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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., by Steven Ertelt, Editor, December 17, 2007 -- Washington, DC ( -- Mitt Romney participated in a weekend interview with Tim Russert of the NBC program "Meet the Press" and he restated, as he has countless times before, why he changed his position on abortion. Romney also reiterated his position allowing researchers to destroy human embryos from fertility clinics for scientific studies...

...Romney said he now believes that life begins at the point of conception.

"I do. I believe, I believe from a, from a, a political perspective that life begins at conception. I, I don't, I don't pretend to know, if you will, from a theological standpoint when life begins," he explained.

The former Massachusetts governor also restated his position that his supports a human life amendment and overturning Roe v. Wade but doesn't think Americans are ready for the amendment yet...

...He said that abortion bans would not punish women but hold abortion practitioners accountable in the same way the partial-birth abortion ban does with fines, loss of medical license and prison terms.

On the issue of stem cell research, Romney again said he opposes the purposeful creation and destruction of human life.

However, he also would allow the destruction of human life by letting scientists destroy human embryos from fertility clinics for experiments.

Russert followed up on that point.

"But to be clear, the embryos that are so-called surplus in vitro clinics are destroyed for research, and you support that?" the MSNBC host asked.

"The term support is perhaps not the exact word I'd choose," Romney replied. "I would not outlaw it. I would allow, I would allow private laboratories and private institutions--as we currently do, and as the president does as well--to use these so-called surplus or embryos to be discarded."

Read the entire article.

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Siddhattha GotamaWhen considering the thorny dilemmas behind this blog's general topic -- "the beginning of human life" -- our tendency as Westerners, specifically Americans, is to think of them in the context of religion (specifically Christianity) vs. science. But there are other way of thinking about the issues, viewpoints not quite so irreconcilable.

The oldest surviving Buddhist school, according to Wikipedia, is the Theravada school. Within this form of Buddhist teaching and practice, the term bhante is used as a polite form of address for a Buddhist monk (something like "Father" for a Catholic priest, perhaps). In New South Wales, Australia, is a Buddhist monastery known as the Santi Forest Monastery, and one of the monks there -- Bhante Sujato -- has attempted a statement of how Buddhists might think of abortion in specific, and of the beginning of human life in general. He begins:
The sanctity of life is the core of our moral consciousness. But 'life' has fuzzy edges. It is no easy matter to define precisely where life, in the moral rather than biological sense, begins and ends. For Buddhism this fuzziness is normal, for we are accustomed to view the world in terms of interrelated processes rather than independent entities. Yet our need for clarity in deciding delicate moral questions is no less. In this essay I will analyze some strands of the debate on the inception of life and the ethics of abortion. I will suggest that a Buddhist approach provides us with useful tools that can steer away from moral extremism and focus on a compassionate response to the real issues.
Bhante Sujato leads the reader through six sections in considering the question:
  • The Eternal Soul and the Sanctity of Life
  • The Emergence of Consciousness
  • Avoiding the Extremes
  • Why Believe in Rebirth?
  • The Social Dimension
  • Living Wisdom, Choosing Compassion
As is often the case when trying to reconcile divergent philosophies, what he comes up with will satisfy neither extreme. For starters, he uses two terms to describe these two extremes which will make their adherents bristle, for quite different reasons. What might typically be called the "right to life" extreme, he calls "eternalists": "The word 'eternalism' refers to the belief that the self exists eternally." Note that this is a specifically Buddhist term; it is not meant pejoratively, or in anything like a scoffing sense. The "right to choose" extreme he calls "annihilationism," potentially even more inflammatory. But again, he means it more objectively: "The word 'annihilationism' refers to the belief that the self will perish, usually at death."

Here's his concluding paragraph:
in this essay I have attempted to sketch an outline of a Buddhist approach to abortion. I examined some of the prevailing arguments and concluded that the polarization of positions into 'Life' and 'Choice' can be traced back to incompatible philosophical paradigms, such as the eternalist viewpoint of the Christians and the annihilationism of the scientific materialists. Buddhism offers a middle way that treasures the sanctity of the life in the mother’s womb from the time of conception, yet recognizes a gradual growth in the moral gravity of the act of killing. On the practical side, we must employ the twin virtues of compassion and wisdom, providing care and support for mothers and children, and ensuring the parents are provided with the information and advice they need to make a mature decision. I would like to finish with a verse from the Mangala Sutta.

Service to mother and father
Cherishing of spouse and child
Ways of work without conflict
This is the highest blessing
I highly recommend reading the entire piece. Before you do so, though... please leave your preconceptions at the doorstep! Remember that the point of view espoused here is expressly not a classic Western point of view.

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UNION-TRIBUNE, By Sandi Dolbee, December 14, 2007
SAN DIEGO – His body jerking and shaking from the toll of Parkinson's disease, actor Michael J. Fox said Friday he's excited by recent news Associated Press that adult skin cells have been reprogrammed to act like embryonic stem cells – but lamented the energy and resources being put into this and other alternative approaches.

“The irony is that every big development in this area in the past few years has involved efforts to mimic embryonic stem cells,” Fox said to about 4,500 people gathered at the San Diego Convention Center for the biennial meeting of the Union for Reform Judaism.

“With research that had gone into recreating what everyone agrees is the gold standard, who's to say how close we might be to new treatment now if we had been pressing forward with (embryonic) stem cells the whole time,” he said.

Fox, who received an award from the Jewish group for championing disease research, was given three standing ovations, and his comments were often punctuated with applause.

The still boyish-looking actor, known for roles on “Family Ties,” “Spin City” and “Back to the Future,” was diagnosed with Parkinson's, a progressive neurological disorder, in 1991 at age 30. In 2000, shortly after going public with his disease, Fox started the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research. It has since raised $100 million.

Fox acknowledged that he's received much criticism from conservatives who oppose human embryonic stem cell research because the embryo is destroyed in the process.

Continue reading the article.

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In something of a spirit of provocation -- not quite as a devil's advocate, I think, but maybe so -- in this post I thought I'd share with you a poem I saw earlier this week. It's by Thomas Lux (whose birthday was on Monday, December 10), from his book The Drowned River (copyright 1990):
Upon Seeing an Ultrasound Photo of an Unborn Child

Tadpole, it's not time yet to nag you
about college (though I have some thoughts
on that), baseball (ditto), or abstract
principles. Enjoy your delicious,
soupy womb-warmth, do some rolls and saults
(it'll be too crowded soon), delight in your early
dreams —-- which no one will attempt to analyze.
For now: may your toes blossom, your fingers
lengthen, your sexual organs grow (too soon
to tell which yet) sensitive, your teeth
form their buds in their forming jawbone, your already
booming heart expand (literally
now, metaphorically later); O your spine,
eyebrows, nape, knees, fibulae,
lungs, lips... But your soul,
dear child: I don't see it here, when
does that come in, whence? Perhaps God,
and your mother, and even I —-- we'll all contribute
and you'll learn yourself to coax it
from wherever: your soul, which holds your bones
together and lets you live
on earth. — Fingerling, sidecar, nubbin,
I'm waiting, it's me, Dad,
I'm out here. You already know
where Mom is. I'll see you more directly
upon arrival. You'll recognize
me --— I'll be the tall-seeming, delighted
blond guy, and I'll have
your nose.
On first reading, I most liked about this poem the image of the booming, expanding ("literally now, figuratively later") heart. Since then, I think my favorite element herein is the open-endedness -- not quite a refusal, more like a simple inability to answer the question of where and whence the soul arrives... and the subsequent cataloging of body parts, potential, family members as if to say, But you know, it really doesn't matter, all that stuff about the soul: We'll have you, and love you, regardless of the answers.

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Denver Post, 12/02/2007 -- U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado made news this past week by endorsing Sen. Hillary Clinton for president. She'll be back in the spotlight in coming weeks as she continues her fight for federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research in light of a promising new study that ordinary skin cells can be transformed into embryonic stem cells.

POST: What do you think about last week's developments?

DeGETTE: To take adult stem cells and make them essential to other kinds of cells is a big breakthrough. But I would also sound a cautionary note that this research is really still in its nascent stages, and it is not — certainly at this point — a substitute for other kinds of research, like embryonic stem-cell research.

The religious right and the White House, every time there's some other breakthrough, they want to say that's a substitute for embryonic stem-cell research. In fact, we don't know which of these types of research will end up being the research that will end up curing all these diseases.

What we do know is embryonic stem-cell research is almost 10 years ahead of this new type of discovery, and so there are a lot of advances coming, particularly out of Great Britain and some other countries, on skin regeneration on macular degeneration.

I expect you'll see some big announcement in the next few months about embryonic stem cell research or somatic cell nuclear transfer or some other technique. What this all points out to me is that Congress needs to stop playing God, Congress and the White House need to stop telling researchers what types of cell research they should be doing.

POST: Do you foresee yourself running another embryonic stem-cell bill?

DeGETTE: I certainly do intend to reintroduce the bill, but we may want to look at other ways to move the issue.

We are so close on the research with so many of these diseases. One of my colleagues, Jim Langevin of Rhode Island, he's been in a wheelchair since he had a gun accident. You know they're close to nerve regeneration, they're close with the islet cell regeneration with diabetics. What it's going to take is some serious attention and resources through the NIH to all of this research.

I'm not going to say it's embryonic stem-cell research or it's adult stem-cell research or it's somatic cell nuclear transfer. Everybody was really happy to see that research announced last week, but ... we've got to think really hard about the ethics of what we're doing.

Continue reading the article.

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