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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 Philadelphia Inquirer
South Jersey Section

Most New Jersey voters support borrowing $450 million for stem-cell research, according to a Rutgers-Eagleton poll released yesterday. In it, 57 percent said they supported the proposal, which will be on the Nov. 6 ballot, and 36 percent said they opposed it.

The telephone poll of 856 registered voters was conducted Oct. 18 to Tuesday and has a sampling error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The money would fund research on adult stem cells and on federally restricted embryonic stem cells for 10 years. Many experts believe stem-cell research will bring cures for spinal-cord injuries, Parkinson's disease, sickle cell anemia, multiple sclerosis, and other ailments.

The Catholic church, which strongly opposes embryonic research, plans to run radio ads this weekend against the measure. "We speak out against embryonic stem-cell research and the allocation of moneys for research which in our judgment fails to respect the sacredness of human life at its beginning," Archbishop of Newark John J. Myers wrote to parishioners this month. - AP

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I've come across an interesting book, of interest to anyone with an interest in genetic engineering; I haven't read it yet, but I have read reviews of it from two respectable sources.

The book, The Case Against Perfection, is a brief little thing -- a little over 160 pages long -- written by Michael J. Sandel, a professor of political philosophy at Harvard. Sandel first laid out the principles of the book in in an even shorter essay for The Atlantic Monthly in 2004, an essay of the same title:
Breakthroughs in genetics present us with a promise and a predicament. The promise is that we may soon be able to treat and prevent a host of debilitating diseases. The predicament is that our newfound genetic knowledge may also enable us to manipulate our own nature—to enhance our muscles, memories, and moods; to choose the sex, height, and other genetic traits of our children; to make ourselves "better than well." When science moves faster than moral understanding, as it does today, men and women struggle to articulate their unease. In liberal societies they reach first for the language of autonomy, fairness, and individual rights. But this part of our moral vocabulary is ill equipped to address the hardest questions posed by genetic engineering. The genomic revolution has induced a kind of moral vertigo.
It is often assumed that the powers of enhancement we now possess arose as an inadvertent by-product of biomedical progress—the genetic revolution came, so to speak, to cure disease, and stayed to tempt us with the prospect of enhancing our performance, designing our children, and perfecting our nature. That may have the story backwards. It is more plausible to view genetic engineering as the ultimate expression of our resolve to see ourselves astride the world, the masters of our nature. But that promise of mastery is flawed. It threatens to banish our appreciation of life as a gift, and to leave us with nothing to affirm or behold outside our own will.
The two reviews have different characters, as befits their different sources. In July, William Saletan reviewed it for the New York Times, under the headline "Tinkering With Humans," and takes issue with it:
...Sandel’s egalitarian fatalism already feels a bit 20th-century. The older half of me shares his dismay that some parents feel blamed for carrying babies with Down syndrome to term. But my younger half cringes at his flight from the “burden of decision” and “explosion of responsibility” that come with our expanding genetic power. Given a choice between a world of fate and blamelessness and a world of freedom and responsibility, I’ll take the latter. Such a world may be, as Sandel says, too daunting for the humans of today. But not for the humans of tomorrow.
(Saletan, who writes the "Human Nature" column for Slate, was the stimulus of another recent post here on the Beginning of Human Life blog.)

For a more recent and more dispassionate review, see Marc Baer's entry in the October 16th issue of Metapsychology Online Reviews:
This engaging book, with its rich use of current examples and direct argumentation, is more suited to those who are not specialists in ethics than those who are, but the professional, too, can learn much from it. And though it is slim in size, one should not be led into thinking that the argumentation is superficial. Quite the contrary. Although Sandel is not always persuasive and his defense of the principles of giftedness stops where one wishes more would be said, e.g., with the claim that individuals do not fully own their talents, he nevertheless presents his view and that of his opponents clearly, addresses a number of objections to his proposals, and carries many of the arguments out multiple steps. In so doing, Sandel provides a well-articulated perspective on the debate that may do much to stem the perfectionist tide. In his capable hands, this is done without what might otherwise be the implication that this opposition must result from intellectual naivete.
I'm not sure where I stand on these questions, and hope to do another post on them after I've thought some more. But I'm very glad someone is asking them.

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VATICAN CITY (Reuters)- Thu Oct 11, 2007 - Pope Benedict appealed to scientists on Thursday to stop using human embryos in stem cell research, saying it violated "the dignity of human life".

The Vatican is a proponent of stem cell research as long as it does not harm human embryos, which the Catholic Church holds are humans from the moment of conception.

"The destruction of human embryos, whether to acquire stem cells or for any other purpose, contradicts the purported intent of researchers, legislators and public health officials to promote human welfare," the Pontiff said.
Keep reading

And this from the AP:

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI appealed Thursday to South Koreans' "inherent moral sensibility" to reject embryonic stem cell research and human cloning after the country decided to let embryonic stem cell research resume.

Benedict also praised South Korea's efforts to halt North Korea's nuclear ambitions in comments to Seoul's new ambassador to the Vatican, Ji-Young Francesco Kim, who presented his credentials to the pontiff.

"It is my ardent hope that the ongoing participation of various countries involved in the negotiation process will lead to a cessation of programs designed to develop and produce weapons with frightening potential for unspeakable destruction," Benedict said.

Separately, the pope noted South Korea's "notable successes in scientific research and development." But he said such research must be carried out with "firm ethical standards" that always respect the dignity of human life.

"The destruction of human embryos, whether to acquire stem cells or for any other purpose, contradicts the purported intent of researchers, legislators and public health officials to promote human welfare," the pope said.
Keep reading

You know, I'd be more tolerant of the Pope's position on such issues if I didn't find him to be so out of touch with reality. Here's a dose of that reality:

More than 75% of U.S. Catholics believe the church should allow the use of contraception, according to a [2005]Gallup poll (Roylance, Baltimore Sun, 4/10). And I think I read somewhere that those numbers are now up to over 80%. Still the Church maintains its stand against birth control when over three quarters of its members believe in it or use it.

Then there was this from Medical News Today , 07 Jul 2006 - Cardinal Alfonso Lopes Trujillo, Head of the Pontifical Council for the Family, said that scientists who carry out embryonic stem cell research should be excommunicated, according to Famiglia Cristiana, a Catholic magazine. In an interview with the magazine, the Cardinal says he believes embryonic research is no different from abortion.

He specified that all women, doctors and scientists who eliminate embryos should be excommunicated. Trujillo said "Even talking about the defense of life and family rights is being treated as a sort of crime against the state in some countries - a form of social disobedience or discrimination against women. God will judge."
For the rest of this bizarre article, click here.

Cardinal Trujillo apparently does not know or does not care that in 2005, a poll conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 61% of white Catholics support embryonic stem cell research. And those numbers were rising every year.

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Image modified slightly from '2 Ladies' by 'sol one' (Linden Laserna), copyright 2006Sean Doherty's blog goes by the unprepossessing title "Welcome to Sean's Blog." More telling is what one might call the sub-title -- a phrase he's chosen to appear, beneath the title, at the top of every page. The phrase: "green happyclappy christian ethics blog."

It's important, I think, to note that Doherty is not writing from a USA-centric perspective. He's a curate at St Gabriels, Cricklewood -- a Church of England congregation in northwest London. And as such, when he uses the word "Christian," you needn't worry that the issues he considers will be considered from a hotbutton perspective. (It's a sad commentary on civic life here in the USA that when you couple the word "Christian" with the phrase "beginning of human life," you will hunker down in either eye-rolling dread or hearty anticipation, depending on your own perspective.) This is also reflected in his unqualified linking of the word "green" with the word "Christian"; so much of the left in the USA (wrongly) equates "Christian" with "conservative" that a "green Christian" may sound like a contradiction in terms.

Doherty has a particular interest in medical ethics. His blog devotes an entire category to the subject; and he's the author of Foundations for Medical Ethics, available from Grove Books. (You should decidedly not confuse Grove Books with the USA-based Grove Press.) Here's what the Grove Books site says about the book:
Current discussions about medical ethics often focus on who can make decisions and why—but fail to address the more fundamental question of the purpose of medicine.

This study looks at key theological themes from the Old and New Testaments to provide a framework for ethical reflection—not simply reconfiguring the questions.
Refreshing, isn't it?

In a recent entry, "Embryos: people like you and me," Doherty tackles the core question addressed by this blog here on Excerpts:
Conception is the beginning of something. Before conception, sperm and eggs do not become anything else. They just are what they are. So their meeting at conception changes them, and begins something. The only really relevant question is, what begins? Is it the beginning of human life as we commonly recognise it in one another (in which case its arbitrary ending could not be justified), or only the beginning of something which will subsequently become human life? (Even if it were the latter, it would still not be at all clear that it would be acceptable to destroy something that if left undisturbed would become human life.)
There is no way to exclude human embryos from the category of human life which does not exclude other human beings whom we would regard it as wrong to kill. In particular, if one believes that a human embryo only subsequently becomes human, one must consider when this might be said to happen. If one says one cannot know when it does because it is so gradual, one is stuck back at the point I made above about caution. If one says one can know when this happens e.g. quickening, or viability, one must explain why one does not also on that basis exclude human life which does not possess the extra characteristics e.g. indepdent movement, ability to exist without being plugged into something else. This makes all such points identified subsequent to conception seem rather arbitrary, adopted for convenience rather than because there is any genuinely good reason for them.

Unless there is therefore some form of convincing evidence to the contrary, we must treat the human embryo as a human at a very early stage of development. The burden of proof falls on those who wish to show that it is not a human life, in the same way and for the same reasons that if someone was about to demolish a building using explosives, and they thought that someone might still be inside, the responsibility would fall upon them to make sure there was nobody inside before pressing the plunger.
I'm not myself sure that I buy the blowing-up-the-building analogy. The main problem with it, in my view, is the logical fallacy known as the negative proof:
The fallacy of appealing to lack of proof of the negative is a logical fallacy of the following form:
"X is true because there is no proof that X is false."
It is asserted that a proposition is true, only because it has not been proven false.
The reason this is a fallacious sort of argument might be summed up as: the absence of one thing does not imply the presence of its opposite. In this case, what's missing -- as Doherty is correct in pointing out -- is evidence that an embryo is not human. It's a fatally flawed step from that to, "Without evidence of the non-humanity of an embryo, it must be the case that an embryo is human."

That objection aside, I found Doherty's post to be quite thoughtful and provocative -- a rare combination of attributes in discussions of this all-too-often explosive subject.

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