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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.

Last Tuesday's Wall Street Journal examined the fallout in the Senate from the House's adoption of Rep. Bart Stupak's amendment.
A key Democratic senator said Monday he will follow House colleagues in insisting on tough antiabortion language before he votes for a health overhaul bill, causing new headaches for Senate leaders even before debate on a final bill begins.

Leading Senate Democrats are seeking to prevent the abortion issue, which almost capsized the health-care debate in the House, from engulfing the Senate...Senate Democrats need 60 votes to overcome an expected filibuster, and all 40 Republicans are likely to oppose the bill. So the votes of every other Democrat and independent -- are required for passage. Abortion hasn't been a big issue in Senate health talks so far. But Democratic leaders expect that to change after its eruption among House Democrats over the weekend.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) capitulated at the 11th hour to Rep. Bart Stupak (D., Mich.), who led a group of anti-abortion Democrats. Mr. Stupak introduced an amendment blocking the bill's government-administered insurance plan from covering abortion and forbidding people who receive government subsidies from buying policies covering abortion through a new insurance exchange.
For one thing, I can't believe it could be Democrats who might derail healthcare reform. On the other hand, I can believe (but wish I couldn't) that we're still arguing about abortion and that it's once again the issue of the hour.

Jack has believed for years that the debate could be settled if people would only accept that life does not begin at conception, but rather it begins with the onset of higher brain function, about 70 days after conception. Jack bases his belief on the widely accepted standard of pronouncing a person clinically dead after the cessation of all brain function. He (and Dr. Hans-Martin Sass) just walked that idea backward.

Now seems as good a time as any to reprint our original post to this blog, which spells out Jack's position (and contains a link to his original argument as it appeared in the "National Catholic Reporter.")
In 1986, my boss, Jack Sisson, published an article in the "National Catholic Reporter" in which he argued that human life does not begin in utero until the onset of higher brain function. At the time, he was a pro-life Catholic layman who recognized that a significant number of Catholics had divergent opinions on abortion.

Then, in 1989, Dr. Hans-Martin Sass of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University published a paper titled "Brain Life and Brain Death: A Proposal for a Normative Agreement." Sass first looked at established definitions of brain death, and reasoned that society could reach a consensus for protecting embryonic life by applying similar criteria for brain life.

Sass identified two levels of brain development. Cortical Brain Life I occurs with post-mitotic stationary neurons forming the early cortical plate -- 54 days after conception. Cortical Brain Life II recognizes the beginning of cortical neuro-neuronal synapes -- 70 days after conception. Sass hoped for a moral consensus by recognizing Brain Life II (the 70th day) as the point after which embryonic research would be unacceptable. Before that time, research, and presumably abortions, would be acceptable.

Many other philosophers, scientists and bioethicists have considered brain development in determining when to designate life in the womb as "human." As early as 1985, J.M. Goldenring presented an argument similar to Sass's -- that human life begins with the onset of brain life at eight weeks gestation.

Today, we can pronounce a person clinically dead if there is a complete and irreversible cessation of brain activity, or brain death. Jack's question: if we can accept brain death as the end of human life, why can't we similarly accept brain life as the beginning of human life?

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