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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.

 
I encourage you to read Dr. Harvey's article, a version of which originally appeared as "Distinctly Human: The when, where and how of life's beginnings" by John Collins Harvey (February 8, 2002) 2002 Commonweal Foundation. While Jack has a great deal of respect for Dr. Harvey (as would just about anyone familiar with his notable career), he still questions some of the doctor's arguments regarding the beginning of human life. Read Dr. Harvey's article, then read Jack's "letter," and let us know what you think.

Dear Dr. Harvey,

I read with interest your article “Distinctly Human: The When, Where & How of Life’s Beginnings.” I discovered it on the Family Research Council Web site.

While you make some compelling arguments for human life beginning at conception, I present some counter-points for your consideration:

1. You seem to contradict your own argument with the statement “the upper part of the brain, the cerebral cortex, serves as a biological substrate for our ‘personhood’.” If the cerebral cortex is indeed crucial to “personhood,” why invest an embryo with all the rights and moral considerations of a person before the cerebral cortex forms? A functioning cerebral cortex makes the human brain unique (as opposed to other animals). This furthers the argument that a fetus is not a “human” being until about week 20 – 22 when such functioning begins, coincidentally in the same window of time as quickening.

2. In your discussion of in vitro fertilization, you mention the “spare embryos” created by this process. Yet you do not mention whether you consider it immoral to freeze embryos in the first place, or how you propose to deal with the “spares.” It is unimaginable to leave them frozen indefinitely, since the U.S. alone already has approximately 400,000, and that number is growing. If we cannot leave them frozen, do we discard them? Bury them? Is it less moral to use their stem cells for potentially life-saving research than freezing and/or discarding them?

3. It seems a good deal of your argument depends on accepting the embryo’s essence as human. You cite the presence of forty-six chromosomes as proof of this. I question whether this constitutes proof of humanness. It is my understanding that genetic uniqueness resides in the gamete. Further, even though all forty-six chromosomes are present in the zygote, the information dictating specifics of an individual depends upon later events, like differentiation.

I also question your dismissal of twinning as unimportant to this discussion. If the zygote is indeed “a living human being,” how do we explain its split into twins or triplets? If the zygote has 46 chromosomes, it cannot be two or three embryos. Yet it will become two or three embryos at some point after conception, even as late as two weeks.

If we allow the question of ensoulment into this discussion, it becomes even more muddled. Did the original embryo have a soul? What about the embryos resulting from the split? Did they receive their souls after the split? Or, if ensoulment occurs at conception, did the original embryo contain all three souls?

And what of the rare instances in which two embryos merge into one? If the original two embryos were destined to become certain individuals, this merge could not happen, especially given that embryos of opposite sex can merge. The resulting chimera contains different sets of chromosomes. If, as you state, “all this development takes place in an orderly pattern directed by DNA and proteins that make up the chromosomes,” were the multiple embryos destined to become a single embryo all along? Which set of chromosomes determined the merge? And what to make of the intersexual individuals that can result from opposite-sex embryos merging? Again, thinking of ensoulment, does a chimera have two souls?

These are but some of many questions that prevent me from accepting that human life begins at conception. (I did not attempt to bring in various Biblical references that support human life commencing much later.) My own belief is grounded in brain development, with human life commencing somewhere during the third month.

I would welcome the opportunity to discuss this further.

Regards,

Jack Sisson

(Dr. John C. Harvey is professor of medicine, emeritus, at Georgetown University Medical Center, Washington, D.C.)

 
Will the Terri Schiavo case ever go away? This week, Terri's parents, Mary and Robert Schindler, and her husband Michael have separate books coming out, and apparently the Schindlers are still out to crucify Michael Schiavo. Have they learned nothing from the fact that the autopsy showed their daughter's brain had atrophied to about half its original size? She was brain dead, just like the doctors tried to tell them. Why they persist in thinking it would have been better to keep her poor body hooked up to those machines for years is beyond me.

Jack thinks Michael Schiavo is a hero for never giving up, and I myself certainly respect Michael's commitment. He endured an enormous amount of ill will and public scorn for trying to fulfill his wife's wishes, and he had to stand up to the United States Congress, the Governor of Florida and the President of the United States before Terri was finally allowed to rest in peace.

May all who loved her (on both sides) find some peace in their own lives and put the bitterness behind them. It's time to celebrate Terri's memory. Her death has been debated enough.

 
I believe the question of when human life begins is more pressing today than ever before. Society will benefit from a moral consensus, but we are far from reaching that goal. That's why I asked a major foundation for funding to begin a national dialogue. The following is the letter of inquiry I submitted:

In 1986 the "National Catholic Reporter" published my thesis that human life does not begin in utero until the onset of higher brain function at the end of the first trimester. I was a pro-life Catholic because that is what my faith dictated to me as a five-year Catholic seminarian. Nevertheless, I, along with many other Catholics, had sympathy for choice; we still do. Yet I am also close to pro-life, at the right time.

Then, in 1989, Dr. Hans-Martin Sass of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University published a paper titled "Brain Life and Brain Death: A Proposal for a Normative Agreement." Sass first looked at established definitions of brain death, and reasoned that society could reach a moral consensus for protecting embryonic life by applying similar criteria for brain life.

Sass’s hope for a moral consensus required accepting the beginning of cortical neuro-neuronal synapse at day 70 post conception (pc70) as the point after which embryonic research would be unacceptable. Before that time, research, and presumably abortions, would be acceptable. To me, Sass’s paper provided a scientific basis for mutually agreeable conclusion.

Still, the murderous hostility between pro-life and pro-choice proponents remains; no one has proposed a path to dialogue and possible consensus. Now, that bitter divide blocks progress in stem-cell research through National Institutes of Health funding.

Web sites such as Religious Tolerance afford endless topics on science and conflict regarding stem cells and religious belief. From the site:

Dialogue between pro-life and pro-choice supporters is almost non-existent. Even face-to-face debating is rare. One reason is the lack of consensus on the precise timing of the beginning of human personhood. That is, when during pregnancy does a new human being exist with full civil rights -- including the most important right of all: the right to live?

The conservatively religious simply insist that human life begins at conception. Period! No science here. Further study, however, reveals a history of changing beliefs and official positions by the world’s major religions, including Islam, Hinduism and Protestantism.

Even the Catholic Church has promulgated varying positions on the status of the unborn, although many practicing Catholics believe the Church has always maintained one position. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, posited that the male soul was delivered at forty days and the female at eighty days.

Let’s look back scripturally:

When, in the course of a brawl, a man knocks against a pregnant woman so that she has a miscarriage but suffers no further injury, then the offender must pay whatever fine the woman's husband demands after assessment. But where injury ensues, you are to give life for life...wound for wound. (Exodus 21:22-24)
Clearly, this passage – which does not grant personhood to the fetus – conflicts with current religious-conservative thinking. Yet religious beliefs have long fueled arguments against abortion and now embryonic stem-cell research.

So what is religion’s role in this debate? What part does science play? Can the two exist harmoniously? Can they ever complement one another? Would Galileo fare better today?

Governor Mario Cuomo had this to say on “Meet the Press,” Sunday August 7, 2005:

The president says life begins at conception. Is that a scientific conclusion? No. His science adviser, John Marburger, says that's a sacred issue, not a scientific one. Let's make it a scientific question. Give it to a task force on life and law like the one we created in New York state, with doctors, with experts, with ethicists, to decide: What does human life mean?

You can visit the New York’s task force site here.

A proper national dialogue on “The Beginning of Human Life” will relieve much negative tension in the abortion debate. Moreover, with the rapid advancements in stem-cell research, we deal with increasingly urgent new tensions. Now, the prospect of human cloning challenges us even more.

The question of when human life begins has never been so significant.

New scientific data will ease the concerns of many whose religious beliefs prohibit the taking of human life, thus providing an accepted window of time for abortions, as well as proof that embryonic stem-cell research is permissible. From my original thesis:

The time at which the miraculous spirit, or soul, imbues human functioning will never be known to the split second, but biological science can describe the developmental sequence of pregnancy so that ethical and religious decisions might be made with moral certainty.

In 1990, the University of Iowa held an International Symposium on The Beginning of Human Life sponsored by the Ford Foundation and Schering Germany. At least thirty scientists, physicians, theologians, ethicists and attorneys presented papers. Many of those papers, including Sass’s, were published in 1994 in The Beginning of Human Life (Kluwer Academic Publisher).

At that time, there was only an inkling of public and governmental interest. Today, the question they addressed is possibly the most important public issue, next to the morality of war.

I request two-fold funding for:

1. A unique nationwide series of symposia on The Beginning of Human Life, where scientists, theologians and laity could establish some common ground, an agreement between science and religion, on the beginning of human life. The symposia would be similar to the one held at Iowa, but we would try to establish some common ground between science and religion.

2. A professionally designed and managed Web site on The Beginning of Human Life to complement the symposia (and vice versa). This site would promote an ongoing dialogue and a search for consensus.

To guarantee that the dialogue generated online and at the symposia reaches a large audience, we would hire a nationally recognized public relations firm. We would direct the firm to procure enough media coverage to ensure the dialogue reaches American decision-makers.

The firm would also oversee promotions for the Web site and its blog. That part of the dialogue would capitalize on the methods made famous by Joe Trippi during the 2004 Howard Dean campaign, by building site traffic through interactivity and encouraging affinity groups to meet offline.

We would solicit major universities to co-sponsor the symposia. Participants from science and religion would engage in civil dialogue, with the optimal goal of reaching a consensus on the beginning of human life.

During each symposium, we would look again to politics for inspiration, and feature live on-site blogging, much as took place during the 2004 political conventions. Bloggers would feed information live to the Internet as it unfolded on each campus. Thus, multiple universities across the country would sponsor the symposia under the same umbrella objective, while transmitting sessions live to the Internet for immediate online dialogue.

To change a culture takes time -- think of slavery, alcohol, and affirmative action – but the rewards of this mobile dialogue will be many:

• The tensions between pro-life and pro-choice proponents would be decreased
• Science would learn about religion and vice versa
• Participants would gain new respect for others
• Science and religion might discover more common ground

This is an unprecedented opportunity to begin a significant dialogue on one of the most pressing questions facing science and religion today: when human life begins. How we answer that question has profound implications for humanity’s future.

Sincerely,

Jack Sisson

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