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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 New York Times, Andrew Pollack, November 27, 2007 -- If researchers were oil prospectors, it could be said that they struck a gusher last week. But to realize the potential boundless riches they now must figure out how to build refineries, pipelines and gas stations.

Biologists were electrified on Tuesday, when scientists in Japan and Wisconsin reported that they could turn human skin cells into cells that behave like embryonic stem cells, able to grow indefinitely and to potentially turn into any type of tissue in the body.

The discovery, if it holds up, would decisively solve the raw material problem. It should provide an unlimited supply of stem cells without the ethically controversial embryo destruction and the restrictions on federal financing that have impeded work on human embryonic cells.

But scientists still face the challenge of taking that abundant raw material and turning it into useful medical treatments, like replacement tissue for damaged hearts and brains. And that challenge will be roughly as daunting for the new cells as it has been for the embryonic stem cells.

“Even though we have this nice new sources of cells, it doesn’t solve all the downstream problems of getting them into the body in useful form,” said James A. Thomson of the University of Wisconsin, who led one of the teams that developed the stem cell substitutes. Dr. Thomson was also the first to isolate human embryonic stem cells, about a decade ago.

Still, the new discovery should accelerate progress — if only because with the ethical issues seemingly out of the way, more scientists and money will be drawn to the field.

Continue reading article.

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floating question markMy colleague here, jt, has already noted the big news of the week, month, year, possibly even decade -- the news of induced Pluripotent Stem (iPS) cells, grown from skin cells and behaving much (maybe exactly, no one knows yet) like embryonic stem cells, thus able to be directed in whatever way desired to produce blood cells, bone cells, brain cells...

It's hard not to view the new development with delight, if only because it has the potential to put behind us the acrimonious, sometimes hateful and maybe unresolvable arguments about medicine-vs.-God. Maybe now we'll be able to come together, if not over abortion rights then at least over the issue of "harvesting" genetic matter from embryos -- to say nothing of the debate over when, exactly, human life begins. Is that progress or is that progress?

Well, as Ivan Doig and others might say: Maybe so, and maybe no.

Nobody knows exactly what will happen with the new technology. Nobody knows how it will behave in the real world, or even how many years it will be before those other questions can be answered. But let's assume that all goes swimmingly, exactly as hoped for.

What then?

My fear is not really that we have not dodged the big bullet. I think we have. My fear is that we've been so frozen, mesmerized, by our fear of that big bullet and what it could do to the temper of our lives, we've watched with such frightened fascination as it has borne down upon us, that we've missed something important: the other big bullet, which has been hiding behind the first and traveling at least as fast, aimed straight for our faces. That second big bullet, I fear, isn't the question of "When does human life begin?" but the starker question, "What is human life for?"

The skin cells from which iPS cells will be grown, after all, will still have to come from people. How much "skin farming" is too much? Is there a "too much"? Are there potential black markets in the offing, with skin cells with particular genetic compositions more highly valued and hence more expensive (and hence more out of the reach of people who need them most) than others? If iPS cells can be used to make a heart, or a spine, or a fingernail, at what point -- if any -- do we step in and say, "Okay, fine, but you're not going to be allowed to assemble those organs into full-blown organisms?"

Am I being paranoid here? I don't know. All I know is that the law of unintended consequences isn't likely to just sit in the corner, knitting booties, while this technology works its way to reality. According to the Wikipedia article on this perverse law, sociologist Robert K. Merton identified five causes of such consequences:
  1. Ignorance (It is impossible to anticipate everything, thereby leading to incomplete analysis)
  2. Error (Incorrect analysis of the problem or following habits that worked in the past but may not apply to the current situation)
  3. Immediate interest, which may override long-term interests
  4. Basic values may require or prohibit certain actions even if the long-term result might be unfavorable (these long-term consequences may eventually cause changes in basic values)
  5. Self-defeating prophecy (Fear of some consequence drives people to find solutions before the problem occurs, thus the non-occurrence of the problem is unanticipated)
I don't know about you, but it kind of gives me the squirms to recognize in that list many, many possibilities which might come to bear in this case.

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The New York Times, By GINA KOLATA, November 21, 2007 -- Two teams of scientists are reporting today that they turned human skin cells into what appear to be embryonic stem cells without having to make or destroy an embryo — a feat that could quell the ethical debate troubling the field.

All they had to do, the scientists said, was add four genes. The genes reprogrammed the chromosomes of the skin cells, making the cells into blank slates that should be able to turn into any of the 220 cell types of the human body, be it heart, brain, blood or bone. Until now, the only way to get such human universal cells was to pluck them from a human embryo several days after fertilization, destroying the embryo in the process.

The reprogrammed skin cells may yet prove to have subtle differences from embryonic stem cells that come directly from human embryos, and the new method includes potentially risky steps, like introducing a cancer gene. But stem cell researchers say they are confident that it will not take long to perfect the method and that today’s drawbacks will prove to be temporary.

Researchers and ethicists not involved in the findings say the work should reshape the stem cell field. At some time in the near future, they said, today’s debate over whether it is morally acceptable to create and destroy human embryos to obtain stem cells should be moot.

Keep reading article.

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Columbia Missourian
By ALLISON ROSS
November 8, 2007 | 10:12 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — Like many couples who can’t have children of their own, Chad and Tanya Tatro decided they would start a family through adoption. But they didn’t go to a local agency to begin paperwork on a domestic adoption. Nor did they decide to look into international adoption.

Henny Donovan Motif

Instead, the Tatros turned to Ron Stoddart, executive director of Nightlight Christian Adoptions, and the Snowflakes Frozen Embryo Adoption Program, which helps match potential adoptive parents with women and couples who have frozen embryos they want to donate.

Today, Chad and Tanya say they are still amazed at how God led them to the embryo adoption program as they watch their 1-year-old son Ethan toddle around the floor, his soft blond hair sticking up in all directions, his dark-blue eyes exploring the world around him.

“He’s really strong and energetic; he’s the cutest baby I’ve ever known,” Tanya Tatro said with a somewhat self-conscious laugh. “I couldn’t imagine a better gift from God.”

Embryo adoption is a growing phenomenon, especially among Christians whose faith has put them in the middle of the debates over abortion and stem-cell research. For people like the Tatros, this relatively new, controversial form of adoption is as much a moral issue as it is a personal decision. Moreover, many conservative Christians are re-focusing their energy on the culture wars in a way that emphasizes adoption and foster care as part of a solution. Embryo adoption is an option created by the explosion of in vitro fertilization, which often results in embryos that are subsequently destroyed or donated to stem-cell researchers. Stoddart, the executive director of California-based Nightlight Christian Adoptions, established Snowflakes in 1997 to give leftover frozen embryos a chance at life. A year later, the first stem cells were extracted from a human embryo, and Stoddart said the new science and the ethical debate it has generated have helped his business. “If it weren’t for that, trying to get the word out would be much harder,” he said. “Embryo adoption is more relevant when juxtaposed to the embryonic stem-cell debate.”

Keep reading the article.

NOTE: While embryo adoption might help some Christians with their moral dilemma over the excess embryos left over from their in vitro fertilization, the truth is that only a fraction of these embryos are being adopted. According to this Fact Sheet on the Snowflakes Web site, only 134 embryos have been adopted through the Snowflakes program. That's out of the more than 400,000 left over from in vitro procedures to date. Not a very convincing percentage when arguing embryo adoption over embryonic stem cell research.

And it's not cheap to become a Snowflake parent either. According to the site:

If you live outside of Southern California:
Program Fee of $8,000 (paid in 4 installments)
Fees from the agency performing your homestudy,
ranging from $1,000 - $3,000
The fertility clinic’s fee for a Frozen Embryo Transfer
(FET), usally ranging from $2,000 to $7,500

If you live in Southern California:
Our program fee of $10,600 (includes a homestudy)
*A $2,600 credit is applied if you already completed a
homestudy with another agency
The fertility clinic’s fee for a Frozen Embryo Transfer
(FET), usually ranging from $2,000 to $7,500

You do the math.

Oh, and what about the remaining 400,000 +/- embryos in labs all across this country? According to a University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics 2004 paper, "of 165 of the 175 clinics practicing [embryo] disposal (94 percent) disposed of embryos as biological waste material, 23 (13 percent) after thawing." And this is morally preferable to using them for research that might save countless lives? I still don't get it.

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Embryonic stem cell debate moves to N.J.
Posted on Nov 2, 2007 | by Michael Foust TRENTON, N.J. (BP)--The nationwide debate over stem cell research moves to New Jersey Tuesday, when voters in the cash-strapped state will decide whether to borrow $450 million through bonds to fund the most controversial type of such research -- embryonic.

Passage of Public Question 2 would move New Jersey to the forefront of embryonic stem cell research, which necessarily requires the destruction of the tiny human beings and which has yet to produce any cures, despite much hype.

[And because this is The Baptist Press, the article later says:]

The proposal's fine print makes it clear the research would fund embryonic stem cell research -- and apparently therapeutic cloning. Although the proposal bans reproductive cloning -- that is, cloning that produces a child -- it is silent on cloning that doesn't result in a birth, which is known as therapeutic cloning. With that latter type of cloning, an embryo is cloned simply to allow the harvesting of its stem cells. Such cloning in theory could give scientists an unlimited supply of embryos.

"It definitely means they're going to be cloning and killing human beings," Tasy said. "They're denying it because they've redefined cloning and they're hoping the people will be fooled. And yet, they're lying to the voters and claiming there will be no human cloning."

Continue reading.

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[While some ratchet up the emotionally charged rhetoric with references to "killing human beings," others approach the issue with more mercenary concerns:]

Cherry Hill Courier Post

Vote 'yes' Tuesday on stem-cell bond act

Sunday, November 4, 2007 -- The bond issue offers a sizable return on investment. Even in these tight times, it's a deal worth taking.

On Tuesday, New Jersey voters will be asked to approve a $450 million bond to fund stem-cell research over 10 years. In a state perennially struggling to pay its bills, it might seem foolish for voters to support more spending.

Yet, this is a case where New Jerseyans can get back a lot more than they pay. New Jersey could be in the forefront of research leading to cures and improved treatment for diseases such as diabetes and Alzheimer's. The state's patients would be first in line to benefit.

And as the state's biotechnology industry expands, hundreds of new jobs and thousands of dollars in additional state revenue, as well as royalties from the work of government-backed scientists, could be realized.

[Later on, the author mentions the embryonic stem cell controversy, while attempting to minimize the anticipated use of embryonic cells.]

The money will allow researchers to follow their investigations wherever they lead, including to controversial embryonic stem-cell research. Some scientists complain the Bush administration's opposition to this approach has hobbled researchers. The bond money will lift this restriction, but that doesn't mean most of the money will be spent on investigating embryonic stem cells. For example, Coriell is doing adult stem-cell research that could help save the lives of heart-attack patients.

Continue reading.

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