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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.

New Jersey
From the Home News Tribune:
RUTGERS — As legislation to help fund embryonic stem-cell research makes its way toward President Bush's desk — and an inevitable veto — New Jersey is opening the doors to the first state-funded stem cell research lab in the nation.

Rutgers University held a ribbon-cutting ceremony Saturday to open the 4,250-square-foot Stem Cell Research Center at Nelson Biological Laboratories, the first step in establishing a statewide stem-cell research institute with state money.

"New Jersey should be one large research lab, working with each other for cures," said state Assembly Deputy Speaker Neil M. Cohen, D-Union, who helped push the funding through the state Legislature. "This is about children who may be born with leukemia having the opportunity to see a sunrise. This is about a senior with Alzheimer's being able to remember remember who they were, who their children are."

Opponents of embryonic stem-cell research argue that embryos used for harvesting stem cells are the beginning of human life, and that destroying those embryos can be avoided by obtaining stem cells from other sources such as umbilical cord blood.

But advocates for embryonic stem-cell research say the possibilities for curing spinal cord injuries and certain diseases are too great to ignore. The most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, conducted in January, found that 61 percent of Americans support embryonic stem-cell research.
Read the complete article and let us know what you think. Are opponents of embryonic stem-cell research ignoring the fact that the embryos used for research would be destroyed anyway? Are they favoring potential life over actual life? Which is more important? Is that an answerable question?

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I came across this at Catholic Online.
NEWTON, Mass. (The Pilot) - Two Catholic senators and presidential candidates — Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.- shared their views on their faith and how it affects their public policy decisions on April 23 at Boston College’s Conte Forum.

“My faith has had a huge influence on me,” particularly the teaching of Catholic social justice, Dodd told the crowd of nearly 4,000. However, he underscored that “faith informs my decisions. It doesn’t define my decisions.”

Brownback, too, acknowledged that his faith is “a big part of the decision-making process.” A recent convert to Catholicism - having entered the Church only four years ago - Brownback noted, however, that most of his views predate his entrance into the Catholic faith...

Moderated by Tim Russert, host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” the senators spoke on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, the death penalty and the war in Iraq.
Although the senators agreed on some issues, like Iraq, the death penalty, and prison reform, they "disagreed sharply on other societal hot-button issues such as embryonic stem-cell research, abortion and same-sex unions."
Dodd indicated he is in favor of embryonic stem-cell research in cases where “the choice goes down to whether to discard embryonic stem cells or utilize them.” Brownback, who is opposed to embryonic stem-cell research, indicated that he believes the issue “boils down to one question: What is the youngest of humans — is it a person or property?”
Read the complete article.

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Frozen embryo-Repromedinternational
A couple who adopted their two-year-old daughter as a frozen embryo left stored in a fertility clinic freezer, are now using their story to fight against legislation that would permit research using human embryos, the Dialog reported April 16.

Tim and Dawn Smith adopted their daughter Erin 11 years after she was conceived in a petri dish during in vitro fertilization proceedings. Unused by her biological parents, the child remained frozen in storage and faced likely destruction by eventual discarding.

Hearing of efforts to combat proposed legislation that would permit couples to donate leftover embryos for stem-cell research, the Smith’s offered their participation as a couple able to personalize the issue for the public. Tim Smith has appeared in radio commercials funded by A Rose and a Prayer, a group opposed to human embryonic research, speaking about his daughter as a “typical 2-year-old.”

“Some would call Erin medical waste,” he says in the commercial. “I call her my daughter.”
How lucky Erin is to have been adopted by a loving couple. However, the reality is that there are hundreds of thousands of these frozen embryos and most of them (probably 99%) will never be adopted. Eventually, they will be thrown out.

And what if Erin should develop a disease for which there is no cure, or injure her spine causing paralysis, or suffer a traumatic brain injury? I have no doubt that her parents would pray like crazy for a cure for their child. Well, there are thousands (if not millions) of parents out there praying right now. And some of the miracles they're praying for might be found in embryonic stem cell research. The last thing I want to do is deny them their chance for a miracle.

Read the complete article here.

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For an admittedly liberal viewpoint on the stem-cell research issue, check out this blog, The Liberal Perspective / Joe Sheridan's Radio Weblog. Here's an excerpt:

George Bush is attempting to kill the federal funding of stem cell research and limit scientists access to already available stem cells. The United States Supreme Court on April 19, 2007 ruled against partial birth abortions in an historic five to four decision.
This decision could lead to several other anti-choice decisions by the Bush appointed ultra-right wing Supreme Court under Roberts, Alito, Scalia, Thomas and Kennedy and potentially to the reversal of the Roe v Wade decision that originally gave women the right to choose.


Stem cell research is not a matter of law; it is a matter of faith. If George Bush or Pat Robertson, or James Dobson do not wish to have their stem cells used in this scientific venture, they are not forced to participate. On the other hand, the fact that Joe Sheridan and his wife wish to have our stem cells employed in such an endeavor is our decision based upon our faith and our interpretation of the beginning of human life.

What makes Bush’s decision to veto a bill that would expand the federal government’s funds for stem cell research so absurd is the undeniable fact that those stem cells under consideration are going to be thrown into the trash container, destroyed, and dumped in a heap of debris?

If stem cells can do half as much good as some scientists believe they can, no sane person would deny those who suffer from Alzheimers, Parkinson’s, cancer or skeletal damage the opportunity to regain their health.

If nothing came from stem cell research, it is better they be used for a an attempted cause of human healing rather than trash, garbage or waste.

The important issue surrounding the “Culture of Life,” is Bush’s contradictions in policies and practices. You cannot believe in a culture of life, and champion war. You cannot be for a culture of life, and support the death penalty. You cannot believe in a culture of life and deny the furtherance of stem cell research and all of the good that may come from it. You cannot believe in the culture of life and continue to condone the unrestricted ownership of guns for criminals and the mentally ill.

Read the complete blog post.

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Thanks to KU MEdical Center
It's important to remember that all of the discussion about embryonic stem cell research refers to the blastocyst, a microscopic clump of about 120 cells. (To put that in perspective, estimates of the number of cells in the fully developed human body range from 10 trillion - 100 trillion.)

From an ABC News report:
WASHINGTON Apr 12, 2007 (AP)— A stubborn Senate voted Wednesday to ease restrictions on federally funded embryonic stem cell research, ignoring President Bush's threat of a second veto on legislation designed to lead to new medical treatments.

The 63-34 vote was shy of the margin that would be needed to enact the measure over presidential opposition, despite gains made by supporters in last fall's elections.

"Not every day do we have the opportunity to vote to heal the sick," said Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a senator less than 100 days following a tough 2006 campaign in which the stem cell controversy played a particularly prominent role. "It is a noble cause," she added.

The Senate bill, Bush said, "is very similar to legislation I vetoed last year. This bill crosses a moral line that I and many others find troubling. If it advances all the way through Congress to my desk, I will veto it," the president said in a statement after the vote.
Read the complete article.

Also visit the University of Kansas Medical Center's site on stem cell research for more information and illustrations.

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Pres. George W. Bush
From today's "New York Times":
The Senate easily approved a bill this week that would free embryonic stem cell research from the worst shackles imposed by the Bush administration. The House passed its version earlier. A substantial majority of Americans tell pollsters they support embryonic stem cell research. Yet one man, President Bush, and a minority of his party, the religious and social conservatives, are once again trying to impose their moral code on the rest of the nation and stand in the way of scientific progress.

Mr. Bush is threatening a veto, and neither house had enough votes for the bills on initial passage to override him. Concerned voters will need to ratchet up the pressure on recalcitrant Republicans to help stop the president from killing the second enlightened stem cell bill in less than a year.
Here's an example of the results of Bush's intransigence:
The restrictions on federal financing have led to absurdly complicated and costly maneuvers. Scientists are forced to buy extra equipment and laboratory space with private money to perform off-limits research while using equipment and supplies bought with federal money on the permitted stem cell research. In a shocking example cited during Senate debate, a California researcher who had been cultivating stem cells in a makeshift privately financed lab suffered a power failure but was unable to transfer her lines into industrial-strength freezers in another lab because they were federally financed. Two years of work melted away because of this inanity.
Read the complete article.

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Dr.Elias Zerhouni
Although Florida seems determined not to fund embryonic stem cell research (for this year at least), things are looking up on the national level. From an "Orlando Sentinel" editorial:
As the U.S. Senate again considers a bill to ease President George W. Bush's restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, members would be wise to heed one of Mr. Bush's appointees. National Institutes of Health Director Elias Zerhouni recently told a Senate panel that "American science will be better served, and the nation will be better served, if we let our scientists have access to more stem-cell lines."

Mr. Bush's restrictions limit federal funding to research on embryonic stem-cell lines that existed before Aug. 9, 2001. The number of those lines available for research has fallen since then from 78 to 22, and their scientific value is limited.

Stem cells can be derived from adult sources, but many scientists believe the ones from embryos offer the best hope over the long term for treating or curing paralyzing injuries or devastating diseases such as Alzheimer's and diabetes.
Read the complete article.

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Gov. Charlie Crist
Following Gov. Charlie Crist's lead, Florida's legislators avoid the embryonic stem cell research debate by moving forward bills that restrict funding to non-embryonic research. As mentioned here in an earlier post, although the governor's campaign platform included embryonic stem cell research, he back-pedaled on the issue once in office and opted to support other types of research.

Although Gov. Crist's lead on this issue is disappointing, I have to give him credit for some of his decisions in other areas. The most recent? Restoring civil rights to non-violent felons. The governor should be commended for helping move Florida out of the Jim Crow dark ages toward a more just and hopeful future. Now, back to the topic at hand.

From the St. Pete Times:
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- Two state legislative committees voted Tuesday to focus limited dollars on research using stem cells culled from adults and umbilical cords, rather than human embryos.

The House and Senate panels both unanimously approved bills that set aside money for non-embryonic stem cell research - although how much money would be put into the grant program isn't clear yet.

With their votes, the House Health Care Committee and the Senate Health Policy Committee rejected a competing proposal to also allow state money to fund embryonic stem cell research. Many people oppose such research because it requires the destruction of the embryo.
Read the complete article.

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As a college freshman, I had to take a course in World History. I remember nothing about the course except (a) the professor's name, and (b) his striking description of a particular element of medieval philosophy. Item (b) had to do with how people knew that a thing was that thing, and not another. These medieval philosophers believed, said my professor, that "a table is a table because it partakes of table-ness."

I loved that. And it leads me to the subject of this post. If an acorn is an oak, why? and If a blastocyst is a person, why?

A recent Wired Science posting directs us to a Boston Globe column by Michael J. Sandel, who "teaches political philosophy at Harvard." He is also a former member of the Presidential Council on Bioethics -- yes, during the Bush administration. We may then safely assume that he is well-informed, regarding both the philosophical issues (on both sides of the stem-cell debates) and the position of the Bush administration.

As you can see from the page on the Wired site, both the summary and the complete Globe article have stimulated some of the usual reductio-ad-absurdum exaggerations of opponents views at both extremes of the debate, generally stopping juuuust this side of name-calling.

But, with thanks for bringing our attention to Sandel's column, let's leave behind the Wired blog entry, and focus on the column as it appeared in the Globe. It strikes at the heart of many issues at the heart of this Beginning of Human Life blog, here on

The column may be broken basically into two sections.

In the first section, Sandel points out that neither pro-life nor pro-choice advocates typically expend a lot of effort trying honestly to understand and respect each other's arguments. He then takes up the gauntlet he has cast down, beginning with the pro-life perspective:
It is important to be clear, first of all, about the embryo from which stem cells are extracted. It is not implanted and growing in a woman's uterus. It is not a fetus. It has no recognizable human features or form. It is, rather, a blastocyst, a cluster of 180 to 200 cells, growing in a petri dish, barely visible to the naked eye. Such blastocysts are either cloned in the lab or created in fertility clinics. The bill pending in Congress would fund stem cell research only on excess blastocysts left over from infertility treatments.

The blastocyst represents such an early stage of embryonic development that the cells it contains have not yet differentiated, or taken on the properties of particular organs or tissues -- kidneys, muscles, spinal cord, and so on. This is why the stem cells that are extracted from the blastocyst hold the promise of developing, with proper coaxing in the lab, into any kind of cell the researcher wants to study or repair.

The moral and political controversy arises from the fact that extracting the stem cells destroys the blastocyst. It is important to grasp the full force of the claim that the embryo is morally equivalent to a person, a fully developed human being. For those who hold this view, extracting stem cells from a blastocyst is as morally abhorrent as harvesting organs from a baby to save other people's lives. This is the position of Senator Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas, a leading advocate of the right-to-life position. In Brownback's view, "a human embryo . . . is a human being just like you and me; and it deserves the same respect that our laws give to us all."
And then he moves on to summarize the position of advocates of embryonic stem-cell research:
[Brownback's] argument can be challenged on a number of grounds. First, it is undeniable that a human embryo is "human life" in the biological sense that it is living rather than dead, and human rather than, say, bovine. But this biological fact does not establish that the blastocyst is a human being, or a person. Any living human cell (a skin cell, for example) is "human life" in the sense of being human rather than bovine and living rather than dead. But no one would consider a skin cell a person, or deem it inviolable. Showing that a blastocyst is a human being, or a person, requires further argument.

Some try to base such an argument on the fact that human beings develop from embryo to fetus to child. Every person was once an embryo, the argument goes, and there is no clear, non-arbitrary line between conception and adulthood that can tell us when personhood begins. Given the lack of such a line, we should regard the blastocyst as a person, as morally equivalent to a fully developed human being.

But this argument is not persuasive. Consider an analogy: although every oak tree was once an acorn, it does not follow that acorns are oak trees, or that I should treat the loss of an acorn eaten by a squirrel in my front yard as the same kind of loss as the death of an oak tree felled by a storm. Despite their developmental continuity, acorns and oak trees differ. So do human embryos and human beings, and in the same way. Just as acorns are potential oaks, human embryos are potential human beings.
It's important to note (despite the hair-trigger vitriol with which some commenters at the Wired site respond) that Sandel is here not laying out his own position. He is attempting to describe the positions of others, in a way which shows respect for both sides. And he does a fair job of it.

The second section of the column addresses the real reason why he wrote the whole thing: To call the bluff of the Bush administration on the issue, because in their handling of it so far they have (as usual, hence unsurprisingly) demonstrated a shameless amoral hypocrisy: is a striking feature of the president's position that, while restricting the funding of embryonic stem cell research, he has made no effort to ban it. To adapt a slogan from the Clinton administration, the Bush policy might be summarized as "don't fund, don't ban." But this policy is at odds with the notion that embryos are human beings.

If harvesting stem cells from a blastocyst were truly on a par with harvesting organs from a baby, then the morally responsible policy would be to ban it, not merely deny it federal funding. If some doctors made a practice of killing children to get organs for transplantation, no one would take the position that the infanticide should be ineligible for federal funding but allowed to continue in the private sector. In fact, if we were persuaded that embryonic stem cell research were tantamount to infanticide, we would not only ban it but treat it as a grisly form of murder and subject scientists who performed it to criminal punishment.
Got that? Sandel is telling Bush (and his subordinates) to put up or shut up: If it's truly immoral to harvest stem cells in this manner, then at least have the cojones to make it illegal as well. Sandel concludes:
Rather than simply complain that the president's stem cell policy allows religion to trump science, critics should ask why the president does not pursue the full implications of the principle he invokes.

If he does not want to ban embryonic stem cell research, or prosecute stem cell scientists for murder, or ban fertility clinics from creating and discarding excess embryos, this must mean that he does not really consider human embryos as morally equivalent to fully developed human beings after all.

But if he doesn't believe that embryos are persons, then why ban federally funded embryonic stem cell research that holds promise for curing diseases and saving lives?
To which the only response we can offer, really, is: Amen.

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Stem cells will be at the top of the agenda for the U.S. Senate when it returns on Tuesday with supporters of the research hoping they can change the president's mind on the issue and opponents hoping to have a say about their stand.

The Senate will consider two bills, one virtually identical to a bill vetoed by President George W. Bush last year that would have expanded and encouraged federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research.

The other is a compromise measure worked out by Republicans Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Norm Coleman of Minnesota. It would encourage stem cell research on embryos that have naturally lost the ability to develop into fetuses, such as those that have died "naturally" during fertility treatments.

Read the article here.

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) - Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick said Friday he will push to reverse stem cell research restrictions imposed by his predecessor, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.

The changes last August prompted complaints from researchers who said they could be prohibited from using some embryonic stem cells. They also argued the restrictions undercut a 2005 law that had been approved by the Legislature over Romney's veto.

Patrick told a meeting of the Life Sciences Collaborative on Friday that he would ask the Public Health Council, which approved the changes, to revisit the policy. In effect, Patrick will be able to reverse the policy, since he will gain control over the panel next week amid an overhaul linked to the state's new health insurance law.

"I believe that life sciences should be guided by science, not politics," Patrick told the roundtable of biotechnology officials.

The governor said researchers should not have to compete globally "under a regulatory cloud, or to do so with one-hand tied behind their back."

He said he hoped the council would create a hospitable regulatory climate "and then get out of the way so that you can do what you were trained to do, and so that your imagination and creativity can have the full range of its potential."

Embryonic stem cells have the capacity to become any cell in the body, and scientists are eager to expand their research with them to treat a variety of diseases, from Alzheimer's to diabetes. Patrick noted that his mother-in-law suffers from both, while his late mother had lupus.

Read the entire article.

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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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