little story out of the hundreds, the thousands, that illustrate what women endured in this country before Roe vs Wade. I do not like abortions. But I will always defend a woman's right to make decisions regarding her own body. To me, it's not only a question of keeping the government's hands off women's bodies, it's also a question of prioritizing actual life over potential life. And that brings us full circle to this blog's original question: when does human life begin?

Tomorrow: Roe vs Wade and the War on Crime.


 
The following article argues for defining the beginning of human life by using systems biology. While this definition places human life's beginning at a point earlier than implantation, Yeung brings up some thought-provoling points on fertilization and twinning. Another example of the breadth of opinions on this topic.

Ethics and Medicine, Summer 2005
By Patrick Yeung, Jr.


Many arguments put forward for when human life begins. To simplify the debate, some claim human life begins at fertilization, while others say that human life begins at implantation. While both events are significant in the early development of human life, neither offers a complete answer to the question of the beginning of human life.

I will argue for a definition of the beginning of human life that uses concepts taken from systems biology, and will apply this definition to the current debate on somatic cell nuclear transfer and embryonic stem cell research.

Systems biology, an emerging field of research that seeks to understand the fundamental principles of living systems, has sought to distinguish an organism from a cell. In so doing, it offers us two important insights that are particularly helpful in determining when human life begins. First, systems biology recognizes that an organism is an independent, embodied process; that is, a single unified whole that manifests itself in various ways over time. Second, systems biology holds that an organism is a determined system that actively follows a particular trajectory. It is not passive, and does not require outside intervention to develop. Together, these two insights help differentiate static cells from dynamic organisms. An organism, then, can be defined as a distinct embodied process that actively follows a particular trajectory. If that trajectory is ever manifest in ways considered human, then the organism from the beginning is human.

When, then, does human life begin?

Continue article

Brain Pills
Roe v. Wade
Stem Cells
Stem Cell Fight!
Bearing Right
Moral Monkey?
Op-ed
Dave's site
Stem Stall
Screamers
Bush the hypocrite

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