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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.

 
Came across a Web site called Father Joe: From silly to sacred, a priest speaks … Here's an excerpt from one of his posts:
OBAMA: “The issue of abortion, I don’t think, has gone away. People think about it a lot, obviously you do and you feel impassioned. I think that the American people struggle with two principles: There’s the principle that a fetus is not just an appendage, it’s potential life. I think people recognize that there’s a moral element to that. They also believe that women should have some control over their bodies and themselves and there is a privacy element to making those decisions.”

FATHER JOE: He is right, the issue of abortion has not gone away, although it is disturbing that so many prolifers are willing to shove it to the sidelines for charismatic candidates. Given the stakes, there is no way for serious people not to feel impassioned. And yet, it is this fire for the cause that is largely extinguished in the Democrat party, and yes, even increasingly among moderate Republicans, especially when it comes to stem-cell research. Senator Obama embraces no middle ground. He is solidly in the abortion camp and has the endorsement of Planned Parenthood. Note that he calls the fetus only POTENTIAL LIFE. This is a refusal to face the facts and to live up to the Christianity he claims for himself. The fetus is ALIVE and he or she is HUMAN. He says that it is “not just an appendage” but then essentially catalogues it as such by the dismissal of rights. Women have a right to some say over their bodies, but so do the unborn boys and girls. This is where the pro-abortion argument becomes nonsensical. Human life is incommensurate. One person does not have more of a right to life than another.
Now Father Joe seems like a nice man, and I'm sure he's sincere in his beliefs. A Chimera at http://www.sandrocastelli.com/works_paginas/chimera.htmBut they are no more than that -- beliefs. People who continue to insist that life begins at conception, ignore, among other things, issues like twinning, where the embryo splits into two separate ones. Or chimeras, when two distinct embryos merge into one. I've yet to hear a satisfactory explanation for those occurences if, as Father Joe and many others believe, life begins at conception.

And what about the fact that thousands upon thousands of embryos are passed every month by women who never even know they're pregnant. Are we to view those (surely billions by now) microscopic particles as distinct human beings who all died? What a mess that creates for anti-choicers. As Jack likes to say, maybe the Church should start baptizing the menstrual flow to cover all those "human beings" who are flushed away every month.

Continue reading (the comments to Father Joe's post are interesting as well).

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ScienceDaily (Feb. 20, 2008:
Neural cells derived from human embryonic stem cells helped repair stroke-related damage in the brains of rats and led to improvements in their physical abilities after a stroke, according to a new study by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

This study marks the first time researchers have used human embryonic stem cells to generate neural cells that grow well in the lab, improve a rat’s physical abilities and consistently don’t form tumors when transplanted.

Though the authors caution that the study is small and that more work is needed to determine whether a similar approach would work in humans, they said they believe it shows the potential for using stem cell therapies in treating strokes.

Senior author Gary Steinberg, MD, PhD, the Bernard and Ronni Lacroute-William Randolph Hearst Professor of Neurosurgery and the Neurosciences, said that with 750,000 people having strokes in the United States each year, the disease creates a massive burden for stroke victims, their families and the medical system.

“Human embryonic stem cell-based therapies have the potential to help treat this complex disease,” Steinberg said, adding that he hopes the cells from this study can be used in human stroke trials within five years.
Continue reading.

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Here's more from William Saletan, who, in last Sunday's New York Times, reviewed a new book called Embryo: A Defense of Human Life. In Wednesday's Slate, he returns to the subject:

Are embryos morally equal to people? I say no. Robert George, a member of President Bush's bioethics council, and his colleague Christopher Tollefsen say yes. In their new book, Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, George and Tollefsen conclude not only that embryo-destructive stem-cell research should be defunded but that any research involving embryos should be banned if it even slightly risks an embryo's health. They propose to halt the common practice of producing extra embryos during in vitro fertilization and to require that every IVF embryo be transferred to a womb.

In Sunday's New York Times, I reviewed the book's arguments. A day later, the authors replied on National Review Online. This is a conversation worth pursuing. George and Tollefsen are pushing the discussion into an area—embryology—where, in contrast to the usual shrieking about abortion, real progress can be made. They're civil, logical, and smart. I've seen George pick apart fuzzy-thinking adversaries at meetings of the bioethics council. It's like watching a cat with mice. Today, unfortunately, I'll be the mouse.

The virtue of Embryo is that the authors stake their case on science and logic, not religion. What makes you a human being, they argue, isn't a soul, but "a developmental program (including both its DNA and epigenetic factors) oriented toward developing a brain and central nervous system." They believe that this program starts at conception and therefore, so does personhood.

I like this bet on science. It's scrupulous, brave, and constructive. Let's toss in our chips and call the bet. We'll have to accept what science shows: Conception is, as George and Tollefsen argue, the sharpest line we could draw to mark the onset of moral worth. But they, in turn, will have to accept the other side of what science shows: The lines of embryology are dotted, not solid. Such lines don't warrant severe categorical restrictions on stem-cell research or assisted reproduction.
Also:
George and Tollefsen assume a clear distinction between wholes and parts. Eggs and sperm are parts, they reason, while an embryo is a whole. At conception, the parts become a whole, the program launches, and personhood begins. But it isn't that simple. Some embryos divide after conception to become two or more people. Are those embryos, prior to twinning, an individual?
And:
The egg-embryo distinction, too, is permeable. George and Tollefsen write that eggs must combine with sperm or die. They say an organism "was never itself a sperm cell or an ovum." But look what just happened at a zoo in Kansas: another case of parthenogenesis—eggs becoming offspring without fertilization. This process has produced adults in dozens of vertebrate species, including sharks and turkeys.
I highly recommend that you read the whole article (and George and Tollefsen's response to Saletan's original review). It's a fascinating, intelligent back-and-forth on this blog's signature topic, the beginning of human life.

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The following is excerpted from a blog post at Petunia's.

Well, then. I was getting ready to post about this article on embryonic research and I noticed that it went well with this post Amanda at Pandagon put up a bit ago. Nice timing. Anyway, the article notes the attempt to define the beginning of human life as contraception using science:
“To be a complete human organism,” they write, “an entity must possess a developmental program (including both its DNA and epigenetic factors) oriented toward developing a brain and central nervous system.” The program begins at conception; therefore, so does personhood.
And later:
The program’s collective nature doesn’t discredit individual rights. But it does complicate the authors’ task. They have to show that the embryo is an individual, not just a program. Here, again, science defies them. They write that the embryo’s cells “function together to develop into a single, more mature member of the human species.” Not quite. In one of every 300 cases, the embryo splits to become two or more people, at least one of whom wasn’t a distinct organism at conception. And in every case, part of the embryo becomes placenta, nurturing the other part and passing away. The embryo, too, is collective. [Emphasis added.]
The song and dance with science here is the religious right’s way to try to get contraception outlawed. If they can convince people that embryos are human, then they’re half the way there. In fact most of the way and if they can use science language to help they will, just as they use the language of science to argue for intelligent design (a disguise for creationism–ie religion). The fact that their science is bad might not matter, because it’s just a smokescreen.

Read the entire post.

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From The New York Times
Published: February 10, 2008
Thirty-five years after Roe v. Wade, the Photo credit: Sandy Huffaker/Getty Imagespro-life movement faces a new challenge: biotechnology. The first human biotech issue, embryonic stem-cell research, looks like an easy call. Stem cells could save millions of lives. And the entity we currently sacrifice to get them — a sacrifice that may soon be unnecessary — is a tiny, undeveloped ball of cells. The question, like the embryo, seems a no-brainer.

For pro-lifers, that’s precisely the problem. Biotechnology is arguably more insidious than abortion. Abortions take place one at a time and generally as a response to an accident, lapse or nasty surprise. Their gruesomeness actually limits their prevalence by arousing revulsion and political opposition. Conventional stem-cell harvesting is quieter but bolder. It’s deliberate and industrial, not accidental and personal. In combination with cloning, it entails the mass production, exploitation and destruction of human embryos. Yet its victims don’t look human. You can’t protest outside a fertility clinic waving a picture of a blastocyst. You have to explain what it is and why people should care about it.

This is the task Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen undertake in “Embryo.” To reach a secular and skeptical public, they avoid religion and stake their case on science. George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton and a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, and Tollefsen, a philosopher at the University of South Carolina, locate humanity not in a soul but in a biological program. “To be a complete human organism,” they write, “an entity must possess a developmental program (including both its DNA and epigenetic factors) oriented toward developing a brain and central nervous system.” The program begins at conception; therefore, so does personhood.

Continue reading.

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I had no sooner posted my previous entry than I came across this: A Report on the Pro-life Views of Governor Mitt Romney.

Mass Resistance, a self-described "pro-family action center for Massachusetts" is urging its members not to vote for Romney. Now this is rather unsettling for me, since I just posted an entry listing reasons I wouldn't vote for him, and I now find myself aligned with a very conservative, "traditional values" group, who says don't vote for him because he's not pro-family, pro-life, pro-traditional values enough! I have to admit that after reading their report, I'm confused about what positions Romney really supports. This is all probably moot at this point, because it looks like McCain has the Republican nomination secured (but maybe not). In any case, if you'd like to read more about Romney's evolving views, just click here.

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Although I'm quite sure this is NOT the reason Jon Colton posted the following list on the "Californians for Mitt Romney" Web site, it sure points out many reasons I would never vote for Romney. (Actually the 3rd and 5th points are reason enough to make it to this site.)
• Governor Romney Vetoed Legislation That Would Have Provided For The "Morning After Pill" Without A Prescription. (Governor Mitt Romney, Op-Ed, "Why I Vetoed The Contraception Bill," The Boston Globe, 7/26/05)

• Governor Romney Promoted Abstinence Education In The Classroom. (Office Of Governor Mitt Romney, "Romney Announces Award Of Abstinence Education Contract," Press Release, 4/20/06)

• Governor Romney Vetoed Legislation That Would Have Changed The Longstanding Definition Of The Beginning Of Human Life From Fertilization To Implantation. (Governor Mitt Romney, Letter To The Massachusetts State Senate And House Of Representatives, 5/12/05)

• Governor Romney Supports Parental Notification Laws And Opposed Efforts To Weaken Parental Involvement. (John McElhenny, "O'Brien And Romney Spar In Last Debate Before Election," The Associated Press, 10/29/02)

• Governor Romney Supports Adult Stem Cell Research But Has Opposed Efforts To Advance Embryo-Destructive Research In Massachusetts. (Theo Emery, "Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney Vetoes Stem Cell Bill," The Associated Press, 5/27/05)

• Governor Romney opposed Same-Sex Marriage in Massachusetts and fought for an amendment to the Massachusetts state constitution to ban gay marriage. (NY Times 05/16/04)

• Mitt Romney supports the Federal Marriage Amendment to define marriage as being between a man and a woman.
These folks who trumpet "traditional family values" sure seem intent on defining "family" to suit their own preferences. Not to mention "values." Well, I have a family, and I believe I have values, but I don't agree with one point on this list. So what does that say? You tell me.

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Stem Cell Fight!
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