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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.

 
'The Onion' logoYou probably know of the satirical "publication" The Onion, one of my favorite sites. If so, you probably think of its point of view -- understandably -- as leftist, for the most part. (Among the featured headlines for this week: "Heartbroken Bush Runs After Departing Rove's Car.")

But to its credit, The Onion isn't reluctant to poke fun at extremists on the other side of the aisle. This week's edition contains one such article, reducting ad absurdum a certain fringe belief of abortion-rights subscribers: the belief that pregnancies (and babies) are obstacles to a woman's happiness.

Headlined "Woman Overjoyed by Giant Uterine Parasite," the article's tone is one of head-scratching disbelief that the (fictitious) mother-to-be profiled might actually be happy with her future. Excerpts:
"I'm so happy!" Crowley said of the golf ball–sized, nutrient-sapping organism embedded deep in the wall of her uterus. "I was beginning to think this would never happen to me."

Crowley's condition is common and well-documented, with millions of women between the ages of 12 and 50 diagnosed every year. Studies have shown that while the disorder strikes without prejudice across racial, ethnic, and class lines, it bears a very high correlation with the consumption of alcohol at the time of infection. Although there is a low-cost daily medication available that can prevent the harmful symbiote with 99 percent efficacy, many women inexplicably choose not to use it.
...
Crowley has reportedly refused a simple inexpensive outpatient procedure that would completely rid her of the detrimental organism in about an hour, effectively sparing her from the host of complications that will burden her and her family for the rest of their lives.
...
"Just think, in a couple of months I'll be able to feel it kicking," Crowley said of the creature that will soon be writhing restlessly inside her, increasingly and disproportionately robbing her of her strength and stamina. "It's truly a miracle."

Though Crowley is otherwise healthy, the fact that she is in her late 30s makes it much more likely that the parasite has already split and multiplied within her womb.
(Read the whole thing, if you'd like.)

For the record
, other stories in this issue also bear (albeit less directly) on the importance of human life:
  • This Monster Problem Is Distracting This Town From The Real Issues: A parody of the monomaniacal zeal with which some people pursue their favorite hot buttons.
    People, people, people! Put down your torches for a second. I
    know you're all angry that, after days of bloody and terrifying
    rampage, the monster still hasn't been caught. Your outrage is
    not unjustified; however, it's misdirected... You fear a monster
    you can't see because it lurks in the shadows and strikes from
    out of nowhere. But right under your feet is the real monster:
    potholes.
  • Texas Executes 400th Convict (this week's Onion "poll"): Says "Jane Davidson, Secretary":
    "I commend Rick Perry for having the courage to protect his
    constituents. Well done, Governor, and please don't kill me."

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Courtesy University of Saskatchewan
TORONTO STAR, Aug 25, 2007 --
Clashes between the high-tech and the holy are looming anew as political changes force stem-cell research back onto the public agenda, raising a host of new bioethical concerns for doctors and patients. And a Toronto physician is going to have his say about where this all leads.

The medical world needs to think about more than just curing diseases and prescribing drugs, says Dr. Bill Sullivan, who has been tapped to advise the Vatican on bioethics, and consider more where those cures come from.

"You can fix the kidney, but the person might not be healed in other ways," continues Sullivan, appointed earlier this month by Pope Benedict XVI to the Pontifical Academy for Life.

True care needs also to address the ethical issues surrounding their care – including the research done to arrive at a treatment. For Sullivan, medical decisions cannot, and should not, be made in a moral vacuum. For the Catholic church, embryonic stem-cell research tops the list of concerns.

"The ethical issues arise where the vulnerable are threatened," Sullivan says, referring to the stem cells destroyed in labs.

He expects such research to get a boost in the coming years as the Bush administration comes to an end, taking with it the White House ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

The U.S. Congress tried again this year to pass a bill allowing such funding, only to see President George Bush veto it in June. The veto was expected, but the attempt by Congress nonetheless sent a clear message that the rest of Washington supports the work.

Meanwhile, moratoriums restricting stem-cell research in other countries, such as Germany and Australia, are nearing an end, scientific journals are calling for more stem-cell and other research, and Democratic presidential candidates are letting it be known they support the work.

In short, the floodgates of medical and biotechnological research seem about to spring open and with them a whole host of new bioethical concerns.

Shane Green, director of ethics for the Ontario Genome Institute, says new discoveries are being made all the time, even with the Bush ban in place, expanding the ethical questions on a constant basis.
Keep reading.

Here's more:
TORONTO, August 23, 2007 (LifeSiteNews.com) - An official response from the Canadian Diabetes Association indicates the funding organization is in complete support of using human embryos in destructive research.

The Canadian Diabetes Association is the country's foremost organization disseminating information to Canadians on the disease. Its mission is to "promote the health of Canadians through diabetes research, education, service and advocacy." The Association distributes government funding to researchers.

A reply to a query by LifeSiteNews.com elicited an emailed response from "Susan" at the Canadian Diabetes Association Contact Centre who said that the Association "does not currently fund embryonic stem cell research" as of 2004-5.

"All stem cell work funded by the Association is with cells derived from non-embryonic tissues." Susan specified the promise shown by transplant research using pancreatic islet cells as an example of adult stem cell research in diabetes. This treatment involves, however, replacing a patient's islet cells with differentiated donor cells, not stem cells.

Susan went on to write that while the Association "recognizes the need to be respectful of the varying perspectives held by the Canadian public on this sensitive issue," it supports the "Canadian government's direction" on the use of embryos in research.
Complete article here.

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Came across this lively blog discussion from about 1-1/2 years ago. The blog, "Times & Seasons," is apparently written by a group of Mormons on a rotating basis, with the occasional guest writer tossed into the mix. Since the title of this particular blog entry is "The Beginning of Human Life," it naturally caught my attention. Here's an excerpt:
When does a human person first come into being?

Here is where the crux of the matter lies and where distinctions might be made. When people argue that human life does not begin or exist prior to implantation (or a certain level of fetal development or birth), they cannot logically argue that a developing organism does not exist or that it is not biologically part of the human species. What they can, perhaps, coherently argue is that this organism does not yet have the moral status of a human person. So the questions then are, What is a human person, and when does a human organism become a human person? Many answers have been made to these questions, including viability outside the mother’s womb, the point of the mother’s decision to accept the pregnancy (which implies a possibility of it going out of existence if she changes her mind), certain levels of neurologic development of the fetus, certain levels of self-awareness of the fetus or child. My own opinion is that any definition that subdivides human beings into human persons and human non-persons (or potential persons) is highly morally suspect at best.
Read the article and discussion here.

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'Stability 3,' copyright 2006 by Tory Byrne ('avolore' at sxc.hu)
It's almost impossible for someone to (a) run for any public office in the United States and (b) avoid stepping on the toes of every single one of the people upon whom he or she depends for success; (a) and (b) are mutually exclusive activities. Raise the stakes by running for a statewide or national office, and the odds against you approach infinity.

The latest warrior in the political trenches to fall upon his own sword is Republican Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts and currently a candidate for the GOP 2008 presidential nomination. The sword in question? His stance on embryonic stem cell research.

Here's how Wikipedia describes that stance:
Mitt Romney believes research using human embryos created during fertility treatments is ethical but opposes using federal funds to support it.[65] He opposes research using cloned embryos created by implanting human DNA into donated eggs.[65]

When he ran for governor in 2002, Romney strongly advocated stem-cell research in general terms, and he promised to lobby George W. Bush to embrace such research.[65] During his presidential campaign, however, Romney renounced his 2002 position and said that he now agrees with Bush's decision to ban federal funding for research on excess embryos.[65]
(If you'd rather not see the Wikipedia article, all of those duplicate bracketed links eventually take you to this Boston Globe story from February.)

Okay, so -- for whatever reasons, opportunistic politics or sincere change of heart -- Romney appears to have reversed his position of five years ago.

It's not quite that clear-cut, by the way. Romney's campaign now claims -- indeed, a careful reading of the Wikipedia quote avers -- that his earlier support for embryonic stem cell research is, well, philosophical. He agrees that the need for the research exists. However, he does not agree that this research should be conducted using public monies.

Whether this hair-splitting will sit well with voters at any portion of the spectrum will become obvious only over time. Still, it has led Romney into one uncomfortable corner. According to a Boston Herald article published today:
Despite his “pro-life” campaign pitch, former Gov. Mitt Romney owns stock in two companies involved in embryonic stem cell research, a controversial field of study he previously cited as the reason for his rightward shift on abortion.

Romney holds stock in the biomedical firms Novo Nordisk and Millipore Corp., both of which use human embryos to research cures for chronic diseases, records show.
Whoops!

The Romney campaign's backing-and-filling on this latest news involves pointing out that the stock ownership is in a blind trust. Wikipedia again:
A blind trust is a trust in which the executors or those who have been given power of attorney have full discretion over the assets, and the trust beneficiaries have no knowledge of the holdings of the trust. Blind trusts are generally used when a trustor wishes to keep the beneficiary unaware of the specific assets in the trust, such as to avoid conflict of interest between the beneficiary and the investments. Politicians often place their personal assets (including investment income) into blind trusts, to avoid public scrutiny and accusations of conflicts of interest when they direct government funds to the private sector.
CNN quotes Romney:
My investments have been held in a blind trust, which means I have not directed where they invest nor do I know where they invest... The trustee of the blind trust has said publicly that he will endeavor to make my investments conform with my positions, and I am confident that he will.
Translated, this roughly works out to I have no knowledge or control over where my money is invested. However, in this case, I now know where my money is invested and am exercising control over it. Um, okay...

In appraising the former governor's handling of this situation, the Washington Post went back to Romney's public statements on blind trust and dug up this gem (from his 1994 run for the Senate against Ted Kennedy):
"The blind trust is an age-old ruse," Romney was quoted as saying back then. "You give a blind trust rules. You can say to a blind trust, don't invest in properties which would be in conflict of interest or where the seller might think they're going to get an advantage from me."
The politics of "Gotcha!" really is no basis upon which to assess a candidate's honesty; there are simply too many issues, too many nuanced positions to hold on them, and too many interest groups to whom the candidate must attend. But when candidates run for office, as Donald Rumsfeld might say, they must go with the political realities they have. And when philosophy conflicts with reality -- so long as CNN's got its lens trained on you, and the press is plumbing your public statements -- reality always wins.

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See any embryonic stem cells?
Came across this "editorial" (courtesy of Google) on a site called opinioneditorials.com, a branch of something called "Frontiers of Freedom." FoF appears to be a conservative site, hyping the usual conservative issues. This particular editorial is so rife with mis-statements and weak arguments that it's tempting to deconstruct it one argument at at time. But I'll leave that exercise to someone else. I just want to give you a few examples, and then you can visit the site and read the column in its entirety. (Caveat: I didn't spend a lot of time at opinioneditorials.com, so I have no idea if they ever publish anything from a more liberal (or at least "less conservative") point of view.

Kevin Roeten, August 14, 2007--Recently Bush vetoed federal monies for Embryonic Stem Cell Research(ESCR). From the response, one would believe that he dumped all hopes for curing diseases down the commode. But this demonstrates just how misinformation can provoke a visceral emotional reaction that almost borders on irrationality. With nothing to gain except eternal life, Bush seems to have demonstrated courage under fire...

...hype from actors such as Christopher Reeve(Superman) and Michael J. Fox(actor) teases a possible cure for their diseases. But no cure has been found. The fallacy that ESCR shows the most promise is a false hope. [Er, maybe no cure has been found because researchers have been too busy scrambling for funding since the federal government (and most states) have all but shut them down?]

... it’s said that with so many fertilized embryos slated to be disposed of, it’s acceptable to use them for research. Being ‘trapped’ in liquid nitrogen shouldn’t affect our decisions. Consider a radical case in which a group of children are permanently trapped in a schoolhouse. It would not be morally acceptable to send in a remote control robotic device to harvest organs and kill the children. [If they're permanently trapped, are they going to die? Sooner rather than later? Still, I'd have to say no, killing them probably wouldn't be morally acceptable. Be we are talking about living, breathing, developed, functioning children. Not a cluster of cells the size of this period.]

There's lots more. Why don't you check it out for yourself. And if, by chance, you agree with Kevin Roeten, please take just a minute to leave a comment and tell us why. Or if you disagree with him, let us know that, too.

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FREE PRESS LANSING BUREAU
CHRIS CHRISTOFF
August 9, 2007 --
A Christian activist organization charges in a federal lawsuit that [Michigan] Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s online petition to promote embryonic stem cell research discriminates against those opposed to it.

The Thomas More Law Center of Ann Arbor filed suit in U.S. District court in Lansing today on behalf of three anti-abortion groups. The suit claims Granholm’s petition – on her official state Web site since April 2006 – violates the free speech of embryonic stem cell research foes because she won’t allow them to post their opposing petition on the Web site.

Those who sign Granholm’s online petition have their names sent to House and Senate leaders, urging them support legislation that would lift state restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. Such research is opposed by anti-abortion groups because it uses the cells of discarded human embryos.

No question on whose side the writers for this blog line up. Why can't a Governor promote her own agenda on the state Web site? It's ludicrous to think Gov. Granholm would have no preference on any issue. And it's beyond ludicrous to suggest that she should post opposing views in the interest of Democratic fairness. People, she was not elected because she sat on a fence. She was elected because she espoused a particular platform with definite opinions. Her opinion is that the state should lift restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. More power to her for her advocacy on an issue she obviously cares about. You go, Governor!

Read it here.

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'Broken Society,' copyright 2006 by eliteds3 (sxc.hu)
The Associated Press, via USA Today, reports on recent "international numbers provided by the Census Bureau and domestic numbers from the National Center for Health Statistics":
Americans are living longer than ever, but not as long as people in 41 other countries.

For decades, the United States has been slipping in international rankings of life expectancy, as other countries improve health care, nutrition and lifestyles.

Countries that surpass the U.S. include Japan and most of Europe, as well as Jordan, Guam and the Cayman Islands.

"Something's wrong here when one of the richest countries in the world, the one that spends the most on health care, is not able to keep up with other countries," said Dr. Christopher Murray, head of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.

A baby born in the United States in 2004 will live an average of 77.9 years. That life expectancy ranks 42nd, down from 11th two decades earlier...

Andorra, a tiny country in the Pyrenees mountains between France and Spain, had the longest life expectancy, at 83.5 years, according to the Census Bureau. It was followed by Japan, Maucau, San Marino and Singapore.
Now yes, it's true what Mark Twain said about statistics as the third sort of lie, after plain lies and damn lies. It's also true that for a baby born in the US in 1980 (roughly the "two decades earlier" mentioned in this passage), the life expectancy is 73.7 years -- so the expectancy within the country has indeed gone up by over four years.

And finally, it's true that the heading of this post is deliberately provocative. I know that just because someone opposes abortion and embryonic stem cell research, it cannot be concluded that they care little about quality-of-life issues like poverty and medical care.

But the world of public attention -- and thus how a democratic society allocates it resources -- is measured not by what's in someone's heart, but by how much light and heat and noise is generated by what's in there. By any reasonable standard, the clamor on the part of social conservatives in this country about quality-of-life issues is far out-shouted by their clamor about the evils of abortion and embryonic stem cell research. That Roe v. Wade continues to be the law of the land may or may not be a national shame, as these social conservatives maintain, and history may or may not condemn our society on that basis. But shoddy health care, poverty, widespread nutritional deficiencies, racial and economic injustice, desperately superficial education, a poisonous natural environment -- our attention to those, and to matters like them, are the true reasons why we should fear Judgment Day... and the long memories of our children and grandchildren.

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Adam Liptak writes a column called "Sidebar" for the New York Times, about legal matters in the news. Unfortunately, the column is stuck behind the Times's "TimeSelect" wall, where many people can't see it.

On the off-chance that you can get to it, though, today's column, entitled "Putting the Government's Words in the Doctor's Mouth," is especially interesting for readers of this blog. The topic under consideration is a cluster of court opinions -- and counter-opinions -- about a disputed South Dakota law, the 2005 "Women's Health and Human Life Protection Act."

Women's health and human life: Who could be against protecting such things?, you might wonder. And then you might reconsider your confusion, having thought separately about the two halves of the act's name. Does "women's health" serve as a common code phrase for anything else? No? How about "human life"?

Oh.

What the South Dakota law will require is that doctors there "tell women seeking abortions that they 'will terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being.'" (Note: That's a quotation from Liptak's column, not from the text of the Act itself.)

From the "Sidebar" piece:
But there is, according to the federal courts that have so far blocked the South Dakota law, a constitutional flaw in how the state seeks to go about informing women of its views. The problem with the law, the courts said, is that it would hijack the doctor-patient relationship.

"The South Dakota statute," Judge Karen E. Schreier of Federal District Court in Rapid City, S.D., wrote in issuing a preliminary injunction in 2005, "requires abortion doctors to enunciate the state’s viewpoint on an unsettled medical, philosophical, theological and scientific issue — that is, whether a fetus is a human being."

...

South Dakota can, of course, say what it likes about abortion. "If the state wants to have a billboard, good for the state," Timothy E. Branson, a Minneapolis lawyer who represents Planned Parenthood in its challenge to the law, said in an interview. Indeed, as lawyers for South Dakota said in a brief last year, the state publishes pamphlets and maintains a Web site setting out its position (www.state.sd.us/applications/ph17abortioninfo).

Lawyers for the state say it is also entitled to make doctors into its publicity agents, though that is not how they put it.

"The point," Lawrence E. Long, the state attorney general, wrote in a brief to the appeals court this spring, "is to require abortion providers to do a better job at what they should already be doing. That is, they should provide their patients with an accurate description of what they are aborting."

The Supreme Court has said that doctors performing abortions may be forced to convey truthful information, and not only about medical issues. In 1992, the court upheld a Pennsylvania abortion law that required doctors to tell their patients that they might be eligible for child support if they decided to carry their pregnancies to term.

But other cases say the government cannot force anyone to disseminate ideological messages.

At the argument in April, John P. Guhin, a lawyer for the state, said doctors could paraphrase the required disclosures, which must be made in writing and signed by the patient on every page. He suggested that doctors could also express their disagreement, though the law requires them to certify that their patients have understood the disclosures. Should there be questions, doctors must answer them in writing. Failure to follow the procedures is a crime.
If you don't see a problem with South Dakota's initiative (or Pennsylvania's for that matter), imagine a completely different situation for a moment: Let's say the state in question isn't South Dakota, but California, or Vermont -- one of those places, y'know, where hippies continue to flourish even in the halls of the Statehouse. Imagine that the legislature there establishes a new law requiring that recruiters for the military (including the National Guard) lay out for potential recruits all the ghastly things that might happen to them in combat. Furthermore, if young men and women insist knowing the reasons to enlist anyway, the recruiters must answer these questions in writing. Recruiters who fail to do so can face criminal punishment.

Or heck, why not force newspaper publishers to notify all readers, "Some of the things you read herein will turn out not to be true." Or force clergymen to point out that none of the assertions which their congregations may hear in church may, in the end, have any bearing on reality. Or...

Okay, okay. Sarcasm off.

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An opinion piece by a guest columnist was published yesterday in our hometown newspaper, The Tallahassee Democrat:
There is a huge debate going on in our country regarding stem-cell research. Both sides of this debate have backers based strictly on philosophical grounds. But it is the tangible implications in real life which validate or invalidate the philosophy, and these implications are already being played out.

State legislatures have allocated millions of taxpayer dollars to fund stem-cell research with more being considered. Our congressional leaders in Washington are looking to spend tens or perhaps hundreds of millions more in federal tax dollars. The question becomes, “Is this research ethical or is it Naziesque human experimentation?”
Well, no effort at meaningful dialogue here. Either we believe what the author does, or we're Nazis. What's wrong with this picture? The column's next to the last paragraph continues this reasoned approach:
But if, as many Christians believe, life does begin at conception, then the act of destroying an embryo to harvest stem cells becomes an act of murder and is no different than the human experimentation done in the Nazi death camps. It is the exact same issue which fuels the abortion debate.
Now tell me, how do you debate this person? This is an excellent example of why we remain so divided on this issue (and abortion, as the writer points out), and why civil, reasoned dialogue is still so rare.


Read the column.

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Roe v. Wade
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