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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.

 
On July 18, 2006, The Washington Post published a timeline of the stem-cell debate. We've reproduced it here, with links to the actual Post story where applicable:

Nov. 5, 1998: The first stem cells are isolated by scientists at the University of Wisconsin and Johns Hopkins University. Stem cells can develop into any tissue, but the process is controversial because it requires destroying human embryos. Post Story

Aug. 9, 2001: President Bush declares federal funding will go to research only select stem cell lines derived from destroyed embryos left over at fertility clinics. States retain the ability to appropriate money for research or to restrict it. Post Story

However, scientists say some of the 64 designated cell lines are fragile. Post Story

Nov. 25, 2001: Scientists in Massachusetts perform the first cloning of human embryos. In a process called therapeutic cloning or somatic cell nuclear transfer, cloned embryonic stem cells could generate replacement tissues that patients' bodies would not reject. Post Story

Nov. 2, 2004: In Proposition 71, Californians vote to spend $3 billion over 10 years on stem cell research, making the state the first to fund such research; 59 percent of the state's voters support the move.

Jan. 11, 2005: New Jersey's governor announces the state will fund a $150 million stem cell research center and promises to champion a ballot initiative to allocate another $230 million.

May 20, 2005: Bush vows to veto any legislation that would ease the restrictions he imposed on stem cell research in 2001. He has not yet used a presidential veto. Post Story

May 24, 2005: The House approves a bill to loosen Bush's restrictions on federal funding for stem cell research by a vote of 238 to 194. In voting in favor of the bill, 50 Republicans break with Bush. Post Story

To continue reading this timeline, click here.

Next, we'll look at what's happened in the past year.

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photo by Robert Aichinger
Here in the USA, the issues surrounding the start of human life can seem so fraught with ambiguity that coming to any conclusion at all seems exactly the wrong thing to do: Too many people will be hurt, too many lives are at stake, too much offense will be taken -- in short, too much effort yields too much pain.

Wondering what the rest of the world might be up to regarding it all (and hindered by my classically American-Philistine inability to read any language other than English) led me to a number of sites in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere. One publication I found quite readable, and useful, was a "Debate Outline" from the Danish Council on Ethics, called The beginning of human life and the moral status of the embryo [367KB PDF]. If you are looking for a decisive conclusion, presented in stone, that will clear things up for you with no ambiguity at all, this is not the text for you. It is, after all, a "debate outline." If, however, you would like to read something to stimulate reasonable discussion -- in your own head if not in actual debate -- you could choose many worse starting points.

The entire thing is 39 A4-sized pages in length but will reward the patient reader. And if your stereotype about Scandinavian thinking on morality and ethics is that their collective mind is already made up -- those free-thinkers! those socialists! those makers of seductive '60s-era Noxzema-shaving-cream TV commercials! -- I urge you to think again.

The "outline" begins by presenting four points of view on the central questions. Here's a particularly enchanting excerpt, this one from the "3rd viewpoint" in a section headed, "When Is There Human Life, and What Moral Status Should It Be Ascribed?":
When does the new human life really come about?, we ask, in order to enable us to distinguish.

...the answer to this question has been rendered impossible -- because, logically speaking, a further fundamental condition is that any precise indication of time is always arbitrary. From experience and from a biological point of view, we simply have no way of knowing when exactly life begins -- an aspect that comes clearly to the fore in the 1st background chapter of this debate outline, where it is stated that the time of fertilization is located within a window of twenty hours. The conclusion is obvious, of course: We have no way of knowing when it takes place. At most we can experience it retrospectively, i.e. see in the rear-view mirror that something new has happened at some point in time.

But that also means that the entire time -- from fertilization to conception -- becomes one borderland.

People have always had a hesitant and cautious approach to such frontier zones. Frontier zones cannot be travelled without falling under their sway. The point, after all, is that we do not know what will happen, or when it will happen. So frontier zones are always brimming with ambiguities, i.e. things that can be interpreted in one of two ways.

In the olden days, for example, such frontier zones lay in the transition between cultivated and uncultivated land; or in the twilight zone between day and night. This is also why the Ancients thought they were precisely the regions or time zones where trolls and elf-maidens got up to their antics. It was here that people were spellbound and enchanted, here that children turned into changelings and here that youthful swains were seduced. So popular experience also had it that special care and vigilance were called for at that particular hour or there on the edge of the moors. We are still travelling frontier zones today, and here too experience is needed. Rationality is simply too narrow a basis on which to act. Quite simply, a natural-science approach is not enough to be able to grasp this multiplicity of meaning, because the urge of natural science is precisely to reduce such complexity.

The brief initial spell between fertilization (the rapturous instant) and conception (embedding in the womb) is one such frontier region. The point here, then, is for all of us to exercise extra attentiveness, reducing our speed and laying down rigid rules as to what is and is not allowed as well as displaying the necessary deference in such matters.
"Deference" certainly seems a concept alien to American discussions of complex political, social, and ethical issues. Our concept of frontier exploration is perhaps shaped too much by pop-culture references -- "How the West Was Won" -- and too little by fables and fairy tales, in which the protagonists tread lightly when setting forth on a journey whose outcome cannot be known in advance.

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Tuesday, May 15 -- Jerry Falwell died today after being found unresponsive in his office at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. The 73-year-old conservative Falwell's television ministry helped fuel the rise of the Religious Right. Rev. Falwell took very public stands on a variety of issues, and he encouraged his followers to do the same.

On embryonic stem-cell research:
Most pro-life people believe that life begins at conception or fertilization – that is the foundation for being pro-life. Therefore, we believe that even embryonic life is something to be cherished and protected even though, as Ron Reagan noted, these lives have no arms or legs or discernible signs of what we recognize as humanity.

The fact is, most liberal politicians and pundits long ago sold their souls to the abortion-rights movement that is responsible for the million or so abortions in America each year. We can't really expect the abortion-rights community to understand our regard for life when they have already disregarded 40 million aborted lives. What we can expect is the usual flurry of accusations that we are "right-wing" zealots who are out of touch with what the left has determined to be the "mainstream."

Our ethics on life cannot be offhandedly modified simply because an arm of science demands it or because the left calls us names. Once we begin to adapt our ethics because of political heat, there is literally no telling where we could arrive in terms of completely manipulating innocent life.
On the 9/11 attacks:
On September 13, 2001, Falwell appeared on the Christian Broadcasting Network's TV program "700 Club," hosted by Pat Robertson:

JERRY FALWELL: And, I know that I'll hear from them for this. But, throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way - all of them who have tried to secularize America - I point the finger in their face and say "you helped this happen."

PAT ROBERTSON: Well, I totally concur, and the problem is we have adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government. And so we're responsible as a free society for what the top people do. And, the top people, of course, is the court system.
The fallout was swift and loud. Robertson quickly back-pedaled and claimed he hadn't understood what Falwell was saying. Falwell himself called CNN the next day and issued an apology of sorts. After saying that only the hijackers and terrorists were responsible for the deadly attacks, he couldn't leave well enough alone:
"I do believe, as a theologian, based upon many Scriptures and particularly Proverbs 14:23, which says 'living by God's principles promotes a nation to greatness, violating those principles brings a nation to shame,'" he said.

Falwell said he believes the ACLU and other organizations "which have attempted to secularize America, have removed our nation from its relationship with Christ on which it was founded."

"I therefore believe that that created an environment which possibly has caused God to lift the veil of protection which has allowed no one to attack America on our soil since 1812," he said.
On Teletubbies:
The February 1999 issue of Jerry Falwell's National Liberty Journal ran an article entitled "Tinky Winky Comes Out Of The Closet," which questioned the "sexual preference" of the Tinky Winky character in the popular children's show, noting that the character carries a handbag. Need more evidence?

"He is purple — the gay-pride color;" observes the alert, "and his antenna is shaped like a triangle — the gay pride symbol."

Concludes the Lynchburg, Va.-based newspaper, "These subtle depictions are no doubt intentional and parents are warned to be alert to these elements of the series."
Jerry Falwell. I can't think of much we agreed on, but you sure had a knack for making things interesting. Rest in peace.

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In addition to Time Magazine's Time 100, discussed briefly below, the magazine lists 12 individuals they call Power Givers for the broad reach of their philanthropy. One name on the list is certain to be familiar to readers of this blog -- Sir John Templeton. His Templeton Foundation grants more than $60 million a year for research into the sciences and religion.

Jack had hoped that the foundation would help fund a dialogue on The Beginning of Human Life, a crucial issue in both the stem cell and abortion debates, but no luck so far. We believe a non-profit needs to take up the cause and apply for a grant. Or a university might consider a dialogue between its religion faculty and academics from other disciplines such as the social sciences, medicine, etc. There are so many different ways of looking at this question, and the divide is often so wide between beliefs, that the need for dialogue is a no-brainer to us.

Read more about Sir John Templeton and the other Power Givers (including Angelina Jolie).

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When Time Magazine released the Time 100, its list of the 100 most influential people of our times, it divided the list into five categories:
Artists & Entertainers
Scientists & Thinkers
Leaders & Revolutionaries
Builders & Titans
Heroes & Pioneers
As with any list of this sort, you will find obvious and not so obvious choices, and you will wonder, as I did, why they neglected to include this entertainer or that hero. Or it might be the reverse, as in "how in the world did that bozo make the cut?"

One entry that gets no argument from me, however, is Douglas Melton in Scientists & Thinkers. At 53, he's the Co-Director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, and he admits that much of his motivation comes from his diabetic son. From Time:
Every day, Doug is on the front lines of the war not only against disease but also against the obstacles placed in the path of the science. And he has demonstrated that he has what it takes to advance this campaign. When President Bush cut federal funding of embryonic-stem-cell research in 2001, Doug used private donations to create more than 100 stem-cell lines and distributed them without charge to researchers across the country. He has the skill and creativity to carry out the experiments that need to be done, and the vision and compassion to know that true humanity lies in relieving human suffering, not in acquiescing to politics or ideology.
Click here to read more about Doug Melton and the other 99 movers and shakers on the Time 100.

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From an op-ed in the Zanesville Times Recorder:
Currently our United States Congress is voting for a bill to waste millions of taxpayers dollars on something that has shown no results, that private companies can no longer afford to research because of the lack of results, and that has the component of killing to it - embryonic stem cell research. This they have done in the name of helping people with various diseases. However, since there has never been any cure with this research, and some of these embryonic stem cells have developed tumors, why waste our money when there are better, more successful ways already being used.
This is the kind of nonsense that continues to hinder progress in obtaining federal and state funding for embryonic stem cell research. Through misinformation and half-truths, opponents to this research continue to erect roadblocks to its widespread acceptance.

Embryonic stem cells are already achieving good results in animal models, and with more funding their amazing potential will become a reality. I've yet to hear a "convincing" argument against this research, and yet the President, along with many state legislatures (like Florida), continue to withhold funds.

When the full potential of embryonic stem cells is realized at some point in the future, I wonder how many politicians will look back at their votes against the research and feel shame. They are prolonging the suffering of millions of people by prioritizing a microscopic cluster of cells. Now there's a morality I don't want to get too close to.

Here's the article.

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