Friday, June 30, 2006

Assisted Suicide Goes Down to Deserved Defeat in CA

I was in France when word came through that AB 651 had failed in the California Senate Judiciary Committee. Splendid news. I was so pleased that Senator Joseph Dunn, the Democratic committee chair, came down on the side of true compassion and patient care by voting no to assisted suicide. When I testified at the informational hearing, it seemed to me that he was genuinely struggling with the issue, which gave me great hope. And sure enough, the more he learned, the less he seemed to support the bill. Good for him.

Praise for this important victory goes to the wonderful political strange-bedfellow coalition that joined to oppose the bill, made up of disability rights activists, medical and hospice professionals, pro lifers, advocates for the poor, Catholics, civil rights activists, and others.

Unfortunately, the defeat was not a proverbial stake through the heart of assisted suicide in California. I fully expect the bill to be back again soon. Assisted suicide advocates believe deeply in their cause and are funded by deep pockets. But if they do, the coalition will regroup and hopefully prevail again.

Until then: Onward.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Taking a Breather

Secondhand Smoke is pooped. It's been a very busy winter and spring and after yesterday's informational hearing, I am completely out of gas. So, Secondhand Smokette and I are heading to Europe for three weeks. Chances are, I won't blog, but I will be checking the site and may post something if a major story comes along.

The day after I return, it is off to Albany for a confab on bioethics and politics. If you are in the neighborhood drop by. There could be...respectful...fireworks.

Don't forget to keep tuning in. I really appreciate your readership and contributions. I look forward to renewing our conversation when I return.

"The Catman Cometh"

My piece on the transhumanism conference is in this week's Weekly Standard, but there is no link available other than for subscribers. Here is a brief overview.

In the article, I describe how transhumanism advocates obliterating the belief in intrinsic human value and replacing it with personhood theory to "allow all self aware entities--whether human, post human, machine, chimera, or robot--to qualify for all of the rights, privileges, and protections of citizenship."

Protecting "post human dignity" was one of the primary focues of the conference. Thus, Nick Bostrom, co-founder of the World Transhumanist Association state "that society must understand that discrimination 'based on substrate'--meaning the kind of material from which a being is made, e.g., biological, silicon, etc.--is as odious as racism. Ditto to discrimination based on 'ontogeny,' that is, how a consciousness comes into existence, which I guess means whether they are born, assembled, or hatched."

"Other presentations revealed transhumanism to be obsessively solipsistic. The 'Catman' was touted as a template, an example of early transhumanized recreationism. Catman--whose real name is Dennis Avne--has tattooed his face, sharpened his teeth, undergone cosmetic surgeries, had 'whisker' implants, and reportedly wants a tail implant—all to look like a cat. Catman is weird, but of no real concern other than about the harm he has done to himself. His transhumanizing, after all, is only skin deep. If he sired a son, the child wouldn't be 'Kitten Boy.' But transhumanists ultimately want to do more than create Halloween costumes with their own bodies. Post human enhancements are to flow down the generations, including through the genetic designing of offspring, resulting eventually in the yearned for, radically individualized post human species."...

"For all of its emphasis on enhancement, the true emotional core of transhumanism is a yearning for immortality. This desperate desire to defeat death made the eccentric and somewhat famous transhumanist anti-aging researcher, Cambridge professor Aubrey de Grey, the clear star of the conference. De Gray's presentation was titled, 'Our Right to Life.' But his use of the phrase did not mean a right not to be aborted, euthanized, or executed. Rather, he claims we have a putative right not to die at all.

"Toward this end, de Gray, whose long beard and pony tail makes him look like a cross between ZZ Top and Rasputin, is working on a 'cure' for human aging that will erase the 'physiological differences between older and younger adults.'...De Gray is obsessed with his work and believes we all should be too. He told the conferees that inaction is really a form of action. Accordingly, society's unwillingness to make anti-aging its top scientific funding priority is akin to actively killing the people who would have been saved if the research had been bounteously supported. He even claimed that supporting anti-aging research is more important than increasing access to health care for the poor in Africa, likening the diversion of funds away from anti-aging research to 'killing with a time bomb in a car.'"...

"Transhumanists like to say that their movement cannot be stopped," I write in conclusion. "That we are already on the slippery slope to the post human future so we might as well enjoy the ride...But as Rosanne Rosannadana used to say, 'If it's not one thing, it's another.' Even if cancer is eradicated and the aging process slowed, new afflictions will soon arise to take their places. Just read the current headlines: After 25 years, we still can't cure AIDS. Antibiotics are beginning to fail. And now the new worry is about a possible bird flu pandemic. All of the fantasizing about living forever and morphing into 'post biological units' won't change the hard fact that we are born to die. Far better then, to embrace our fully human lives rather than seek in vain for a post human future that will never come."

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

My California Senate Testimony

It was a very intense but fair hearing in Sacramento today. I was expecting a low key affair but the press was out in force and the hearing room full of both supporters and opponents of AB 651, the assisted suicide legalization bill. Here is my written testimony, an abridged version of which I read to the Committee. Questions were mainly by Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, a co-author of the bill, Senator Sheila Kuehl, a supporter of the bill, and Chairman Joseph Dunn, who has not, as far as I know, declared his position.

The outcome remains uncertain...

Your New Genetically Engineered Pet is Here!

This is a hoot: Say hello to the all new "Genpets." They are "allergen free, child safe," and "life perfected." These "mass produced" bio-engineered pets come in plastic packages where your "new buddy" rests in suspended animation" until awakened. They come in seven different "personality types," and two models, a one-year and a three-year lifespan."

Pets today, pre-selected personalities for children tomorrow! Just think, no more teenage rebellions.

Don't know if the Genpets are really sold, but if they are, they could become the new pet rock.

Monday, June 19, 2006

AB 651: Language Perversion by Promoters of Assisted Suicide

Advocates for assisted suicide know that when their agenda is described accurately and descriptively--they lose. So, they are ever about the task of trying to come up with new gooey euphemisms to describe assisted suicide--to be, if you will, the sugar that helps the hemlock go down.

Latest case in point: AB 651 in CA. The assisted suicide legalization bill has been amended to use even more perfumed language than before to describe assisted suicide. The bill used to authorize terminally ill adults to "make a request for medication for the purpose of ending his or her life in a humane and dignified manner."

But, apparently even that boilerplate of assisted suicide bills is too graphic. The bill now reads,"...make a request for medication prescribed pursuant to this bill to provide comfort with an assurance of peaceful dying if suffering becomes unbearable." Of course, unbearable suffering isn't defined so the term is rendered meaningless and becomes whatever the suicidal patient deemed it to be.

Why the change? Probably, the sponsors of this horrible bill are either trying to fool some harried legislators into believing they are just voting for improved comfort care, or they are providing cover for lawmakers who want to vote for the bill but don't want to admit they are supporting assisted suicide. Either way, it is pathetic and a classic example of why the American people have such a low regard for the legislative process.

In any event, I am testifying in front of the California Senate Judiciary Committee tomorrow at an "informational" hearing on the bill. I can't discuss the particulars of AB 651, but am supposed to get into how assisted suicide might impact our perception of the value of human life. I'll post my testimony when a link becomes available.

Beware of Stem Cell Quackery

Another mass fraud in the making in biotechnology--this time out of China. It appears that Dr. Hongyun Huang has been claiming that his aborted fetal stem cell treatments have had amazing restorative powers. But now, a study soon to be published reveals it may all be a fraud--worse than a fraud, dangerous quackery--with many patients seriously harmed.

If true, we can draw at least two conclusions. The first is the crucial importance of proper medical research ethics. Stem cell treatments of all type need to be tested carefully, first on animals, and then in properly regimented human trials. This is frustrating because the process can be agonizingly slow. But the alternative is a laissez-faire approach, in which patients pay tens of thousands of dollars for treatments that are still highly experimental, such as seems to be happening in parts of Asia. Rushing off to China or Thailand for an unproven cure could well leave you worse off--or dead.

Second, the irresponsible hype spread by biotech boosters about the potential for ESCR, has created such a super-heated atmosphere that desperate people are driven into doing irresponsible things. Many scientists are properly cautious in their journal writing and when communications with other scientists, but some have not shown the same reticence when testifying in front of politicians or speaking to the press. The increasingly tabloid media then further downplays the caveats in trumpeting their CURES! CURES! CURES! story line (often to try and make Bush look bad) to the point that some folk apparently think the treatments have been already proven. Finally, some truly irresponsible politicians--such as Senator John Edwards who infamously said that a vote for Kerry would mean that people would be able to get out of their wheelchairs and walk--have raised the hopes of some people to a level of near hysteria.

All of us who communicate in these areas have to be careful. We can and should communicate the "state of play" but we should always remind people that many of these treatments remain highly experimental and that it takes time to verify their efficacy and safety.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Scientists Continuing to Put Human Cells into Animals

There is a place in science for putting human cells in animals as a method of examining disease precesses and biological development, which according to this report is growing in frequency and potency. But what is the limit? Or to put it another way, how much human in an animal is too much human in an animal? Scientists won't pause long enough to allow us have this important discussion.

Moreover, why should we trust these researchers? Many have shown no willingness whatsoever to accommodate the hesitancy of society in these areas, nor respect the moral sensibilities of society. Only scientists have the right to decide what is moral in science, some in the Scientific Establishment tell us. But open your pocketbooks and let us in.

Science is in danger of becoming little more than a special interest. If that happens, the people's faith in the enterprise will collapse and the anything goes crowd will only have themselves to blame.

Beginning to Receive Comments on the Starbuck's Cup

I am beginning to receive comments on my cup. Some of the reactions read much more into my quote than I intended, and seem to miss the point I was trying to make. But that's fine. The point of the "As I See It" program, as it was described to me, is to generate thought and discussions about matters of substance. Human equality would certainly seem to fit the bill. So, here is one note I received--not the only along this vein--and my response. (I will continue to keep to my practice of keeping correspondents anonymous unless I am specifically asked to identify them.)

"Dear Mr. Smith:

Does every human life have equal moral value? This is certainly the position of liberal thinkers like Rawls and Dworkin. It eliminates the idea of desert (as in just deserts), without which society cannot operate a system of justice to protect its members. Is a mugger who lies about idle except when he goes out to raise money by assaulting someone the moral equal of a woman, abandoned by her husband, who struggles to support her children? Should she have resources taken away by the state to afford them to the mugger, because he is of equal moral value and otherwise would not have enough, because he chooses not to work?

Before you decide that assuming the equal moral worth of every person is a good idea, you need think through some of the implications."

My response:

"I think you mistake my point. I am writing of intrinsic value, e.g., as humans. This does not prevent us from punishing behaviors, etc. Nor does it imply any particular social welfare policy, particularly equality of results. For me it means that as human beings per se, we each matter equally, e.g., none of us should be used as a natural resource, for example, as some wish to do with those diagnosed in PVS. [To which point, I now add, or using condemned prisoners as organ farms, as seems to be happening in China.]

Of course, the reason I wrote the "cup" was so that people could ponder the matter for themselves, as you have. Thanks for writing. WJS"

Let Great Apes be Apes

The world of animal liberation continues to buzz with the potential that Spain will soon grant human-type rights to great apes. I weigh in on this issue in today's San Francisco Chronicle, by pointing out that not only do animal not understand the concept of rights, but that granting rights to animals would cause tremendous harm to humans, both by preventing crucial medical research and undermining our self-concept as the world's most important species--from which flows the drive to enact universal human rights and our distinctly human duty to treat other animals humanely. Check it out.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Huntington's Disease Cured in Mice

Wow. Researchers have been able to stop mice from developing Huntington's disease symptoms by inhibiting an enzyme that works on a protein, that is responsible for destroying brain function. This is fantastic news and was published in the peer-reviewed journal Cell.

This breakthrough illustrates a too often forgotten point: Most of biotechnology is uncontroversial, as in this case, in which there is not an embryonic stem cell in sight.

Post Script: Animals were needed in this medical researchers. If it were up to the animal liberationists, this wonderful potential breakthrough would never have been discovered.

My "Starbuck's Cup" is Out

Starbuck's has an interesting program called, "The way I see it," in which people who are somewhat in the public eye submit pithy bits of wisdom that are then printed on the cups (usually seen beneath the hot cup holders). I submitted one last year that was accepted. I just heard from a friend whose daughter received one of "my" cups this morning at her local outlet.

Here is the comment: "The morality of the 21st century will depend on how we respond to this simple but profound question: Does every human life have equal moral value simply and merely because it is human? Answer yes, and we have a chance of achieving universal human rights. Answer no, and it means that we are merely another animal in the forest."

I have to admit I am pretty jazzed by this. Thank you Starbucks!

Friday, June 16, 2006

New Jersey May Weaken "Brain Death" Standards

New Jersey is pondering weakening the medical standards for declaring death by neurological criteria, known popularly as "brain death." The New Jersey State Board of Medical Examiners wants to permit one doctor, instead of the current two, to declare brain death. And, the doctor wouldn't even have to be a neuro-specialist.

This would be a terrible move. People are already antzy about brain death, and many worry that people are being decared dead before their actual demise. (I receive desperate e-mails from such people regularly.) Having a second doctor involved in the process--particularly one who is a neurological specialist--makes sense, both as a fail safe to prevent mistakes and just to promote trust in the system. We saw that recently in Kansas when doubt about a proper declaration of death was settled by obtaining a second opinion by a neurologist.

Organ transplant professionals are desperate to gain access to more organs in order to save lives. But the New Jersey proposal would undermine faith in the system, and thus would have the exact opposite result.

We Need Mass Pandemic to Save the Planet!

I give too little attention here at Secondhand Smoke to the anti-human minions of the Deep Ecology movement. Deep ecologists view human beings as vermin that afflict the earth, which many believe is a living entity called Gaia. This story illustrates the twisted mindset by describing the anti-human advocacy among several notable intellectuals. We read again about the Texas academic that called humans "bacteria" and hoped for mass extinction, which I did blog. But it also reports this little bit of misanthropy, which I had not heard of before even though I know Jay Richards:

"William Burger decried 'the devastation humans are currently imposing upon our planet.' The curator emeritus for botany at Chicago's Field Museum of Science last Nov. 9 wrote then-Discovery Institute scholar Jay Richards regarding his book, The Privileged Planet. Burger continued, 'Still, adding over 70 million new humans to the planet each year, the future looks pretty bleak to me. Surely, the Black Death was one of the best things that ever happened to Europe: elevating the worth of human labor, reducing environmental degradation, and, rather promptly, producing the Renaissance. From where I sit, Planet Earth could use another major human pandemic, and pronto!'" I guess this flowers-over-people advocate is rooting for Bird Flu.

Of course, non of these deep ecologists volunteer offer up themselves or their children for the yearned-for mass human extinction.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Europeans Having Same Arguments as US over Biotechnology

The Financial Times has a story (sorry, no link for non subscribers) that describes the intense fight that the European Parliament is apparently having over whether to fund human cloning and embryonic stem cell research. Consensus will apparently not be reached.

The quote of the article by far is this, from a Dutch MEP named Toine Manders, who complained: "If you look at all the discussions surrounding biotechnology, I feel that we are clearly focusing too much on ethics..." Of course. We musn't let morality interfere with the business of science.

HT, David Prentice

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Progress on Regressing Adult Cells into ES Cells

Nature is reporting that scientists may be close to creating a protein "elixer" that would regress adult cells to an embryonic pluripotent state. According to the report, "Doctors might be able to take a simple biopsy of cells from a patient and reprogramme them, using one set of proteins to first transform them into embryonic stem cells, and then another to coax them into growing new blood, pancreas or other tissue."

If these proteins can applied as scientists hope, it would do away with the need to clone human life for use in ESC treatments. For all the hoopla by politicians and media, we may actually find a scientific way out of our moral dilemma. As one scientist put it, "Obviously that's where the field is really headed. It's a terribly exciting time."

Skin Cells May Treat MS/Parkionson's

Scientists have used adult human skin stem cells to treat rats with neurological disease. From an article published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Neuroscience. Hope!

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Pamela Winnick's Father is Doing Better

Pamela Winnick sent me the following e-mail with permission to post here. You may recall, that she worried that "death doctors" were seeking to force the family to "pull the plug" on her seriously ill father.

"Wes, a mere week after the death-loving doctors tried to get us to pull the plug on my father, miracles have begun. He's out of ICU. He's off the ventilator. He's talking. He's cracking jokes. He's reading the NY Times and the New Yorker. No longer confined to bed, he's sitting in a chair, soon to receive physical therapy so he can walk. Most importantly, over the last week, he has cherished the love of his family, his wife, daughters, grandchildren. And he laughs. This is still the father I have always had. And the man they wanted to murder just seven days ago.

It's a classic illustration of the 'culture of death,' as you so aptly call it. I will complain to the hospital, after he's out of their care. And when it's time for him to die, he will die naturally."

I am happy for Pamela and her family. If her father's doctors had been able to force the family to cease treatment, he would probably be buried by now. Her father's case illustrates the increasing danger promoted by mainstream bioethics that in cases of serious illness and injury or advanced age, the benefit of the doubt should be given to death rather than life.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Stem Cell Avarice

This non-story front page story in the San Francisco Chronicle proves many of the points I have been making about our roiling biotech controversies for the last several years:

1. The headline, "Backers to Push Stem Cell Issue Across Country," as if this is news, is laughable. Big Biotech and its allies have been spending tens of millions annually in a well oiled propaganda campaign to not only smash moral objections to human cloning (for example, by redefining terms), but also to induce society to pour billions in tax payer dollars to fund their research--and that doesn't include the value of the bounteous free propaganda happily published by BB's compliant allies in the mainstream media.

2. The story claims the "controversial new field is starved for funds because of restrictions imposed by the Bush administration," as if that were a simple fact. Starved for funds? Let's see: in 2005 alone, the Feds paid out $137 million in human and non human embryonic stem cell NIH grants. It would be more but the NIH did not receive sufficient qualified grant applications. California has earmarked $3 billion over ten years for cloning and ESCR research. Other states are throwing in tens of millions a year. The fact is, Big Biotech and university research centers want a blank check. However much money they receive, it will apparently never be enough.

3. John Robertson, a bioethicist from Texas, suggests that embryonic stem cell "as a fundamental civil liberty." I have been warning that the groundwork is being laid for a claim that there is a "right to research," in the U.S. Constitution. If the courts find this heretofore unknown right lurking between the lines of the constitution, it would destroy the ability of government to reasonably regulate science.

4. Robert Klein, the head of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine hit the nail on the head when he said that ESCR can become "a surrogate for science in a war between science and ideology." In other words, the debate is much bigger than the sum of its parts. For the religionists of scientism, it is about elevating their utilitarian values to a place of dominance in society. In the end, that is precisely what this debate is really all about.

5. The story also worries that outside small, committed communities of activists, most voters are not really engaged in the issue. I think that is about right. Many voters don't think they can understand it. Also, the popular distrust of science seems to be growing precisely because the field has become so politicized. Indeed, I believe that people are beginning to perceive science as nothing more than a mere special interest. If I am right, the Science Establishment will only have itself to blame.

An Interview with Leon Kass

I deeply admire Leon Kass. At a personal level, he is a true gentleman. I consider him to be one of our deepest thinkers. I have always thought that he has been unfairly pigeon-holed by lesser intellects in bioethics and this interview proves my point. I advise reading it in full, but for the benefit of time-challenged Secondhand Smoke readers, I have pulled out a few highlights and have italicized key points that I think are especially worth pondering:

TAE: Your disagreements with liberal bioethicists are well known, but could you tell us more about your disagreements with conservatives?

KASS: First of all I want to say that although I think some pro-lifers' views are too narrow, they deserve credit for recognizing how easy it is to exploit and abuse the early stages of life for utilitarian benefits. They deserve credit for bearing witness, even if they don't win battles. They are defending something deeply important to all of us.

However, I think they take too narrow a view of what's at issue with these bioethical decisions. Some of the pro-life organizations don't officially care whether babies are produced in bottles, so long as no embryo was killed in the process. I had one leading pro-life activist tell me in private that they were not sure they could support our proposed ban on transferring human embryos to the body of an animal because it might be the only way in which you could rescue a human embryo. I said, "Do you mean you would rescue an embryo by giving it a pig for a mother?" And this person said, "Yes, if necessary." This seems to me an unhealthy monomania.

TAE: In terms of medical progress, was the twentieth century a golden age, where we found cures for many of the worst diseases, but hadn't yet reached the scary "Brave New World" that may arrive in the twenty-first century?

KASS: Before the twentieth century millions of people lived in abject poverty, died in childbirth or infancy, and so forth. So I don't want to say that modernity went wrong--that would be hypocritical. But I'm worried about where technology is taking us now. I have smart friends who argue that human nature has a kind of stabilizing good sense, and that we will recover our balance. But I'm not sure I believe that.

The question is not just biotechnology, but really the march of the wider technological mentality. Technology is more than machinery and acquired power to change the way things are. At its root, the technological disposition believes all aspects of life can be rationally mastered through technique. So now we have techniques for solving marital problems, grief, and almost everything else. And at the end of the day you've utterly transformed the character of human life. Eventually the things that really matter--family life, worship, self-governance, education of the next generation--become threatened.

TAE: What about science itself as a source of wisdom?

KASS: I think modern science is a religion for many of its practitioners, by which I mean they have utter faith in the sufficiency of their concepts to give a full account of life. But science cannot be a source of wisdom. By design it is morally neutral and indifferent to the pursuit of wisdom about human life that was the goal of pre-modern thought. If modernity went wrong, it was in taking the partial truths of science to be the whole truth about the world. One needs to recover a certain sense of the genuine mysteries of our existence on earth, which science doesn't explain but rather tries to explain away. The current argument of intelligent design is, however miscast, a way of raising again these fundamental questions. We need to restore a more philosophical science.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Great Apes Should Not be Given "Rights"

Spain continues to debate giving "human" rights to great apes. According to the story in the Telegraph, "The law would eliminate the concept of 'ownership' for great apes, instead placing them under the 'moral guardianship' of the state, much as is the case for children in care, the severely handicapped and those in comas,' said the MP behind the project, Francisco Garrido...Great apes held in Spanish zoos would be moved to state-built sanctuaries, unless there was a risk that moving them would harm their emotional welfare, he said."

In a saner world, the notion would be branded as beyond the pale, worth a quick chuckle, and quickly forgotten. But the "Great Ape Project" is part of a worldwide effort among liberal intelligentsia types to demolish human exceptionalism. Not coincidentally, this push to convey rights upon animals comes at the same time that we are diminishing the perceived moral worth of the develpmentally and cognitively disabled among us, and indeed, adding to the list of humans that make up our disposable caste. This confluence of bioethics personhood theory with animal rights romanticism will badly undermine our perception of uniqueness and special status, from which flows our acknowledgment of special responsibilities as well as our intrinsic rights. As such, the Great Ape Project is profoundly--and intentionally--anti-human.

What makes this so ludicrous is that none of these animals--none of them--would ever know they had "rights." Such knowledge and comprehension is beyond their ken. Their "interests" would be promoted by animal liberationists who would use their "wards" as beards--fronts--to push their own ideological agendas. If our distant cousins could comprehend the silliness promoted in their names they would never stop laughing.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

"Ethicist" Calls for Non Voluntary Euthanasia

Ah, the slippery slope: It just keeps slip-sliding away.

The latest example comes (again) from the UK, where "one of the country's leading ethicists" has called for the killing of patients who have not asked to be euthanized. As reported by the Guardian: "Len Doyal, emeritus professor of medical ethics at Queen Mary, University of London, takes the euthanasia debate into new and highly contentious territory. He says doctors should recognise [sic] that they are already killing patients when they remove feeding tubes from those whose lives are judged to be no longer worth living. Some will suffer a 'slow and distressing death' as a result."

Wait a minute! That can't be right! We have been told repeatedly by our betters in bioethics that removing feeding tubes leads to euphoria and a pleasant demise. These death ethicists need to get their stories straight.

The right answer, of course, is to stop pulling feeding tubes based on quality of life judgments, not kill the patients even if they haven't asked to be euthanized. Still, come to think of it, another (in)famous doctor named Jack Kevorkian made the same point as Dr Doyal few years ago. I am sure both will be pleased to know that they are in good company.

The Bum's Rush to Die: An All Too Familiar Story

Ben Stein, who I met at a dinner and spoke with about the problems emerging in bioethics, contacted me later to share the terrible experience his family had while his father, the economist Herb Stein, was dying. "They treated him like inventory," Stein wrote me in a turn of phrase I will never forget. "One way or the other, he had to go."

Now, the author Pamela Winnick (A Jealous God) has written and given me permission to post what her family is experiencing currently at a hospital on Long Island: "My father, Louis Winnick, is ...85 and has asbestos-related lung cancer, but is still very much himself and awake much of the time, though on all manner of life support (respirator, feeding tubes, etc). The various residents--I call them, collectively, "Dr. Death"--have been chasing my family around insisting we pull the plug. Since when did they move the dial on us? I thought this 'die with dignity' thing pertained only to the brain dead. He's anything but brain dead. He has his family around him and manages, though he can't talk, to communicate, even laugh, with us. He has never left any instructions or indicated that he wanted life support removed. But they literally chase us. One actually lied (I later caught her in the lie--I'm an attorney, after all). She said my father actually told her he wanted to die. Well, he can't talk so how would she know? Anyway there was another resident present (also a Dr. Death). He said that my father just didn't want all the tubes put in. But that's hardly consent to let him die.

Finally, I found.the best defense. Before they open their mouths I tell them we're Orthodox Jews, which is kind of funny since my mother is Protestant--and looks it! (My father is secular Jewish) But they do shut up.

This is beyond what I wrote about in my book. Do medical schools teach prospective doctors to chase after families and insist on death? Thank God we're sophisticated enough to resist them, and very well insured, but imagine if we didn't speak English or couldn't pay the hospital bills. I won't let them get away with this, believe me."

Winnick and her family are experiencing a trauma that is becoming all too familiar to me based on the many people who reach out for help. As I wrote in Culture of Death: "Unbeknownst to most Americans, a small cadre of influential health care policy makers are working energetically and unceasingly to transform medical practice and the laws of health care away from the 'do no harm model' established by the great Greek physician Hippocrates, and toward a stark utilitarian model that would legitimize medical discrimination against the weakest and most vulnerable among us, and in some cases, even their active killing. To make matters worse, the first many people become aware of what is happening to modern medicine is when they or a loved one experience a health care crisis and suddenly come face-to-face with the monster that they did not even know was lurking in their very midst."

There was a time when the benefits of doubt was given to life. That is being reversed, as appears to be the case with Mr. Winnick. Time for all of us to wake up.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Harvard to Conduct Human Cloning

Harvard University and Children's Hospital Boston are collaborating together to begin experiments in human cloning (somatic cell nuclear transfer). Their purpose is to try and obtain patient specific embryonic stem cells--a feat claimed to have been done by Woo-suk Hwang in South Korea, but he is now under indictment for fraud regarding that particular claim and ancillary fund raising activities. Private money is being used.

Only time will tell whether human clones will actually be created. But at least the Harvard experimenters are admitting that they are creating human embryonic life for the purpose of destroying it. Mainstream media, particularly the New York Times and the Kansas City Star, take note!

"Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer involves removing nuclei, which contain the cellular DNA (genes) from egg cells, and replacing them with the nuclei of donor cells. The resulting cell is subject to a chemical, or electrical, charge that triggers cell division and the creation of an embryo genetically identical to the donor of the nuclei."

In other words, SCNT does not create stem cells, as some media reports have it. Rather, as a form of cloning, it creates new life through asexual means. Destroying these nascent embryos for use in stem cell research is merely one potential use of the embryos, not the result of the procedure itself.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Defining Embryo Death

A research team from Columbia University has identified criteria for determining whether an embryo has died. I was aware this work was being pursued. When I was presenting at a stem cell symposium in Rome last year, Drs. Donald Landry and Howard Zucker discussed this issue, and I was impressed with their thoughtfulness and earnest desire to find a way out of the moral impasse in which we find ourselves over ESCR. Here's the idea: If an embryo has died, then taking its stem cells would be no different than, say, removing organs or corneas from a corpse. Since no human life will have been destroyed, there would be no ethical problem. Thus, identifying the "dead" embryos for use in embryonic stem cell research could be a way for both sides of the great debate to achieve their goals and objectives.

The problem is: It ain't about embryonic stem cells from leftover IVF embryos, anymore. It is about human cloning, which is not a synonym for stem cell research--although many biotech propagandists and their willing allies in the media pretend that it is. Moreover, the stem cell/cloning debate is about much more than the sum of its parts. At its core, it is a struggle to determine which value system will control the public policy of society.

So, I applaud the Columbia professors for working on the problem in good faith. Unfortunately, the controversy is much bigger than the relatively narrow issue they are seeking to resolve.

Will Saletan and the Transhumanists

As promised, here is Will Saletan's slant on the Stanford transhumanist conference. My article is written too, although I don't yet know when it will appear. This is my favorite paragraph from Saletan's recounting, which pretty well nails the scene:

"Remember those kids who played Dungeons & Dragons and ran the science-fiction club in your high school? They've become transhumanists. Their resident immortalist, Aubrey de Grey, walks around in sneakers, a ponytail, and a 14-inch beard that he strokes like a cat. One of the CCLE officials at the conference calls herself Wrye Sententia; the other dresses like an LSD trip. This was the kind of conference where people talked about the Matrix the way Christians talk about the Bible, and where speakers apologized for their discomfort with piercings or tattoos."

And the patriarchy, Will: We mustn't forget how transhumanism can help end the dreaded patriarchy!

Ian Wilmut Actively Promoting Reproductive Cloning

The man who led the team that cloned Dolly the sheep--he didn't do the actual cloning--has come out in favor of reproductive cloning for therapeutic purposes. That is, he would like to use cloning and genetic engineering to eradicate serious inherited disease.

Wilmut has always been interested in genetic engineering. A veterinarian, he first worked on cloning to permit animals to be genetically engineered so as to provide therapeutic substances in their milk. He once said he had no interest in human cloning, but that assertion became inoperative when his animal cloning project went bust. Now he works in human cloning research at Edinburgh University.

The slippery slope is sliding away even before we know whether humans can actually be cloned. And of course, even if we could do "therapeutic" reproductive cloning, it wouldn't be very long before the solipsistic began to demand the right to enhance their offspring to fit parental desires--backed by many bioethicists and members of the scientific establishment who only oppose reproductive cloning now because it isn't "safe."

I agree with the United Nations General Assembly that voted by a 3-1 margin urging member states to "prohibit all forms of human cloning inasmuch as they are compatible with human dignity and the protection of human life."

Rich Game the Organ Transplant System

It appears that wealthy people who need organ transplants are able to be placed on the waiting list for several organ programs at once. Such gaming undermines a system that is supposed to be based strictly on triage principles. (Hat tip Secondhand Smoke reader "Deep Toad.")

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Should We Be Able to Buy and Sell Organs?

This commentary, by Donald J. Boudreaux, chairman of the Department of Economics at George Mason University, suggests setting up a market in human organs for transplantation. To promote his proposal, Boudreaux applies a false reductionism to the reasons for opposing organ markets, writing: "There are surprisingly few good economic reasons offered in defense of the U.S.-wide prohibition on the purchase and sale of transplantable body organs. By far the most common argument against a freer market for transplantable organs is an aesthetic one: Commerce in body organs seems icky."

Libertarians always seem to judge matters of morality in economic terms, which in my view should usually be way down the list when analyzing ethical issues such as this. Moreover, subjective "ickyness" has very little to do with it. Indeed, prohibiting organ markets is important to maintaining an ethical health care system.

First, permitting organ buying and selling would further the ongoing commoditization of human life. We already see destitute people from countries like India or Turkey selling one kidney so that their child can go to school or have surgery. Right now such transactions are "black market." Formally sanctioning markets in organs would open the door to a neo colonialism in which the "natural resource" mined by the rich would not be timber or copper ore, but body parts of the poor.

A second, and clearly related issue, has to do with the unfairness of a market system in organs: In such a system, only poor people would sell, and rich people buy.

Third, the current triage system would implode. Right now people are willing to stay in line to receive organs because it seems to be run fairly. In other words, who receives an organ is based on need and compatibility of the tissues, not personal resources or power (Mickey Mantle notwithstanding to the contrary). Changing the system to include markets would undermine the current approach badly. In short, if markets came to prevail, it could open the door to a free for all.

Fourth, if a seriously ill person could be seen as more valuable dead than alive. This fact could easily influence the care decisions made about potential donors.

Professor Boudreaux makes a classic libertarian argument. But libertarianism can easily slouch into social Darwinism. In my view, creating an organ market would push us in the exactly wrong direction.