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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.

Most of the comments we've received to our posts here have been intelligent and thoughtful, coming from posters who are themselves intelligent and thoughtful. What self-respecting blog wouldn't cherish such contributions?

This is not to say, though, that everyone with an opinion on the beginning of human life is equally deserving of the benefit of the doubt.

It's a sad commentary on the state of science, and indeed of philosophy, when the signal figure of our times regarding the question, "When does human life begin?" is neither a scientist nor a philosopher, but the current occupant of the Oval Office -- about as far from a scientist or philosopher as one can imagine. His relentless politicization of such a critical question, at such a critical juncture in history, resembles nothing so much as his corresponding treatment of the "war on terror" -- in particular, the centerpiece (despite all evidence to the contrary) of this "war," the real war in Iraq.

Michael Kinsley picks up on this theme in today's Slate, in a piece headlined "War and Embryos":
It was, I believe, Rep. Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, who first made the excellent, bitter, and terribly unfair joke about Ronald Reagan: that he believed in a right to life that begins at conception and ends at birth. This joke has been adapted for use against various Republican politicians ever since. In the case of President George W. Bush, though, it appears to be literally true.


Bush is right, of course, that the inevitable loss of innocent life in wartime cannot be a reason not to go to war, or a reason not to fight that war in a way intended to win. Eggs, omelettes, and all that. "Collateral damage" should be a consideration weighed in the balance, of course. But there is no formula to determine when you have the balance right. It does seem to me that both of our wars in Iraq were started and conducted with insufficient consideration for the cost in innocent blood. Callousness, naiveté, isolation of the decision makers from democratic accountability, and isolation of the citizenry from the consequences, or even the awareness, of what is being done in their name—all have played a role. I don't see anything coming out of this war that is worth 50,000 innocent lives, although a case can be made, I guess.

But it is hard—indeed, I would say it is impossible—to reconcile Bush's absolutism over alleged human life when it is a clump of unknowing, unfeeling cells with his sophisticated, if not cavalier, attitude toward the loss of innocent human life when it is children and adults in Iraq.


I would sympathize a bit more with President Bush if his answers weren't so preening and struggle-free. It is very wonderful to be so morally pure that you won't allow a single embryo to be destroyed in the quest for medical cures that could save lives by the thousands. You are way beyond Gandhi, sweeping the path ahead to avoid stepping on an insect: Insects have more human characteristics than a six-cell embryo.

And regarding Iraq, you are quite the man—aren't you?—"making the tough decisions." A regular Harry Truman, consigning thousands to death in order to bring democracy and freedom and peace to millions. But Truman actually produced democracy and freedom and peace, whereas you want credit for your hopes. That's not how it works. If you want to be the hard-ass, you get judged by results. And you can't be Gandhi and Truman at the same time.
And that's the problem in a nutshell -- not a problem for the Non-Thinker in Chief, of course, but for all those who count him as their spokesman. And by extension, sadly, for all the rest of us.

This, from yesterday's Washington Post:
Researchers reported Thursday that they had cultivated a colony of human embryonic stem cells from an apparently dead embryo, a strategy some have suggested might be less controversial than conventional approaches that require the destruction of living embryos.
Whoa. Is it just me or does this strike you as slightly strange? I'm not sure what part of it is stranger -- growing cells from something that's dead, or the concept of a microscopic clump of cells being dead. How do they know?

Apparently I'm not the only one with that question:
"How do you know when an embryo is dead?" asked Eric M. Meslin, director of the Indiana University Center for Bioethics.
Indeed. And more to the point, if the embryo is dead, will that fact affect the cells grown from it? Looks like the discussion is only just beginning:
But other stem cell scientists and ethicists quickly raised a host of reasons that the advance may have little practical impact on the stormy research field. Among them are concerns that cells from dead embryos may be genetically abnormal, and the lack of a definitive test for proving that an embryo has no lingering potential for life.
What do you think? If you oppose embryonic stem-cell research, would growing the cells from dead embryos make the procedure more acceptable? And if you already support such research, do you think using dead embryos poses an unacceptable risk of abnormalities?

Read the whole article while you ponder those questions.

Not to say that we take this blog's subject lightly, of course. But it doesn't hurt to stop sometimes, catch your breath, and laugh.

Ruben Bolling's "Tom the Dancing Bug" cartoon is his weekly contribution to the effort to not take things too seriously. Back in July he came up with one (excerpted at the right; full-sized original here) particularly relevant to the content here on the Beginning of Human Life blog.

In a column entitled "Better Than Sex: The growing practice of embryo eugenics," today's issue of Slate has this from William Saletan:
What flaws are we screening for? That's the most uncomfortable question of all. Sometimes the flaw is a horrible disease. But increasingly, it's a milder disease, the absence of useful tissue, or just the wrong sex. If you think it's hard to explain where babies come from, try explaining where baby-making is going.
Later in the column:
Once you screen for one gene, it's tempting to screen for others. The woman who's targeting arthritis, for example, added that gene to an already-planned test. Another patient, described in the same article, set out to scan his embryos for colon cancer and ended up chucking two more for Down syndrome. "You kind of feel like you shouldn't be doing it," his wife confessed. "But then why would we go through all of this and not take those extra precautions?" Soon, you're hunting even for dormant genes. A PGD technique unveiled three months ago can find genes that won't harm your child but might, if combined with other genes, cause disease in a later generation. British patients are already asking clinics to filter out embryos carrying such genes.
So while our president vetoes an embryonic stem-cell research bill on moral grounds, prospective parents are discarding embryos right and left in their search for the perfectly healthy child. I'm not comfortable criticizing those parents (yet), but Bush's simplistic approach to bioethics is woefully inadequate in our futuristic society. He's never been known for asking hard questions or dealing with complex, multi-layered issues, and we have no reason to believe he will begin doing so now.

For at least the next two years, our best bet is at the state level -- that's where we'll see government funding for embryonic stem-cell research. Then we can only hope that the federal government will join in after Dubya departs the White House in 2008.

The September 3rd Health section of the New York Times ran a long article on the growing trend of preimplantation genetic diagnosis, or P.G.D. During the blastocyst stage of her development, two-year-old Chloe was preselected by her parents for implantation.
By subjecting Chloe to a genetic test when she was an eight-cell embryo in a petri dish, Mr. Kingsbury and his wife, Colby, were able to determine that she did not harbor the defective gene. That was the reason they selected her, from among the other embryos they had conceived through elective in vitro fertilization, to implant in her mother’s uterus.
The article mentions that, although this procedure has been used for the last decade "to screen for genes certain to cause childhood diseases that are severe and largely untreatable," it is only recently that couples have begun using it to screen for less certain afflictions.
Couples like the Kingsburys, by contrast, face an even more complex calibration. They must weigh whether their desire to prevent suffering that is not certain to occur justifies the conscious selection of an embryo and the implicit rejection of those that carry the defective gene.
Is this so very different from the decision to use embryos for stem-cell research? If so, where do we draw the line? What do you think?

Some recent news and/or opinions on embryonic stem-cell research and the beginning of human life:

First, Dr. William B. Hurlbut, a member of the President's Council on Bioethics, talks to about the "moral peril of embryonic stem-cell research" and some ideas on how to get around it. Here's an excerpt:
Federal legislators recognize that a large number of the people that they represent believe that human life begins at fertilization. It’s self-evident. Biologically human life begins at fertilization. I don’t see how anybody could argue with that. It’s not an issue of whether it biologically is alive. It’s a question of when we assign moral worth to something.

My personal feeling, after agonizing over this as a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, is that we should assign moral worth to the full continuity of human organismal existence from natural fertilization to natural death.
Read the entire article here.

Next, the upcoming Missouri human cloning ballot initiative is causing quite a stir in that state. The measure seeks to constitutionally protect embryonic stem-cell research and ban human cloning. During remarks made at "Christians Against Human Cloning," an August 28th rally sponsored by Vision America, a pro-life organization for pastors, Archbishop Raymond L. Burke called the initiative "one of the most outrageous attacks on human life." Read more here.

And finally, more from Missouri.
The main speaker at an August 24th forum sponsored by Asleep Know More and the Salt Fork Pachyderm Club, W. Scott Magill, an obstetrician and gynecologist, said the stakes for the November ballot were high.

"This is a political issue. It's a moral issue. It's today's Roe versus Wade," he said. "This is an issue that will affect the future of humanity."
Dr. Magill went on to say:
"This is a political issue. It's a moral issue. It's today's Roe versus Wade," he said. "This is an issue that will affect the future of humanity."

Magill said he believes the amendment text is full of misleading information and the number one deception is that it appears to ban human cloning but would actually create a loophole allowing cloning-related research to continue.
Read the entire article here.

I still don't understand what we're supposed to do with the thousands of extra frozen embryos left over from in vitro procedures. If it's immoral to use them to potentially save existing human lives, are we supposed to just leave them in the freezer indefinitely? Or will we someday toss them out with other biological waste?

O, brave new world, the questions grow more complex, and the answers ever more unsatisfying.

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

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