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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 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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