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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.

Terri Schiavo was once a lovely young woman.
I can't believe Terri Schiavo's family is still at it. Will they ever let that young woman rest in peace? This one is also from (no surprise):

As looks back at the painful euthanasia death of Terri Schiavo at the hands of her former husband, her brother, Bobby Schindler is releasing a letter written to Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Florida. Schindler criticizes Lynch for not doing enough to stop her death.

In the letter, provided to, Schindler says he holds Lynch "more accountable for her horrific death than Michael Schiavo, his attorney, and even the judge that ordered her to die..."

"...Terri’s legacy is one of life and love. Sadly, your legacy will be that of the shepherd that stood silently by as one of his innocent disabled lambs was slowly and needlessly slaughtered by removing her food and water — while you persistently ignored the cries of her family for help," Terri's brother added.
Terri's parents
Is this guy in some serious denial or what? Bobby, listen carefully. Terri wasn't there. Her brain was gone. You were keeping a shell of a person artificially alive. She. was. not. there. Will the family ever get that? Truly pathetic.

Read the rest of the article if you can.

NOTE: Fortunately, throughout this entire ordeal, Michael Schiavo conducted himself with dignity and respect for Terri, both in his memory of who she had been and in facing the reality that she was no more.
I can just tell you that Mr. Schiavo's overriding concern here was to provide for Terri a peaceful death with dignity, and I emphasize it because this death was not for the siblings, and not for the spouse and not for the parents. This was for Terri.
– George Felos, the attorney for Michael Schiavo, Terri's husband, speaking to reporters hours after her death.

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According to (and I'm sure they're not happy about this): In a speech to a pro-abortion conference on Monday, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer vowed to continue his track record as one of the strongest pro-abortion governors in the nation. Spitzer has come under fire for attacking pregnancy centers and promoting embryonic stem cell research funding with tax dollars.

Spitzer spoke at the annual Family Planning Advocates Conference in Albany yesterday.

He told attendees he was worried about the judicial appointments President Bush has made and said he's concerned they will overturn Roe v. Wade -- saying "we are on the cusp of losing" the landmark case.

He pledged to update state abortion laws to make sure abortion is legal if the Supreme Court ever overturns the decision.

"They do not go far enough and so we will make it our vision this term, this year to expand New York's law to give us all the protections that are necessary," he said.

The governor also told abortion advocates his administration would do more to promote the morning after pill and promote sex education that promotes it instead of abstinence education.

"The best thing we can do for our kids to avoid unwanted pregnancies is educate them," he said. "Education that's based on science, not politics."

Read the entire article.

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It would be hard for me to admire Elizabeth Edwards more. She is one brave, classy lady, who seems determined to turn her personal bad news (she has incurable cancer) into good news for just about everybody else. First, she talked her husband, John Edwards, into continuing his run for President despite his concerns for her health, and now she's publicly advocating more federal funding for stem cell research. As CNN reports:
In her first public speech since announcing last Thursday that her breast cancer had returned, Elizabeth Edwards appealed Monday for more federal funding for health research of all kinds, including stem-cell research.

"I think that we're foolhardy to not be engaging in federal funding of stem-cell research in the most aggressive way we possibly can," the wife of Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards of North Carolina told a luncheon meeting of supporters at the City Club of Cleveland.

The reason the issue has become so controversial is largely because people don't understand it, she said.

"If people think that you're throwing babies out, dissecting children, to do stem-cell research, I'm not for that," said Edwards, who had accepted the speaking invitation before receiving her diagnosis of Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer...Edwards noted that stem-cell work uses blastocysts containing clumps of 16 or 32 cells that were collected by fertility clinics but are no longer needed and would otherwise be thrown away.

[Although] some opponents of the work believe that life begins at conception and that using stem cells is tantamount to killing a human, Edwards said, "We're talking about using something to save ourselves and our children. Instead of throwing it away, don't we want to use it in a way that's productive?
Thank you, Elizabeth. We sincerely hope your treatments guarantee you many more years to enjoy your family and continue your good works.

Find a copy of Elizabeth's book here.

Read entire article.

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Governor Haley Barbour
From the AP:
JACKSON, Miss. — Mississippi governor Haley Barbour signed a bill Thursday that would criminalize abortion in the event that the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the 1973 decision that legalized the procedure.

The measure would ban nearly all abortions in the state if the court were to overturn Roe v. Wade. In that event, anyone performing an illegal abortion in Mississippi would face one to 10 years in prison. The bill also tightens consent laws for minors and requires abortion providers to perform a sonogram and give the pregnant woman an opportunity to listen to a fetal heartbeat.

The only exceptions to the state ban would be in cases of rape or if the pregnancy threatened the woman's life. The bill has no exception for pregnancies caused by incest.

Proponents of the bill say the ultimate goal is to one day challenge Roe v. Wade. Anti-abortion activists and some lawmakers believe that with the recent appointments of new, conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, Roe v. Wade could be overturned.

Mississippi is one of many states revisiting the abortion debate. South Carolina lawmakers are considering a bill that would require women to view ultrasound images of their fetuses.


Boy, things are looking pretty gloomy when states start positioning themselves for "in the event" that Roe vs Wade is overturned. This would never be happening if Roe vs. Wade was not in some serious trouble. Let's all take a GIANT step backwards, why don't we?"

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I just found this site, "dedicated to promoting the thoughtful discussion of difficult moral issues." The welcome message says:
Ethics Updates is designed primarily to be used by ethics instructors and their students. It is intended to provide resources and updates on current literature, both popular and professional, that relates to ethics.
The content at the site is grouped by category: Ethical Theory; Resources; and Applied Ethics. For those interested in the beginning of human life and related issues, probably the items in the Applied Ethics category will be of highest interest. Sub-categories there include abortion; bioethics and reproductive technologies; environmental ethics; death penalty and punishment; euthanasia; and so on.

The site doesn't seem to be updated regularly (a cursory search turned up articles and resources dated no more recently than 2003). On the other hand, it's been around a long time -- first established in 1994. So it's important historically (at least in "Internet time"). And it's also a terrific source of information about larger issues -- those covered in the Ethical Theory category, for example, which address much of the history of the philosophy of ethics (Aristotle, utilitarianism, egoism, and so on).

Thinking about ethics and morality -- today, anyhow -- has been triggered by today's column by Leonard Pitts, Jr. As is often the case with Pitts's writing, today's version begins with a timely issue and steps back from there to ask, in a reflective way, "Hey, wait a minute..." In this case, recent remarks by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, provided Pitts his fodder for rumination:
I believe homosexual acts between two individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts. I do not believe the United States is well served by a policy that says it is OK to be immoral in any way.
Whether you accept General Pace's comment as a given or not, it might be worth considering the take which Pitts has on it. To wit:
After all, to admit that a response is visceral is to admit you haven't thought it through. Ergo, frame it as a ''moral'' issue. As a practical matter, it comes out the same, but it sounds more high-minded. And never mind that it makes no sense.

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Do you like Wikipedia? I do. While it's certainly not the last word on anything, it is sometimes a wonderful launching pad for research on just about any subject. Take "embryonic stem cells," for example. (A topic this blog is very interested in.)Here's the Wikipedia lead in to the subject:
Embryonic stem cells (ES cells) are stem cells derived from the inner cell mass of an early stage embryo known as a blastocyst. Human embryos reach the blastocyst stage 4-5 days post fertilization, at which time they consist of 50-150 cells.

ES cells are pluripotent. This means they are able to differentiate into all derivatives of the three primary germ layers: ectoderm, endoderm, and mesoderm. These include each of the more than 220 cell types in the adult body. Pluripotency distinguishes ES cells from multipotent progenitor cells found in the adult; these only form a limited number of cell types. When given no stimuli for differentiation, (i.e. when grown in vitro), ES cells maintain pluripotency through multiple cell divisions. The presence of pluripotent adult stem cells remains a subject of scientific debate.
Illustration by Bob Morreale, provided courtesy of the Stem Cell Research Foundation.One thing I like about Wikipedia is the Table of Contents that divides each topic into sub-categories, many with links of their own. Under Embryonic Stem Cells, one can click on "stem cell controversy" in the second paragraph, which will take you to a separate entry on just that. (Of course the controversy is grounded in differences of opinion on when human life begins.) From the "controversy" entry:
The status of the human embryo and human embryonic stem cell research is a controversial issue as, with the present state of technology, the creation of a human embryonic stem cell line requires the destruction of a human embryo. Stem cell debates have motivated and reinvigorated the ‘pro-life’ movement, whose members are concerned with the rights and status of the embryo as an early-aged human life. They believe that embryonic stem cell research instrumentalizes and violates the sanctity of life and constitutes murder.[1] The fundamental assertion of those who oppose embryonic stem cell research is the belief that human life is inviolable, combined with the opinion that human life begins when a sperm cell fertilizes an egg cell to form a single cell.

Most stem cell researchers use embryos that were created but not used in in vitro fertility treatments to derive new stem cell lines. Most of these embryos are slated to be destroyed, or stored indefinitely. In the United States alone, there have been estimates of at least 400,000 such embryos.[2] This has led some opponents of abortion, such as Senator Orrin Hatch, to support human embryonic stem cell research.[3]
The bracketed numbers are links to the source material for that particular item (and many of the sources cited have links to the source itself). Ah, the wonders of the Web. As long as you remember not to believe everything you read, and to check and re-check the sources, Wikipedia is a great resource for an initial look into a subject.

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In Delaware Stem Cell Go, a group set up after last year’s legislative failure, last week made its debut, dedicated to passing a stem cell research regulation bill. A Rose and a Prayer, the consortium of Catholic Church, socially conservative Protestant denominations and right-to-life groups that successfully derailed last year’s efforts at regulating embryonic stem cell research, are supporting House Bill 76, which would ban cloning in the First State.

And while the New Mexico Senate narrowly passed a bill allowing research on human embryos, "Republican Sen. Joseph Carraro said no matter what justifications are offered by the bill's supporters, life begins at conception, and scientists shouldn't tamper with it."

In Austin, Texas, "Texans for Advancement of Medical Research applauded Rep. Beverly Woolley, R-Houston, for filing House Bill 2704, which would protect adult and embryonic stem cell research while banning human cloning and setting ethical guidelines for stem cell research." But "Elsewhere in the Capitol, scores of 'pro-life and respect-life directors' of Texas' Catholic archdioceses asked lawmakers to support a variety of anti-abortion-related bills and to oppose legislation allowing embryonic stem cell research."

Meanwhile, in Florida, the brouhaha caused by Gov. Charlie Crist's flip-flop on embryonic stem cell research continues. Read this excellent opinion piece from The Tallahassee Democrat.

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Google, it goes without saying, is the Web's most-used and -cited search engine. But when I watch over people's shoulders as they enter search terms, I'm surprised by how few really use Google to its fullest. At the most basic level, almost no one even uses quotation marks to denote exact phrases. (Maybe I'm just looking over the wrong shoulders.)

The difference between using quotation marks and not using them can be astounding. In the absence of an exact-phrase search term, Google returns "hits" on every page which contains all (or nearly all) of the words in any order at all, often with other words or phrases scattered among the ones you really care about. Not surprisingly, this results in a lot of useless stuff to wade through. Enclosing a phrase in quotation marks shrinks the universe of hits to a much more manageable size.

Take, for example, the phrase "when does human life begin." At the moment of this post:
It's true that the two approaches return many of the same sites/pages, especially early in their result sets. But which would you rather wade through? For instance, using the exact phrase, when you go all the way to the end of the list -- currently 800 pages -- every single hit still includes the phrase "when does life begin." By contrast, the 800th page of Google results with no quotation marks includes all kinds of junk. Among these are, for example, page 5 of a review at the "Television Without Pity" site of an episode of the old "My So-Called Life" series -- an episode with nothing at all to say about when life begins.

(The word "begins" doesn't even appear in that form, although "begin" -- no "s" -- is part of the episode's title, "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities." "Life" of course appears in the show's title. As for "human," you may be able to find it somewhere in the 17-page review, but I couldn't.)

What's all this got to do with anything here on the Beginning of Human Life blog? Two points:

First, by all means try out the Google search which uses the exact phrase. You'll find a stupendous range of opinion from one end of the spectrum to the other (as well as a stupendous range of styles, and of references to further reading, and of, well, let's say "reasonableness").

The second point is a bit more abstract, which is that Google can be used sloppily or well -- and that it shares this characteristic with the other tools of particular interest to the BoHL blog: reason, morality, ethics, conscience, science, history, rhetoric, politics. Use any or all of them (including Google) with little or no discipline, and you'll get results of almost no use to anyone else. (And maybe, despite your fondest hopes and beliefs, of almost no use to you yourself.) Wield them like a scalpel or a tweezers, though, and --maybe -- things will start to fall into place.

Technorati Profile

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Today's Tallahassee Democrat includes an op-ed column by Bernard Siegel of the Genetics Policy Institute. Headlined "Charlie Crist's stem-cell dilemma," the column rightly takes the Governor to task for his colorless stand on embryonic stem-cell research:
When President Bush dashed patients' hopes last July by vetoing the bill to lift funding restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research, then-gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist signaled his support for the science, saying he disagreed with the veto. But he was silent as to whether he supported Florida's funding embryonic stem-cell research.

Gov. Crist last month announced his support for a modest proposal that called for $20 million in funding for adult, amniotic-fluid cell and embryonic stem-cell research limited to the stem-cell lines approved by President Bush back in 2001.

Modest indeed, as such a measure simply duplicates federal policy and fails to meet the urgent unmet need - the funding of new embryonic cell lines.
Crist (whose approval rating is currently quite high, even among moderates) here embodies the dilemma faced by many elected officials: In order to win a general election -- and barring any extraordinary circumstances, as 9/11 afforded the current occupant of the White House -- politicians must seem firmly in the center of almost any controversial issue. During the 2006 gubernatorial campaign, Crist apparently positioned himself to the left of the Republican party line on the issue. See, for example, this article from the Lakeland Ledger, dated August 2006:
Crist -- whose father, a retired doctor, now suffers from a progressive eye disease -- hopes that research will soon be able to go forward without destroying embryos. Meanwhile, the state attorney general expresses lukewarm support for spending money on it with current technology.

"I'm not opposed to it," Crist said in a recent interview. "It's important that we continue to advance technologically and medically to help people."
At the time, then-Attorney General Crist was engaged in what turned out to be a not-very-close primary campaign for the GOP nomination. If you were a moderate of either party, you could project into the above passage a tentative step into the 21st century by a politician not afraid to confront the conventional wisdom of what a Republican "should" believe. If you were a conservative, on the other hand, you might see in those two paragraphs a coded message of reassurance. There was the "lukewarm," and there was the "not opposed to it" -- at least one full step short of "support it."

As Siegel's column points out, now that he's in the Governor's Mansion Crist can't have it both ways. He can support the party line (which might be summarized as "First, do as little as possible" (not exactly the Hippocratic principle you want your doctor to embrace), or he can say, in effect, Look, this is ridiculous: Let's do everything in our power to help those who are already desperately ill and those who may become desperately ill in the future.

But fence-sitting creates merely the illusion of evenhandedness, at the expense of suffering severe pain in the part of a guy's body where he wants least to suffer any pain at all (let alone the severe kind).

C'mon, Charlie. Hop off the fence onto the side of common sense and decency, away from ideology. It'll help you in the long run (as well as your dad, and the dads and moms and sisters and brothers of countless Floridians in the future).

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This has absolutely nothing to do with the beginning of human life, except perhaps that it discusses someone who is possibly inhuman. I mention (dare I add to her bottom line?) the Conservative Queen of Mean, Ann Coulter. Her latest vituperation has her calling Democratic Presidential candidate John Edwards a "faggot." The exact words:
"I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, but it turns out you have to go into rehab if you use the word ‘faggot,’ so I — so kind of an impasse, can’t really talk about Edwards."
Also, the Think Progress blog reports:
Previously, Coulter has put “even money” on Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) “[c]oming out of the closet,” said Bill Clinton shows “some level of latent homosexuality,” and called Vice President Al Gore a “total fag.”
Coulter's similarity to Anna Nicole Smith is obvious -- fame at any cost. But where poor Anna Nicole's desperate yearning hurt only herself, Coulter has no qualms about whom she insults, hurts, or slanders. If you doubt, just remember what she had to say about some of the 9/11 widows:
In her book, Godless: The Church of Liberalism, she writes that a group of New Jersey widows whose husbands perished in the World Trade Center act “as if the terrorist attacks happened only to them.”

She also wrote, “I've never seen people enjoying their husbands' deaths so much.”
Nice. I wonder how Conservatives, who include the "Religious" Right, can embrace someone who spews such viciousness?

But the bigger question to me is how do you fight something like this? All this woman wants is fame, because fame is what enables her to demand large advances from her book publisher, guest spots on major television shows, exorbitant speaking engagment fees, and yet more book deals. She, like Anna Nicole, will do anything to be famous. Fame sells. And if Ann Coulter is interested in anything, it is in selling herself.

So, if fame is what she seeks (successfully, I might add, since she's currently #2 on Technorati's Hot Search list), how do you argue with her without giving her exactly what she wants? It's really an ingenious strategy. Every single media mention, blog post (including this one), or outraged op-ed adds to her bottom line. It's a numbers game and Coulter knows that outrageousness generates numbers. So bring on the nice guys, the widows, the orphans, the oppressed -- they're all grist for Coulter's abusive mill, where she grinds out increasingly offensive diatribes guaranteed to prompt impassioned responses. The resulting brouhaha has her laughing, as they say, "all the way to the bank."

So, how do I feel about helping finance her smug, if comfortable, retirement? I feel like retching, of course, but I'm also envious. Envious because I can't think of anyone in the Democratic Party willing to be mean enough to counter her. Is that our loss or not? Is there any way I could slap her and not be arrested? How do we silence someone for whom argument is victory?

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As if the struggle to obtain government funding for embryonic stem-cell research wasn't already difficult enough, The Center for American Progress had this on March 1st:
Ongoing stem cell research and cloning debates in Kansas and other states highlight a new frontier in the stem cell debate: attempts to define scientific terms for political advantage.

The federal government’s inaction has left a void in overarching scientific guidelines and regulation. State-level opponents of stem cell research are trying to fill that void with altered scientific terminology that conflates human beings and embryos and overbroad definitions of human cloning. These efforts to politically define complicated biological terms often results in ill-conceived laws that satisfy neither opponents nor supporters, confuse scientists attempting to pursue research in the state, and may even create legal problems for those attempting to conduct cooperative studies across state lines.

Two recent bills passed out of committee in the Kansas House of Representatives are particularly egregious examples of the political manipulation of scientific terminology. Advocates of the first bill, H.B. 2098, claim it is an attempt “to define terms related to human cloning.” Yet in reality, it’s an attempt to politically redefine terms to help opponents of stem cell research.

The companion bill H.B. 2255 is a demonstration of just this strategy. Using identical definitions to those in H.B. 2098, the bill seeks to ban public funding for “human cloning to create a cloned embryo,” defined as SCNT.

Even ignoring the ban on funding for SCNT, which would subvert the will of the people of Kansas and prevent scientists in the state from pursuing cures with the best tools available, the bill is simply a poor piece of legislation. It defines an embryo as “the developing organism from the time of fertilization until significant differentiation has occurred, when the organism becomes known as a fetus or an organism in the early stages of development.” This definition, when considered alongside other references to the “human organism” in the bill, seems intended to blur the line between human beings and embryos.

Unfortunately, the vagueness of the definition also blurs the distinction between a fetus and an embryo. The legislation could be read as stripping away protections for what scientists consider an early stage fetus because it would legally be considered an embryo in Kansas. Certainly the proponents of this bill would not intend this effect, and neither opponents nor proponents of the legislation would condone weakening research protections for the fetus. But by relying on politics instead of science when defining technical terms, legislators may open the door to a whole host of unintended consequences, such as making fetuses more vulnerable to potentially harmful research.
Read the entire article here.

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Christopher Reeve fought for stem-cell research until his death. So did his wife, Dana. Now the Christopher Reeve Foundation is honoring not only Reeve, but also his wife's commitment to supporting research to cure spinal cord injury.

The Christopher Reeve Foundation has changed its name. From the Web site:


Organization to be known as Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation reflecting partnership, courage and compassion of the Reeves

Read the article here.

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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