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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.

It's not exactly fresh news, but I have just come across a very interesting column by William Saletan, on the Slate Web site. The headline: "Rights and Wrongs: Liberals, progressives, and biotechnology."

Saletan identifies himself as a liberal, for what it's worth -- although he doesn't do so until a good way down into the column:
...what makes me think I'm still a liberal? I guess it's a stubborn belief that liberalism isn't whatever dogmas currently possess this or that lefty camp. Liberalism is an admission of uncertainty. It's open to self-correction and to the complexity and unpredictability of life.
What's interesting about the column in general is that he uses it to take certain "liberal" bioethicists (or those who support them, without being bioethicists themselves) to task for, well, their illiberalism:
I have problems with liberals. A lot of them talk about religion as though it's a communicable disease. Some are amazingly obtuse to other people's qualms. They show no more interest in an embryo than in a skin cell. It's like I'm picking up a radio signal and they're not. I'd think I was crazy, except that a few billion other people seem to be picking up the same signal. At most liberal bioethics conferences, the main question in dispute, in one form or another, is whether to be more afraid of capitalism or religion.
But -- lest the reader think he's about to stab his liberal colleagues in the back -- Saletan offers up a deft summation of a common-sense approach not only to stem-cell research, but to many related science-vs.-religion controversies (emphasis added):
I don't even like the idea of taking a general position on biotechnology. The field is just too big and complicated to fit an ideology. In science, things change much more radically than in politics. One month, we're screening embryos for diseases, and everybody's happy. The next month, we're screening embryos for their suitability as tissue donors, and everybody's queasy. One year, ethanol is a corn product and makes no sense. The next year, it's a switchgrass product and makes a lot of sense. I like having the freedom to soak my head in a new topic and come out saying the opposite of what I expected. Committing to a political identity would just get in the way.
In general, the column neatly repudiates the idea that supporting -- or decrying -- a field of scientific study has anything to do with common sense. You can take one position or another, based on one thing or another, but it makes no sense to (a) require a litmus test of someone's beliefs on the issue in order to label them as either a good liberal or a good conservative, or (b) claim that you yourself are a good liberal or a good conservative because of your beliefs on a given issue. Not just bioethics, but life at large, is just too big and complicated to reduce it to a range of acceptable yes and no opinions.

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...does it follow that there's a baby inside? Must your doctor tell you so?

By the time you read this humble little blog post, you'll almost certainly have read or heard about this week's ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court, regarding abortion but -- more importantly over the long run -- also regarding the issue of when a human life can be said to be a human life. From the New York Times:
Because there is no consensus on the issue of when life begins, a doctor does not have to tell a woman considering an abortion that the procedure would result in "killing an existing human being," the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday, rejecting a woman’s arguments in a medical malpractice suit.
In its unanimous decision, the New Jersey court ruled that, contrary to what the woman’s lawyer had argued, her doctor had "no legal duty" to tell her that her six-to-eight-week-old embryo was "a complete, separate, unique and irreplaceable human being."
(Read the official summary and complete opinion here (71.4KB PDF).

The plaintiff, one Rose Acuna, had sued her doctor, one Sheldon C. Turkish, for malpractice, wrongful death, and emotional distress. The suit stemmed from an abortion which she underwent in 1996. Ms. Acuna claimed that Dr. Turkish had counseled her, in response to her question "if it was the baby in there," "Don't be stupid, it's only blood."

Responses from both sides of the issue have been fairly predictable. Brigitte Amiri, an ACLU attorney, said:
We are pleased that the court dismissed this frivolous lawsuit, which had no basis in law or medicine... This case was nothing more than an underhanded attempt to turn doctors into ideological mouthpieces and subject women to non-medical moral judgments.
Fr. Frank Pavone, National Director of Priests for Life, countered:
This court has placed itself embarrassingly behind the times by failing to hold doctors accountable for telling patients what grade school children already know about when a human life begins. Moreover, abortionists are tearing arms and legs off of children in the womb, not destroying some unidentified mass of tissue whose species scientists don’t know how to figure out.
I know it's a foolish leap of imagination on my part, but I'd kinda hoped the decision would be welcomed with relief by both sides -- along the lines of, Thank GOD the issue is now formally out of the hands of the instruments of the state and we can return to being human and making painful decisions about our privates lives on our own. Silly rabbit.

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Credit Georgia TechFar left: embryonic stem cells grown under normal conditions
Left: embryonic stem cells that received some mild shaking while growing

Science Daily
reports on the following from Georgia Institute of Technology:

Science Daily, Sept. 10, 2007 — Embryos spend much of their time in the womb bobbing along with a mother’s movement, and, surprisingly enough, new research from the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University suggests that embryonic stem cells may develop much better under similarly shaky conditions.

Georgia Tech and Emory researchers discovered that moderate and controlled physical movement of embryonic stem cells in fluid environments, similar to shaking that occurs in the womb, improves their development and suggests that different types of movement could some day be used to control what type of cell they become.

“Embryonic stem cells develop under unique conditions in the womb, and no one has ever been able to study the effect that movement has on that development process,” said Todd McDevitt, assistant professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University and head of the project. “While labs typically add all sorts of things to their cultures to influence cell direction, we were able to control the levels of differentiation and size of cell clusters by simply providing some fluid motion.”

Continue reading.


I read an interesting blog entry a little while ago and wanted to share it with you, for reasons which will be obvious. But first, I wanted to describe its author, one James M. Branum. Here are some excerpts from his "Who is J.M. Branum?" writeup:
A 31 year old guy who lives in the Lincoln Terrace Neighborhood of Oklahoma City. Like most native-born Okies, he is a mix of white and American Indian ancestry.

He works as a solo practice attorney with his own firm... He is also still licensed as a pedicab driver in Oklahoma City (working with but doesn't have time to get to ride that much anymore).

Religiously, he is a member/lay minister at Joy Mennonite Church but before that was part of several charismatic/non-denominational churches (including Hope Chapel, Hope in the City and Shekinah Fellowship) as well as the Churches of Christ (where he grew up)...

Educationally, he graduated from Newcastle High School in 1994, from the Institute for Christian Studies (now Austin Graduate School of Theology) with a B.A. in Bible with an emphasis in Christian Ministry in 2000, and from Oklahoma City University with a Juris Doctorate in 2005.
He is currently a religious studies major at Tulsa Community College.
Current interests of the moment include: activism, organic gardening, latchhook, , watching movies, reading and blogging.

He is member of the Green Party of OKlahoma, the Industrial Workers of the World, the National Lawyers Guild, the Oklahoma Food Coop and the Oklahoma Committee for Conscientious Objectors.
That's some resume, eh? And what makes it even more interesting is that Branum doesn't mention here the specifics of his political odyssey. You might focus in the above on his apparent religiousness; you might also see the references to the Greens, the IWW, conscientious objectors, and so on, and come up with an entirely different guess about his stance on the beginning of human life, abortion, and so on.

As we can learn from's guide to the most recent (2006) election cycle, Branum ran for Congress last year, as an independent endorsed by the Green Party. But look where he started out, and where he's headed, and why (emphasis added):
Prior to his membership in the Green Party, he was a Libertarian from 1999-2001 (during which he received over 17% of the vote as a candidate for Constable in Travis County, Texas), and was a Republican from 1994-1999.

J.M. Branum says his evolving political philosophy has been primarily shaped by his faith and by life experience. "As a college student I first was involved with the Republican party because of the hot button issue of abortion and because of my admiration of their small-government philosophy. Later as I discovered that the teachings of Jesus were pacifistic, I became a Libertarian, and then after I discovered that Jesus was most definitely not a capitalist I became a Green.

"Today as a Green, I share much common ground with both liberals and conservatives. I share common ground with many liberals on the issues of civil rights and their concern for the poor, while I share common ground with many conservatives in their belief that government should best be done at the local level. It has been said that Greens are neither left or right but rather out in front, and I think that is true."
In short, in almost 15 years he's been all over the map politically. So what does somebody like him think about the issues which we've been dealing with here? It's quite a post (and you were wondering when I'd link to it, weren't you?):
As I see it, I find the following propositions to be true on the issue of abortion . . .
  1. My #1 guiding principle is that of valuing human life. Any ideology that devalues human life is flawed.
  2. Women should have the right to control their own bodies and to be free to take control of their own destinies. Women have the right to the best information available so that they can make informed decisions. No decision is more sacred than the right ton control one’s own medical decisions.
  3. The beginning of human life is a mystery. I think that a person becomes a “person” long before birth, but I’m not convinced that it becomes a “person” at conception either.
  4. I believe that every human life is sacred and should be protected. No one should be seen as “disposable,” whether be poor, disabled, or not yet born.
  5. I believe that any economic system that leaves mothers in poverty if they choose to not have an abortion is immoral. “Choice” within such an economic system is a fiction.
So where does that leave me… definitely not on the extreme of the pro-life side of the argument. I do not feel it is right to interfere in the most basic of decisions about one’s own body and autonomy, and I certainly don’t think a woman should be forced to have a child which is the result of rape or that might endanger her own life. I also think that a woman should not be doomed to a life of poverty if they choose to have a child, yet that is the reality for many women, both here and in other countries.

I also can’t embrace the extreme of the pro-choice side of the argument. I cannot embrace the idea that there are no ethical concerns over the question of abortion. No one except God knows when human life truly begins (in the sense of the existence of a soul and spirit), but I do know that at some point it does begin and at that point, a person’s life is at stake and should be protected.
As for me, John, here on Jack Sisson's site, I don't want to point out anything I agree or disagree with in Branum's conclusions. All I want to draw attention to is the nature of his struggle to reach those conclusions. You can think about this stuff all day -- think hard about it -- and you can spend years or even decades arriving at something like a conclusion. And when you get there, you suddenly realize the conclusions are messy and ragged. It must be nice to be 100% clear-eyed on these issues, to be able to take a stand firmly on one side or the other without hesitation. I haven't made that leap yet, and neither has James M. Branum. And (I suspect) neither have the majority of Americans, no matter what you might forecast from their political and religious affiliations (or lack of them, as the case may be).

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In Bruce Wilson's "Welcome to Talk to Action," he says, "Talk To Action is an online publication, and a forum for discussion, that is focused with unparalleled intensity on the rise of the Christian right as a social and political force - and on what those who are opposed to that movement can do to counter it." Wilson co-founded the site with Frederick Clarkson, who "has been researching [and] writing on the Christian right for many years." The site's Statement of Purpose begins:
Talk to Action is a platform for reporting on, learning about, and analyzing and discussing the religious right -- and what to do about it.
I don't know why this strikes me as a fascinating reason for a Web site. When you think about it, the Christian right's organized (and unnervingly successful) attempts to control national policy on a wide range of issues lends itself to an organized resistance. I'd just never stumbled across evidence of such specific resistance. From my brief scan of the site's contents (I plan to go back), it looks like they're doing a pretty good job of it, too.

What led me to Talk to Action was actually a Google Alert on the topic "embryonic stem cell." Among the items returned by the search engine was an article by Frank Cocozzelli entitled "IPC Releases White Paper on Neocon War on Embryonic Stem Cell Research." The reader finds out, about midway through the column, that Cocozzelli is the director of "a newly formed think tank, the Institute for Progressive Christianity ("IPC"). IPC defines its mission as follows:

To further awareness and understanding that the progressive tradition is rooted in core Christian gospel values, and to relate that tradition to personal faith, public policy, family, and the common good."
Apparently there's a lot more going on in this area than I knew about. I was vaguely aware of various Catholic groups formed to disagree with particular points of church doctrine, like Catholics for a Free Choice, and its off-shoot, I'd heard rumblings of various women's groups against fundamentalist teachings, and I knew about Jim Wallis' book, God's Politics: Why the American Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It. But I didn't know how active the Christian right resistance had really become. Make time to visit Talk to Action. No matter which side of the debate you fall on, there's some interesting reading waiting for you.

Case in point -- the column that led me there in the first place. Cocozzelli, the author, is also an attorney who was diagnosed with LMG muscular dystrophy in 1985. He has a vested interest in stem cell research. The beginning of his column tells us a little about living with a neuromuscular disease:
Neuromuscular disease is often an ordeal that just doesn't adversely affect the patient, but his friends and family. To provide you with some context, let me explain what my family goes through to keep my law practice going.

Monday through Friday my wife wakes up at 5 A.M. and gets herself ready for work. An hour later she wakes me up then dresses me for court. As since my body does not mostly move of it own volition, she must roll me back and forth to get my pants on, lift me onto a slide board to get me into my wheelchair, lift my arms to get my shirt on and then knot my tie. Then after she gives me breakfast, she attends to getting our kids ready for school. She does all this before working an eight-hour day. I usually leave for court shortly thereafter driven either by my father my uncle or Chris, my driver.
Later on, he says:
But what I did not understand at the time was how the opposition to embryonic stem cell research was being organized and mostly driven by the very same neoconservatives who helped push this nation into the poorly chosen war in Iraq. Too many of us just don't understand that the neoconservative movement is just not about foreign policy, but domestic policy. The battle over embryonic stem cell research simply emphasizes that point.
This realization eventually led to his co-authoring "a White Paper for IPC entitled, "An Unholy Alliance: How Neoconservatives and the Religious Right Have Joined Forces to Fight Stem Cell Research." The link takes you to a 22-page document in PDF format.

You can also read the rest of Frank Cocozzelli's column here.

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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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