Saturday, June 30, 2007

Dr. Maureen Condic Gets Her Say

Nearly two months ago, I posted an entry about the science journal Nature Neuroscience's unfair editorial attack on Dr. Maureen Condic because she dared to question embryonic stem cell research dogma that ES cells offer the best hope for treatments, in the religious journal First Things. Making matters worse, after unfairly maligning her as "anti science," the journal had refused to allow Condic to respond to its criticisms in the same forum in which they were made.

A lot of pressure was placed on the Nature Neuroscience and it relented. Condic's letter to the editor published in the July 2007 issue is too long to print in full here, and there is no link. But here are a few choice excerpts:

Although the editors acknowledge that I am "correct in asserting that there are formidable hurdles to overcome before hESCs might serve therapeutic purposes", they groundlessly assert that my article is "anti-scientific", "polemical" and "disingenuous distortion of scientific arguments." I will not attempt to refute this false characterization. I will simply restate what the editors do not--and cannot--deny: the scientific evidence overwhelmingly indicates that hESCs are unlikely to be useful for human therapies in the near future.

The issues of immune rejection, tumor formation and hESC differentiation raised in my article are not distortions or mere polemic; they are matters of scientific fact. These same concerns have been raised in the scientific literature
Indeed. If there were polemics being thrown around, it was the editors of Nature Neuroscience who were doing the slinging.

Condic concludes on this powerful note:
Although serious scientific obstacles may not constitute sufficient reason to "abandon the search for stem cell therapies", such obstacles can be addressed with far greater scientific power using animal models. For ethically controversial hESC research, we must engage in a frank, public discussion of the formidable hurdles preventing the development of stem cell therapies, if public policy is to be based on scientific fact, and not on science fiction. Rather than promoting such a rational civil discourse, the editors of Nature Neuroscience have sent the clear message that scientists who break ranks and publicly discuss the serious obstacles confronting hESC research will be groundlessly maligned in the editorial pages of a prestigious scientific journal.
Attempting to suppress public disclosure of the facts is, in the words of the editors, both a "disingenuous distortion" and an attempt "to spin fit an anti-scientific purpose".
Condic nails it again. Suppressing and punishing heterodox views is not only corrosive of science, it is disrespectful of democratic discourse.


Friday, June 29, 2007

Terrorist Bombing Scare

No, not the one in London: In Los Angeles, where animal rights terrorists claim to have planted a bomb under the car of a UCLA primate researcher. From the L.A. Times story:

The FBI and the Los Angeles Fire Department are investigating an anonymous claim that animal rights extremists placed an unexploded incendiary device found under the car of a prominent UCLA eye doctor last weekend. The incident was similar to one last year in which another UCLA researcher was the intended target.

A gasoline-filled device was discovered Sunday by the car outside the Westside home of Dr. Arthur Rosenbaum, who is chief of pediatric ophthalmology at UCLA's Jules Stein Eye Institute. The device did not ignite despite evidence of an attempt to light it, authorities said Thursday.

An e-mail on Wednesday signed by the Animal Liberation Brigade said the group put the device there to stop experiments on animals in Rosenbaum's laboratory. The message claimed a gallon of fuel was set alight under the vehicle, but authorities said there was no fire.
Animal liberationist fanatic, Jerry Vlasak, applauded the move:
A Woodland Hills-based group called the North American Animal Liberation Press Office, or NAALPO, alerted reporters to the anonymous claim signed by the Animal Liberation Brigade concerning Rosenbaum's car. NAALPO said it had nothing to do with the incendiary device and does not know who was responsible.

However, NAALPO spokesman Jerry Vlasak, a trauma surgeon, said he agreed ideologically with such violent tactics against anyone leading painful experiments, particularly on primates. When peaceful protests don't work, "we certainly advocate taking it to the next level," he said.

Readers of SHS will recall that Vlasak was previously barred from entering the UK due to his advocacy of violence in the name of animal rights. Valsak also testified in front of a Congressional committee that murder to protect animals from medical researchers is morally justified.

This is terrorism most foul. Someday, one of these thugs is going to kill somebody. After that line is crossed, the next one will be easier--and then, I worry, it will be Katy bar the door!


Thursday, June 28, 2007

Scientists Transform One Type of Organism Into Another

The creativity of biotechnologists sometimes astounds. In this instance, as reported in Scientific American, scientists transformed one type of bacteria into another by transferring the latter's total genetic makeup into the former. Why transmute one species into another?

As radical as this transformation represents only the first step toward man-made organisms. "Synthetic biology itself and the synthetic genome still remain to be proven but we are much closer to knowing that it is theoretically possible," biologist J. Craig Venter says. "Just the naked DNA, just the chromosome itself without any accessory proteins, is all that is necessary to boot up this cell system. It really simplifies the task."

The goal is ultimately to design new organisms that fulfill specified functions, such as manufacturing new fuels to replace oil and gas or capturing carbon dioxide, without evolving so that these capabilities are locked in over time. Venter hopes to create fuels from such an engineered organism within a decade or less.
Do we have the wisdom to become the creators of new and novel life forms? Is this safe? Such questions are beyond my pay grade. But boy...


Bone Marrow Stem Cells Significant Help With Spinal Cord Injury?

Keep in mind this isn't peer reviewed, hasn't been replicated, and was released as part of a PR move, but get this:

From May 2006 to January 2007, 25 patients with SCI were treated at Luis Vernaza Hospital in Guayaquil, Ecuador. They were treated with autologous bone marrow stem cells--meaning the cells were extracted from the patients' own bone marrow.

Fifteen patients (60 percent) could stand up, ten patients (40 percent) could walk on the parallels with braces, seven (28 percent) could walk without braces, and four (16 percent) could walk with crutches. Patients demonstrated improvements in sensitivity, motility, bladder sensation, even controlling sphincters, erection and ejaculation. No adverse event was observed.

No one should tout this as a cure, or even yet a proven treatment. It is very preliminary human subject research. There is a very long way to go before this could be available, even if it pans out. But there is great hope out there.


Pushing for Assisted Suicide on Demand

The Hastings Center Report is probably the most prestigious bioethics journal in the world. Thus, when an opinion article appears in its pages, the ideas expressed are definitely in play among the bioethical elite. I bring this up because an article appeared in the May-June edition advocating assisted suicide for the mentally ill.

I have long maintained that the weight-bearing ideological pillars of assisted suicide advocacy--radical individualism that includes the right to choose the time, manner, and method of death, along with the view that killing is an acceptable answer to the problems of human suffering--preclude legalized assisted suicide from being limited to the terminally ill. The force of human logic--one of the most powerful forces in the universe--simply would not permit such a "restricted" approach, proved by the experiences of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Switzerland.

In "A Suicide Right for the Mentally Ill?" Brown University professor Jacob M. Appel echoes the above--with the exception that he approves of a broad assisted suicide license and I oppose all legalization. Subscription is required so I can't link the whole article, but here are a few key quotes:

At the core of the argument supporting assisted suicide are the twin goals of maximizing individual autonomy and minimizing human suffering. Patients, advocates believe, should be able to control the decision of when to end their own lives, and they should be able to avoid unwanted distress, both physical and psychological.
Appel claims that assisted suicide would "empower" patients with mental illness:

Most likely, the taboo against assisted suicide for the mentally ill is a well-meaning yet misplaced response to the long history of mistreatment that those with psychiatric illness have endured in western societies. Psychiatrists and mental health advocates may fear that their patients will be coerced to "choose death" against their wishes, or that, once suicide is an acceptable option, the care for those who reject assisted suicide will be diminished. But as the plaintiff argued before the Swiss high court, in challenging "medical paternalism," we are entering an era during which psychiatric patients do not need to be protected, but empowered. Our goal should be to maximize the options available to the mentally ill.
Of course, this was known all along, but political expediency (my term) prevented proponents from being, shall we say, candid with the people:
Since assisted suicide for the terminally ill was itself taboo fifteen years ago, it was unrealistic to expect that a mainstream debate would arise over the issue of suicide rights for psychiatric patients. Contemporary psychiatry aims to prevent suicide, yet the principles favoring legal assisted suicide lead logically to the extension of these rights to some mentally ill patients. But now that several Western nations and one U.S. state have liberalized their laws, it seems reasonable to question the policies that universally deny such basic opportunities to the mentally ill.
Ponder that last sentence; self destruction as a basic opportunity. Finally, the real agenda is coming into the open. Good. It is disrespectful of democracy to continue to play a game of hide the ball by pretending that assisted suicide would be permanently limited to the terminally ill for whom nothing else can be done to alleviate suffering.

So, let's debate near death on demand. Let's debate having euthanasia clinics widely available so the suicidal don't have to kill themselves by jumping off bridges. Let's have an open and honest debate about the limits, if any, that should be placed by society on destructive individual actions.


Wednesday, June 27, 2007

A Thwarted Dehydration

I have been watching this case since it first hit the news in Arizona. On May 30, Jesse Ramirez was arguing with his wife when their SUV rolled over. He was left unconscious. The doctors said his case was "hopeless," that he would never wake up. The wife moved him to a hospice and had his feeding tube removed, that is, she decided to dehydrate him to death.

The parents objected. They obtained help from lawyers affiliated with the Alliance Defense Fund, and obtained a court order requiring sustenance to be maintained while the case was investigated.

And now, this news:

Two weeks ago, he was the center of a family battling over of whether he should live or die.Now, he can hug and kiss, nod his head, answer yes and no questions, give a thumbs-up sign and sit in a chair...Jesse is now ready to move from a hospice to a rehabilitation facility.
"We have had a lot of miracles," said Betty Valenzuela, Ramirez's aunt. "He would have been gone."
No, it wasn't miracles: It was a family that refused to give up on their loved one. It was a judge who didn't just decide that the wife had the right to pull the plug, especially given certain potential conflicts of interest in the case. It was the Alliance Defense Fund that was willing to step in to the breach and help a family in desperate need.

I also think that if Ramirez's doctors really called his case hopeless, they have a lot of explaining to do. As we have discussed here previously, PVS is often misdiagnosed. More importantly, it can't be done accurately after only a few weeks post trauma. So, why the rush in this case to write the man off?

This much is sure: But for parents willing to fight for his life, Ramirez would be dead today rather than entering the rehabilitation unit. And therein lies an important lesson for us all.


Reverse Suicide Tourism May Lead to Extradition

We often think of "suicide tourism," as sick or despairing people traveling to a suicide friendly venue like Switzerland to have help shuffling off this mortal coil. Several years ago, George Exoo, then a Unitarian minister, did the suicide circuit in reverse. Admitting to running the "compassionate chaplaincy" in which he counseled suicidal persons and attended their suicides, Exoo traveled to Ireland to the home of the late Rosemary Toole (at her expense) and merely watched (he says) while she swallowed some crushed pills, covered her head with a plastic bag and breathed helium until she died.

The Irish authorities were not amused, contending that Exoo violated the law, that his activities amounted to assisted suicide. In 2004, Irish authorities requested that Exoo be extradited to face trial. He has now been arrested pending an extradition hearing. He claims that he didn't know assisted suicide was against the law in Ireland. Perhaps, but you know what they say: Ignorance of the law is no excuse.


Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Brave New Britain: Here Comes Health Care Rationing

The UK's National Health Care service is such a mess that some are now openly calling for explicit health care rationing. (Of course, ad hoc or sub rosa rationing already exists within the NHS.) One idea, according to this article in the Scotsman, is to make up a list of treatments that would be provided:

Alex Smallwood, from the BMA's junior doctors' committee, told the meeting in Torquay it needed to be accepted that rationing must take place in the NHS, but this had to be done much more openly.

"It is no longer possible to provide all the latest to absolutely everybody without notable detriment to others," he said.

"Rationing is reduction in choice. Rationing has become a necessary evil. We need to formalise rationing to prevent an unregulated, widening, postcode-lottery of care. Government no longer has a choice."

Dr Smallwood said that a list of acceptable treatments could be drawn up after debate and public consultation. But this might include a restriction on treating things like hernias and varicose veins - conditions with which people could live. "If somebody had a specific condition, it would be about how you could fairly say to them, 'This is not life-threatening; there's probably a better way we could manage this'. "When it comes to the list of conditions, it's all about quality of life. It would be about the prioritisation of clinical need," he added.

Well, now there's a slippery slope. What some might say is a bad quality of life, others might say is perfectly acceptable, thank you very much for your opinion. Moreover, in the end, such approaches reward the politically powerful with complete coverage while denying those on the outskirts. We saw this in Oregon when it created its Medicaid rationing scheme that omits some life-sustaining or curative approaches for the terminally ill. The thing is: When first conceived, late stage AIDS patients were to be listed among those rationed out. But the politically potent AIDS community engaged and that exclusion was, shall we say, remedied.

I don't blame AIDS activists, but other disease communities didn't have the same clout, the point being that if you want to increase the politicization of medicine and turn MS patients against cancer patients, against people with profound cognitive or developmental disabilities, against people with Alzheimer's--health care rationing based on quality of life is the way to do it.
Let's learn from the UK and find a better way.


"Artificial Intelligence is Lost in the Woods"

Some of our discussions here at SHS about human exceptionalism have considered the prospect for Artificial Intelligence (AI), and engaged the advocacy by some that such intelligent computers or robots--meaning those that had attained true consciousness--be declared persons and accorded what today are called human rights. I have expressed profound doubt that any machine would ever be actually intelligent in this sense. This position finds articulate support in this article by Professor David Gelernter in Technology Review. It's a very long article, too long to fully consider here, but well worth the read.

Gelernter believes that "conscious software" is "a near impossibility," in other words, that scientists won't ever create true AI because consciousness involves more than just rational thought, but also emotions, sensations, etc., which a machine could almost surely never truly actually experience. However, he believes that what he calls "unconscious" artificial intelligence--what might be described as capable of two-dimensional as opposed to three-dimensional responses--might be doable. He writes:

Unfortunately, AI, cognitive science, and philosophy of mind are nowhere near knowing how to build one. They are missing the most important fact about thought: the "cognitive continuum" that connects the seemingly unconnected puzzle pieces of thinking (for example analytical thought, common sense, analogical thought, free association, creativity, hallucination). The cognitive continuum explains how all these reflect different values of one quantity or parameter that I will call "mental focus" or "concentration"--which changes over the course of a day and a lifetime.

Without this cognitive continuum, AI has no comprehensive view of thought: it tends to ignore some thought modes (such as free association and dreaming), is uncertain how to integrate emotion and thought, and has made strikingly little progress in understanding analogies--which seem to underlie creativity.

Gelernter explains the difference between conscious thinking and unconscious machine thought:
In conscious thinking, you experience your thoughts. Often they are accompanied by emotions or by imagined or remembered images or other sensations. A machine with a conscious (simulated) mind can feel wonderful on the first fine day of spring and grow depressed as winter sets in. A machine that is capable only of unconscious intelligence "reads" its thoughts as if they were on cue cards. One card might say, "There's a beautiful rose in front of you; it smells sweet." If someone then asks this machine, "Seen any good roses lately?" it can answer, "Yes, there's a fine specimen right in front of me." But it has no sensation of beauty or color or fragrance. It has no experiences to back up the currency of its words. It has no inner mental life and therefore no "I," no sense of self.
As a consequence, any computer or robot would actually not be conscious, but no matter how dazzling its responses, remain a mere machine. Such a machine would thus not present us with the problem of according it human-equivalent moral status, the prospect of which some enjoy raising in discussions of human exceptionalism and personhood theory. He also points out the folly of attempting to create a truly conscious machine, believing that if it could be accomplished, it would be cruel, pointing out that in any event, "No such mind could even grasp the word "itch."

An unconscious machine intelligence could be a useful tool in teaching humans about the workings of the brain. But it would be just that, an inanimate object, a machine, a very valuable piece of property--nothing more.

Perhaps it is time to put the AI argument against human exceptionalism to bed and focus on ensuring that human rights apply to all of us--not just those who are able to hurdle subjective barriers to full inclusion in the moral community.


Monday, June 25, 2007

Another Swiss "Suicide Tourist" Proves the Euthanasia Debate is not About Terminal Illness

A Canadian woman with MS traveled to Switzerland with her husband for assisted suicide. The Euthanasia Prevention Coalition has demanded a legal investigation. I doubt that will happen, but I post this story because I want y'all to look at the way in which the reporter romanticized family support for the suicide (don't any family members oppose their loved ones' suicides any more?), but most particularly, for us all to ponder the attitudes expressed in the comments section.

Elizabeth McDonald, age 38, was not terminally ill. She was disabled and depressed. (Depression is caused by MS in some cases.) But the fact that McDonald was not dying matters not a whit to the readers commenting on the story. And of course it wouldn't. If one believes that killing (whether of self or by others) is an acceptable response to human suffering, then terminal illness has absolutely nothing to do with it. Moreover, the comments indicate a trend I have noticed in the last decade that among general society the "better dead than disabled" meme is growing increasingly strong--which chills the blood of disability rights activists who see disabled people in the cross hairs of the entire movement. And, of course, the reporter never bothered to contact disability rights spokespersons or suicide prevention professionals about the impact of stories such as this on disabled people generally or people with MS, specifically. Typical of the genre.

So, let's can the smoke and mirrors arguments about assisted suicide being limited to the terminally ill in irremediable suffering, and have an honest debate. The real issue is a "right" to suicide for whatever reason people determine that they want to check out--so long as the desire to die is not transitory. This is sometimes called "rational suicide," about which I have written on several occasions, including here in the NRO. (Along these same lines, recall the post from the other day about The Economist seeming to advocate prevention primarily for the "confused, temporarily depressed or in need of sympathetic attention," but only equivocally for those with a "determined" desire to die. )

Some will disagree, but to me, widespread support for suicide in the face of illness and disability is a symptom of a growing disintegration of mutual cohesion and caring in society. The new attitude seems to be, "If you want to die, go ahead and die. It's none of my business," which masks as respect for "choice" but is actually a form of abandonment. If this attitude continues to proliferate, it is going to be increasingly difficult to be a dependent person in society.


Sunday, June 24, 2007

A Pro Stem Cell Research Advocate's Defense of Bush

Columnist Jeff Jacoby has written a very good column in the Boston Globe about the hue and cry among pro ESCR advocates in the wake of President Bush's veto of expanded federal funding criteria. Jacobi, who inhabits the right of center political realm, disagrees with President Bush's veto. But he noticed something off kilter about many of the anti-Bush statements that are worth repeating here. From the column:

To judge from the criticism of Bush's stem cell veto last week, nothing outranks the claims of science, and only a zealot could think otherwise.

"With one pen stroke," charged Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, "President Bush has ignored hard science, embraced misplaced ideology, and turned his back on the millions who stand to benefit from . . . stem cell research."

Similarly, Senate majority leader Harry Reid blasted Bush for "putting the politics of his narrow ideology ahead of saving lives."

So did Senator Hillary Clinton: "This is just one example of how the president puts ideology before science."

And Senator Barack Obama: "The promise that stem cells hold does not come from any particular ideology; it is the judgment of science, and we deserve a president who will put that judgment first."

What these statements have in common is their use of "ideology" as a pejorative for the principles and ethical values that have guided Bush's thinking on the stem cell issue. They treat "science" as an unqualified good, and reproach the White House for letting ethical qualms impede scientific progress. Yet not all science is progress. Not all ethical qualms are impediments.

Anyone who doubts Jacoby's last statement hasn't paid attention to history.


Saturday, June 23, 2007

Blank Check Ethics: Here Come the "Manimals"

Get ready for the "manimals." In Sunday's Washington Post, Will Saletan describes how some scientists have cut themselves loose from the tether of self restraint and are busily planning the creation of human/animal chimeras with increasingly human attributes. From his column:

So far, our [human/animal] mixtures are modest. To make humanized animals really creepy, you'd have to do several things. You'd increase the ratio of human to animal DNA. You'd transplant human cells that spread throughout the body. You'd do it early in embryonic development, so the human cells would shape the animals' architecture, not just blend in. You'd grow the embryos to maturity. And you'd start messing with the brain.

We're doing all of these things.

Of course we are. Too many of "the scientists" have decided that curiosity, the laudable desire to achieve increasingly miraculous scientific and medical advances, and/or the drive to gain fame and fortune with the newest biotechnological breakthrough justifies their doing whatever they decide is necessary to achieve their desired ends. And so, they zoom along, heedless of the ethical objections that society might have to their biological manipulations, bitterly denigrating anyone who might express doubts as "anti-science."

This intimidates some people, but not everyone. Reading Saletan's piece brought to mind one of my favorite essays on the subject, written for the Weekly Standard several years ago by my good friend Joseph Bottum (now the editor of First Things) in reaction to a probably false news story that "the scientists" had created a human/pig embryo through cloning. "The Pig Man Cometh" is a wonderful, if hyperbolic, expression of wholly justified righteous rage by one of our best thinkers and writers. Here's a sampling:
You can't say we weren't warned. This is the island of Dr. Moreau. This is the brave new world. This is Dr. Frankenstein's chamber. This is Dr. Jekyll's room. This is Satan's Pandemonium, the city of self-destruction the rebel angels wrought in their all-consuming pride...We have reached the logical end, at last. We have become the people that, once upon a time, our ancestors used fairy tales to warn their children against-and we will reap exactly the consequences those tales foretold.

Like the coming true of an old story-the discovery of the philosopher's stone, the rubbing of a magic lantern-biotechnology is delivering the most astonishing medical advances anyone has ever imagined. You and I will live for many years in youthful health: Our cancers, our senilities, our coughs, and our infirmities all swept away on the triumphant, cresting wave of science.

But our sons and daughters will mate with the pig-men, if the pig-men will have them. And our swine-snouted grandchildren-the fruit not of our loins, but of our arrogance and our bright test tubes-will use the story of our generation to teach a moral to their frightened litters.

Saletan doesn't think any of this can be stopped. He concludes:
If you want permanent restrictions, your best bet is the senator who tried to impose them two years ago. He's the same presidential candidate now leading the charge against evolution: Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican. He thinks we're separate from other animals, "unique in the created order." Too bad this wasn't true in the past -- and won't be true in the future.
I'm not so pessimistic. It isn't just Senator Brownback who opposes these agendas. Even most scientists don't want to take things as far as Bottum's metaphorical "swine-snouted grandchildren." And a big push back is coming. At some point either common sense will prevail and scientific freedom will be exercised responsibly or society will finally say, "Enough!" and apply the appropriate corrective. If that leads to the over regulation of science, the anything goes crowd will only have themselves to blame.


The ECONOMIST Misses the Obvious

The Economist, which I consider the best newsweekly in the world (and no bylines!), published an article apparently bemoaning the increased rate of suicide around the world. And yet, although the article ostensibly urges governments to try and prevent suicides, it actually seems to back the notion of permitting some suicides. From the story:

Measures can be taken to make it harder for people to kill themselves. They may not be able to (and arguably, should not try to) stop the really determined, but they can save the lives of many who are confused, temporarily depressed or in need of sympathetic attention.
Talk about abandonment of those in need! Why shouldn't we try to stop the determined? Aren't their lives as important and valuable as those who are "confused" and "temporarily depressed?"

Such mixed messages fundamentally undermine suicide prevention and amount to an acceptance of the concept of "rational suicide." If some suicides are deemed okay--then it becomes harder to tell a self destructive person, "Your cause for wanting to die isn't good enough." Should we ever get to that point, we might as well put suicide prevention centers in a museum.


Friday, June 22, 2007

A Coming "Vaccine" Against Alzheimer's?

I have decided to highlight stories like this because I have concluded that the bitter ethical controversies over ESCR and human cloning have distorted the true picture of what is happening in the exciting field of biotechnology. So much of the hopeful research that is moving into human trials is not morally contentious at all: Adult/umbilical cord blood stem cell research, gene therapy, and now a potential vaccine to prevent the worsening of Alzheimer's disease that has started what is often called Stage 1 human trials. From the story:

The vaccine uses a tiny section of the amyloid protein attached to an empty virus shell to trick the immune system into attacking and breaking up deposits of protein clogging the brain
Clever. Get the body attacking the enemy as it would a virus or bacteria.

So far, the indications are good:
Early tests showed the vaccine is highly effective at breaking up the sticky protein that clogs the brain in Alzheimer's, destroying vital connections between brain cells. When the jab was given to mice suffering from a disease similar to Alzheimer's, 80 per cent of the patches of amyloid protein were broken up.

The vaccine is now being tried out on 60 elderly Swedish patients in the early and middle stages of Alzheimer's. Half of the men and women are being given the vaccine while half are being given dummy jabs.

Although the year-long trial is designed to show that the treatment is safe, the researchers will also look at its effect on the patients' symptoms. While the results are not due until early next year, the initial findings are promising. Dr Renner told a Zurich conference earlier this week: "I am glad to report that the vaccine is very well tolerated."

If the trial is successful, larger-scale trials will follow, in which researchers will work out the best dose to give and how often it should be given. The finished product is six to eight years from the market.
Of course, it is always wise in stories such as this to keep in mind that an early human trial does not an efficacious treatment make. And, the information release could be an attempt to raise venture capital. But the animal studies were encouraging. If this works, it will provide tremendous relief of human suffering.


Human Trafficking in France

Babies for sale in a parking lot. Good grief.


Thursday, June 21, 2007

Brave New Bioethics Podcast: The DEA's Big Chill on Pain Control

With all of the traveling I have been doing lately, and with Jack Kevorkian being sprung from the hoosegow, I have been remiss in recording my Brave New Bioethics podcasts. I am back in the verbal saddle again with this edition, which discusses the chilling effect that the DEA appears to be placing on proper and aggressive pain control. Check it out.


More Good News in Human Parkinson's Trials With Non Controversial Biotechnology

I was on a radio program today, and the host played for my comment a shameless clip from an AP report depicting a Parkinson's patient's fury at President Bush for vetoing expanded federal funding for ESCR because he believes--because that is what he has been told--that embryonic stem cells are his "only hope" for an effective treatment.

This is just not true. There are already hopeful treatments, such as electrode implants that are helping people today. New medications are moving forward toward clinical use. Even better news seems to be in the pipeline. We have already reported here, for example, that neural stem cells taken from miscarried fetuses have apparently substantially helped monkeys with Parkinson's. One human patient also appears to have been placed into an extended remission using his own brain stem cells. And now another apparently wonderful biotech success with Parkinson's involving a non controversial approach: This time with gene therapy. From the story in the Telegraph:

In a pioneering study, researchers used the treatment to bring about significant improvements in the mobility of Parkinson's sufferers. They said it could also herald a breakthrough in the treatment of other neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer's or epilepsy.The 12 patients involved in the study--a world-first human gene therapy trial for a brain disease--all reported a substantial reduction in their symptoms after having a human gene injected.

Within months, their ability to move had improved on average by 30 per cent. Some reported a 65 per cent improvement in their mobility.

It must be said that in the past gene therapies have disappointed far more often than excited. Still, if this success is repeated in further patients, it offers tremendous hope for people with disabling neural conditions.

The tired mantra that embryonic stem cells offer the "best hope" is getting old and losing steam. The published science is telling a different story.


This Just In...The United Nations has Supported Human Exceptionalism--since 1948

According to the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly in 1948, "Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law."

Somebody had better tell the bioethicists, transhumanists, deep ecologists, philosophical materialists--and the others who would base rights on criteria other than being a member of the human species--that the word "everyone" means each and every one of us. In other words, the advocated policies of those who would distinguish between human beings who are "persons" and those who are non persons based on capacities would violate one of history's most important human rights documents. And no, you animal liberationists, the word "everybody" does not apply to animals. It is an agreement about the rights to which all and only human beings are due--simply and merely because they are human, e.g., human exceptionalism.


Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Vegetative State Often Misdiagnosed

This report confirms past research demonstrating that many people diagnosed as unconscious--aren't, or at least, many who are unconscious eventually wake up.

Around a quarter of patients in an acute vegetative state when they are first admitted to hospital have a good chance of recovering a significant proportion of their faculties, and up to a half will regain some level of consciousness, researchers from Belgium found out. Another study shows that around 40% of patients were wrongly diagnosed as in a vegetative state, when they in fact registered the awareness levels of minimal consciousness. Comparing past studies on this issue shows that the level of misdiagnosis has not decreased in the last 15 years. These studies should foster debate about appropriate standards of care for these patients, and about end of life limitations
At the very least.

Here are a few thoughts: First it should give great pause to those who advocate not supplying or quickly removing life support for people with traumatic head injury. Second, when family members claim that they detect signs of consciousness in their "unconscious" loved ones, doctors should be less quick to assert that they are merely seeing "what they want to see." Third, people ought to consider this problem when determining in an advance medical directive to have themselves dehydrated to death if they become permanently incapacitated.

Of course, what really needs to be done is to reject the notion that people with severe brain injuries are somehow less "human" or are not "persons." Unless and until we do that, people in these devastated states will not be safe.


William Hurlbut: The Power of the Individual

Holy cow! My pal William B. Hurlbut is on the podium behind President Bush as he makes his stem cell speech in the East Room. What a moment for Bill! I knew he was meeting with the president, but I had no idea it would result in such a public and high profile presidential pat on the back. I am so happy for him.

Hurlbut is the moving force behind altered nuclear transfer (ANT), one of the alternatives to ESCR that we have discussed here at SHS. But this isn't the point of my post. I have always believed in the power of the individual to improve the human condition. My heroes have been people like William Lloyd Garrison, Martin Luther King, and Ralph Nader, strong individuals who often swum against powerful cultural tides to the great benefit of society.

Bill has worked himself to near-exhaustion in promoting ANT in the hope of bridging the gap between the "scientists" and those who worry about using nascent human life instrumentally, as occurs in conventional ESCR. In this, he is an idealist, as most crusading (in the good meaning of that term) individuals are. Bill is very enthusiastic about science, he is unequivocally "pro-science," and he yearns to find a "solution," (in his term) that would fulfill all of the scientific hopes for embryonic stem cell research, while maintaining what he sees as proper ethical boundaries. Frankly, I don't believe "the scientists" want a solution. They want to get their way. Thus, even if ANT or another alternative method works, the "scientists" will shrug their shoulders and keep on cloning. But Bill does, and so he has willingly suffered the brickbats of many of his scientific colleagues, and some on our side of the issue, and pressed on.

And this (finally) is the point: One can disagree with his approach. One can disagree with his ethical analysis. No one has a monopoly on wisdom, after all. But it seems to me, that Hurlbut's commitment and desire to do what is right--even at a personal cost--illustrates the best of us. I am proud to be Bill's friend.


The Euthanasia Crowd Keeps Playing With Words

Euthanasia activists are obsessed with lexicon. They believe that if only they can find the right words to use in identifying mercy killing and assisted suicide, people will see the wisdom of their proposal and embrace medicalized homicide.

This obsession with words and terms has marked the euthanasia movement from the very beginning. Indeed, euthanasia, the current word for mercy killing, once meant a pain free natural death, experienced in a state of grace, and ideally, surrounded by family--akin to the modern concept of hospice. But as Professor Ian Dowbiggin noted in his splendid book, A Concise History of Euthanasia, the word was co-opted in one of the first modern essays supporting mercy killing, authored in 1870 by a school teacher named Samuel D. Williams. From Dowbiggin's account:

In advocating voluntary active euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, Williams was instrumental in redefining euthanasia as an act of mercy killing rather than a passive process in which the discomforts of death are mitigated but not intentionally ended by pain killers.
Euthanasia advocates have been at it ever since, as Rita Marker and I describe in "Words, Words, Words," published in the Duquesne Law Review several years ago .

The current gooey euphemisms of choice for the euthanasia crowd are "death with dignity" and "physician assisted death." But the great word project continues, with new advocacy for yet another term that proponents are convinced will persuade people of the goodness of euthanasia. Thus, in this essay, one James Park proposes "gentle death" as the advocacy phrase that will turn the tide, writing:
The opposition will complain that we have just given a new name to an old evil, but the people in the middle will think twice before they easily and automatically turn against gentle death.
This would be pathetic if not for the seriousness of the controversy. In any event, this much is sure: Assisted suicide and euthanasia advocates don't want people to focus on the precise act they seek to legalize and legitimize, and hence, they will continue to search for their Holy Grail, the right phrase or words that will convince people to drink the hemlock. Indeed, as Dowbiggin notes, they have been at this task for more than 100 years.


Bush to Fund Stem Cell "Alternatives" Research

I had heard this was in the offing: When President Bush vetoes the bill today that would overturn his embryonic stem cell federal funding policy, he will also sign an executive order intended to ultimately fund research into "alternatives," to destructive embryonic stem cell research, e.g., altered nuclear transfer (ANT), "regression" (reverting differentiated cells into stem cells), using "dead" embryos, etc.

The New York Times story presents the story as if it is a mere political ploy to deflect criticism from his veto, complete with the views of skeptical pro ESCR scientists. I am sure there is some truth in this, but it is not, in my view, the primary reason for the new policy. Bush really is not "anti science" as so many of his political opponents accuse. Indeed, his original "compromise" in 2001 was designed to permit research without violating what Bush considered to be important ethical concerns. And so this initiative must be seen as supporting science--since, thanks to Bush, so many new avenues of pursuing regenerative medicine are being discovered.

From the Times story, here is the gist of the new policy:

First, Mr. Bush will an announce that the registry of embryonic stem cell lines eligible for research with federal tax dollars will be reconfigured as the "human pluripotent stem cell registry," a change intended to allow other types of stem cells to become eligible for federal financing if they have the same properties as embryonic stem cells.

Mr. Bush will also order Michael O. Leavitt, secretary of health and human services, to "support alternative techniques," the officials said. He will instruct Mr. Leavitt to come up with a plan describing how scientists and researchers who want to get new stem cell lines approved for the registry might do so.

I don't understand opposition to this research and its funding. The controversy over ESCR is an argument over ethics. But I don't know of many people who find these areas of research--at least at their current state of investigation--ethically contentious. (Some are opposed to ANT, but it is currently in animal studies to which no one objects.) With few ethical objections, there seems every reason to go forward with this research with appropriate levels of federal funding. Moreover, many of the scientists and bioethicists who point out supposed ethical problems with these approaches, support destructive ESCR and believe it to be perfectly ethical. Thus, their ethical analyses seem aimed at convincing opponents of ESCR to also resist these initiatives in the hope that by tearing down the alternatives, it will somehow boost funding for conventional ESCR.

ESCR and its funding will be a big issue in the 2008 campaign. If any Democrat or if Republicans Rudy Giuliani or John McCain is elected, Bush's policy will fall. If Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney, or Sam Brownback is elected, his policy will most likely continue. And isn't this where the great issue really belongs--as the subject of a great democratic debate among people of good will who differ in their opinions on the ethical propriety of ESCR, but who are all committed to scientific advancement as mediated by proper ethical guidelines? In the end, the people will decide.


Tuesday, June 19, 2007


Last year, Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Technology, claimed to have derived human embryonic stem cells without destroying embryos. That report turned out to be, shall we say, exaggerated. In fact, ACT's researchers had destroyed all the embryos they worked on.

Now, Lanza has announced that they really, really did do it. An article published in the on-line ScienceNOW Daily News (subscription required), reports that Lanza told a stem cell conference in Australia that the researchers at ACT removed one cell from an embryo, kept the embryo in close proximity to the cell, which stimulated the removed cell to continue to divide as a stem cell line, and then returned the embryo "safely to the freezer."

Whenever ACT makes a big announcement of this kind, it is always prudent to be skeptical. But given the bright red faces caused by its previous exaggerated claims, I think we can probably assume that Lanza and his team did accomplish the feat. How practical it would be is another matter.

But this is the gist of the story--as it always seems to be whenever ACT makes a big announcement:

Lanza is now waiting on the findings of a legal review within NIH to determine whether the technique will get around the current federal funding ban on stem cell research. Lanza has also submitted a grant proposal to test his cell lines alongside two other types of stem cells that are also considered "ethically acceptable." Among other things, the work would compare the ability of the cells to give rise to different tissues or tumors.
Yes. It is always about the money.

By the way, I assume SHSers caught the reporter's (what I assume to be an) inadvertent error: There is no "federal funding ban on stem cell research." Indeed, the NIH puts out about $40 million per year on human ESCR. What Bush does not permit is the Feds to fund research on ES cell lines created after August 9, 2001.

Back to ACT and its desire for grant money: Since, the Bush decision was based on the government not funding embryo destruction--either explicitly or in anticipation of future federal grants--ACT might well qualify for an NIH grant, assuming, of course, that Lanza did what he said. But merely having created a stem cell line would not be enough. The application would otherwise have to be deemed worthy of funding. And there could still be other ethical issues to consider since the President's Council on Bioethics looked with disfavor on this approach.

Oh well: Time will tell. In any event, it is fascinating how creative scientists have been in finding alternatives to destructive embryonic stem cell research--thanks to President Bush. Ain't it amazing what the power of money will do?


Monday, June 18, 2007

Dog "Art" Isn't

This is a fun story about a school that trains dogs to assist people with disabilities that came up with a novel way of raising funds for their important work: Dog "art." Here's the story:

The owner of a fledgling dog-training academy in Salisbury has come up with a bizarre money-raising scheme. Mary Stadelbacher figured that if she could teach dogs to become service animals for the disabled, why couldn't she teach them to hold a paintbrush and swab a piece of art? Two years later, the owner of Shore Service Dogs has a collection of abstract paintings created by her three service dogs in training. Twenty of the works are being shown this month at a gallery at Salisbury University.

The doggie DaVincis also have a line of greeting cards that has sold out as word spreads about the unusual works of art. One of the original works has sold for 350 dollars.

A nice little feature to start the week, worth a chuckle and nothing more? Perhaps, but I see deeper currents. Perhaps I am obsessed--and there is certainly evidence for that proposition--but I see the story of the dog "artists" as pertinent to the crucial issue of human exceptionalism.

The dog art isn't actually art--at least not art created by a dog. The dogs are not expressing their aesthetic yearnings or attempting to create a thing of beauty. Rather, they are engaging in trained behavior that, for them, has no deeper meaning. (The same is true about similar elephant paintings that are created in India, an example of which is reproduced at the right margin.) Any artistic elements in this story spring exclusively from human activities, and thus, the story beneath the story is that the paintings made by dog and elephant "artists" illustrate the truth of human exceptionalism.

Only we could train a dog to paint--indeed only we can intentionally create a species with desired characteristics like we did with dogs. Moreover, only we can paint splotches on canvas and intend it as an artistic expression. And only we can look at a painted canvas--whether created by an artist or a trained animal--and perceive deeper levels of beauty and elegance. (The elephant painting is pretty good, I think. I like the red.) Yes, indeed: This story is really about human exceptionalism, and the amazing activities in which humans engage that are unique in the known history of the universe.

Now, you can see why I am invited to few parties.


Sunday, June 17, 2007

The DEA's Big Chill Against Aggressive Pain Control

The New York Times Magazine published an important article today about pain control and the fear put into doctors by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) that treating patients too aggressively with opioids (narcotics) could be dangerous to one's freedom.

The story, byline Tina Rosenberg, hits on all cylinders, too many in fact, to discuss fully here. The focal point tells of the imprisonment--effectively for life--of Ronald McIver, a doctor who was convicted of drug trafficking for too liberally prescribing opioids to treat severe chronic pain. (I take no position on McIver's case, but he is certainly not the only pain control doctor so imprisoned.) The article also does a nice job of educating the public about pain control, such as detailing how opioids are not addicting when used for a proper medical purpose of controlling pain, and how dosages can be titrated up slowly when needed without adverse impact on the patient. (Dr. Eric Chevlen and I discuss these matters more fully in our book Power Over Pain: How to Get the Pain Control You Need.)

The crux of the article involves the negative role the DEA plays--I hope inadvertently--in preventing people suffering from severe chronic pain from obtaining medically available relief. From the story:

In addition to medical considerations real or imagined, there is another deterrent to opioid use: fear. According to the D.E.A., 71 doctors were arrested last year for crimes related to "diversion"--the leakage of prescription medicine into illegal drug markets. The D.E.A. also opened 735 investigations of doctors, and an investigation alone can be enough to put a doctor out of business, as doctors can lose their licenses and practices and have their homes, offices and cars seized even if no federal criminal charges are ever filed. Both figures--arrests and investigations--have risen steadily over the last few years.
This is most unfortunate. Doctors should not be allowed to use their M.D. as a cover for drug pushing, of course. But they should also not be punished for prescribing aggressively in limited circumstances, when there is no other way to provide effective medical relief. And it seems to me, that the benefit of the doubt in borderline cases should be on the side of the doctors, not drug law enforcement.

Whether the DEA is actually being overly aggressive is a debatable matter, but it is entirely beside the point. The undeniable fact is that the DEA is perceived by many doctors as gunning for aggressive prescribers--resulting in a lamentable deterrence to the proper alleviation of pain. This means, as one case described by Rosenberg makes clear, that patients who could be virtually pain free, instead are forced to live every day as a grueling experience marred by agony and pain-caused physical limitations.

What is to be done? The law could--and should--get the DEA off of doctors' backs by declaring that aggressive pain control is a proper and legitimate use of controlled substances--even if it inadvertently leads to death--while at the same time, declaring that such use is not a license to prescribe these drugs to intentionally cause death.

One would think such a proposal would be uncontroversial. Alas. Several years ago, federal legislation to this effect known as the Pain Relief Promotion Act was filibustered to death by Oregon's Senator Ron Wyden--who warned that it would threaten Oregon's assisted suicide regime.

So, the DEA continues to chill proper pain control, and Oregon's doctors are free to help kill patients. But caught in between are tens of thousands of desperate people whose only hope for relief may be the type of doctors who are willing to prescribe aggressively, even at the risk of being put in jail.


Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Corruption of Science: A Continuing Saga

I don't really care what bioethicist Ronald M. Green thinks (and, I am sure, he doesn't care about my opinions). I bring Green up because he is the head of the Advanced Cell Technology bioethics advisory committee, and a professor at Dartmouth, who has just published an opinion piece in Nature Genetic Reviews, "Can We Develop Ethically Universal Stem-Cell Lines?" (June 2007, Vol. 8, pp. 480-485), in which he analyzes the ethics of various "alternative methods" of obtaining pluripotent stem cells without destroying embryos. Among those techniques discussed are my good friend Bill Hurlbut's idea of "altered nuclear transfer," "regression" of differentiated cells such as skin cells into stem cells, using cells from dead embryos, and the technique promoted by ACT, using cells taken from 8-cell embryos for ESCR, which may one day yield ES cells without destroying embryos. (Readers of SHS may recall that ACT falsely asserted that it had accomplished this feat, when it actually had not, and that Dr. Green told the Washington Post, "You can honestly say this cell line is from an embryo that was in no way harmed or destroyed," when you could honestly say no such thing. Here is my Weekly Standard piece, "Science by Press Release," discussing that imbroglio.)

Always an enthusiastic supporter of destructive embryo research, not surprisingly, Green is critical of these alternatives, although he seems most supportive of the technique being promoted by his pals at ACT--to the point that he urges that the NIH fund it (along with two other approaches) once it can be shown to be feasible.

And here's where the corruption of science comes in: Nature, surely knows that Green has a professional relationship with ACT, and yet permitted him to write on this subject without disclosing his association. The paper merely asserts that Green has no financial conflicts. But personal relationships and connections at a level in which professional advice is given--even if pro bono--can materially bias one's thinking. Failing to fully disclose that Green has been personally involved with the researchers and in publicly promoting one of the techniques about which he writes is another example of how the politicization of science is undermining its credibility and causing it to take on the trappings of a mere special interest.

Two thumbs down.


Friday, June 15, 2007

China's Slavery Problem

This is an ugly story: Children are being enslaved as brick makers in China. From the London Times report:

More than 1,000 children may have been kidnapped and sold into slave labour in a brutal human trafficking ring that has shocked and outraged China. The children, some as young as 8, worked in brick kilns for 16 hours a day with meagre food rations. They were guarded by fierce dogs and thugs who beat their prisoners at will.

Many were abducted right off the streets of cities in the region and sold to factories and mines for as little as 400 yuan (£27). The unfolding scandal, involving negligent law enforcement and even collusion between government officials and slave masters, burst into the open this week.

And here's more from the Telegraph's reporting:

The reports of children being abducted, locked in factories for years, beaten, left untreated for severe burns and, in some cases, killed spread this week from a single case in Shanxi province to implicate hundreds of kilns.It took a campaign by parents, who in some cases led raids to rescue their children themselves, before official action was taken. They say at least 1,000 children, as well as adults, have been abducted.

Reporters have alleged that collusion between the kiln owners and local officials blocked intervention. In the first case discovered, the owner was the son of the local Communist Party boss.

Let us hope the Chinese Government makes short work of these criminals. But I worry that China has an inadequate appreciation of the intrinsic value of human life, given its past and present policies involving the Falun Gong, organ harvesting and sales, and eugenics. Slavery and human trafficking are a major issue inextricably connected to human exceptionalism, which seems to be worsening (or perhaps, we are just learning more about it). I hope to focus more on this issue in the future.


Mitt Romney's Stem Cell Politics

Governor Mitt Romney, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, has a piece in today's NRO promoting "alternatives" to embryonic stem cell research. Skipping over his partisan arguments, here is the crux of his column:

I studied the issue for many months, and entered into conversation with experts from across the nation who were looking for consensus solutions, like Stanford's Dr. William Hurlbut. In the end, I became persuaded that the stem-cell debate was grounded in a false premise, and that the way through it was around it: by the use of scientific techniques that could produce the equivalent of embryonic stem cells but without cloning, creating, harming, or destroying developing human lives. A number of such techniques have begun to emerge in recent years, and as last week's exciting scientific publications showed, some of the world's best stem-cell scientists are hard at work bringing them to fruition. Moreover, two of these techniques, Altered Nuclear Transfer and Direct Reprogramming could produce patient-specific stem-cell lines for the study of diseases.

Our government should encourage and support these scientific developments, rather than undermine the effort to find a solution. Finding cures to diseases using methods that uphold ethical principles and sustain social consensus should be the objective of America's approach to stem-cell research...
Support for ethical biomedical research should be part of our collective identity as a noble society. Instead of turning the quest for cures into a partisan battle, Congress should embrace the exciting emerging lines of research that could meet the goals of all sides in the stem-cell debate.
Pluripotency as a gold standard of stem cell research remains to be demonstrated. But Romney is right that whatever one might think of federal funding for ESCR or the ethical propriety of human cloning, there is no reason not to back research into alternatives. After all, it would increase knowledge while avoiding the ethical contention that has marked the ESCR debate.


David Brooks on Genetic Enhancement of Progeny

New York Times columnist David Brooks weighs in on human genetic engineering with some pithy points and a disturbing passivity. (No link available.) First, the pithy points:

[A]Harris poll suggested that more than 40 percent of Americans would use genetic engineering to upgrade their children mentally and physically. If you get social acceptance at that level, then everybody has to do it or their kids will be left behind.

Which means that sooner or later reproduction becomes a casting call for ''Baywatch'' and people like me become an evolutionary dead end. For centuries my ancestors have been hewing peat in Wales and skipping school in Ukraine, but those of us in the low-center-of-gravity community will be left on evolution's cutting-room floor. People under 5-foot-9 can't even donate sperm to these banks, so my co-equals are doomed, let alone future Napoleons.

The people who do this will pay no heed to the fact that mediocre looks have always been a great spur to creative achievement and ugliness is the mother of genius.
Brooks' point is that being less than a perfect specimen often drives people to achievement. Moreover, the drive to genetically enhance, contrary to the utilitarian presumptions of the transhumanists, would mean the end of true diversity. Imagine the stultifying sameness if every man was as handsome as Brad Pitt. If you doubt it this would happen, just follow the fashion tyranny among the young.Now for Brook's passivity:
I'm not under the illusion that any of this can be stopped. Conservatives like me think that if you want your kids to have Harvard genes you should have to endure living with a Harvard spouse. But the rest of the country is not with us. There's no way people are going to foreswear the joys of creative genetics. ''I would probably choose somebody with a darker skin color so I don't have to slather sunblock on my kid all the time,'' one potential mother told Jennifer Egan of The Times Magazine last year.
Baloney. I grow weary of learned pundits shaking their heads, sighing, and saying nothing can be done. Such pessimism merely establishes a self-fulfilling prophesy. And it isn't true. Humans have the capacity to choose and we have the capacity to persuade and to be convinced. If you doubt it, look how in a very short time smoking has gone from a largely participated in activity to a socially disfavored activity which leaves smokers close to becoming pariahs.

People haven't thought about this deeply yet because it is still a science fiction fantasy. Polls today mean nothing. Shallow people, as the one quoted about skin color, should not drive our culture or public policies. What matters is furthering the cause of universal human rights and intrinsic human value, and explaining to people the tremendous benefit we all receive from the infinite variety of the human species.


Thursday, June 14, 2007

Power to the Robots: Power to the Robots, Right On!

We have yet to ensure equal rights for humans, some demand "rights" for animals, and now we have a group dedicated to ensuring equal rights for robots--when they exist, that is. What rights would those be? After all, robots would not be alive:

Existence, Independence, and the Pursuit of Greater Cognition... Should robots reach the level of self-awareness and show genuine intelligence, we must be prepared to treat them as sentient beings, and respect their desires, wants, and needs as we respect those things in our human society. Failure to recognize and grant these rights to non-human artificial intelligences would be a crime on the order of the 19th Century's failure to recognize the humanity and attendant rights of people of African descent. Outward differences in appearances should in no way affect our ethical treatment of self-aware, intelligent beings.
How about we just don't create machines that would appear to have such traits?

This may be a put-on, but I doubt it. Some people are obsessed about granting human moral status to a wide assortment of non human entities. With this as a growing mindset, why not include inanimate objects?


Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Eugenic Abortion and Female Infanticide Cost 60 Million Females Life

This story is really a tragic tale of how rejecting human exceptionalism leads to the deaths of those deemed inferior--in this case girls--mostly in Asia. According to the United Nations, 60 million female fetuses or baby girls are "missing"--meaning they were killed via sex selection abortion or infanticide--because they were of the "wrong" sex. This is leading to a growing gender imbalance. From the story:

How bad are the imbalances between males and females in Asia? Generally, the normal sex ratio at birth (SRB) is between 103 and 105 males per 100 females, and in rare cases 106 or a bit more than that.

Countries that are known to have or have had higher sex ratio at birth numbers include South Korea, which peaked at 115 in 1994, Singapore where the SRB registered 109 in 1984 and China, which has seen the numbers increase over the past two decades.

Published reports in China show the gender ratio for newborns in 2005 was 118 boys for every 100 girls, and in some southern regions like Guangdong and Hainan, the number has reached 130 boys for every 100 girls.

In India, the result is causing a crisis, including human trafficking:

Experts who have analyzed the National Family Health Survey 2 (NFHS2) estimate that about 300,000 girls go "missing" in India each year. Other studies have put the number between 150,000 and 500,000.

While many people see this as a problem of the poor, analysts say it is more prevalent among those in the wealthier and educated segments of society.

Men in parts of India are also beginning to have difficulties finding brides, causing some to leave the country to do so. "Hindu girls are being smuggled and purchased from poor countries like Nepal and Bhutan to be brides for Indian men," said Bernard Dickens, professor emeritus of health law and policy at the University of Toronto Law School.

This spells trouble in the future for societal and family stability. And it is a terrible setback for the important principle of gender equality and the intrinsic value of human life simply because it is human. Truly, we discard human exceptionalism at the peril of the weak and vulnerable.


Tuesday, June 12, 2007

More Good News On Parkinson's With Non Controversial Research

Well, lo and behold: Just as a study was released showing that neural stem cells may be efficacious in treating Parkinson's, another report shows that a drug used for high blood pressure may also provide relief. From the Scientific American story:

A team at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago reports that isradipine (brand name DynaCirc), a drug currently prescribed to reduce high blood pressure, may block the death of neurons in patients with advanced cases of Parkinson's and may also be able to prevent the development of the disease.
The story also describes the stem cell study I blogged earlier.

Stories such as this one are important to highlight. Too often, it seems as if most biotechnology involves controversial and morally contentious issues such as cloning and ESCR, when in actuality, the great majority of research is either uncontroversial--such as using blood pressure medicine to relieve Parkinson's symptoms--or not controversial in a way that materially impacts human dignity and intrinsic worth, as in bio-engineered foods. Biotechnology offers us a great chance to alleviate human suffering and promote human thriving. But we only will have one chance to reap the bounteous harvest without compromising important moral imperatives.


Human Adult Stem Cells Treat Parkinson's in Monkeys

I hope this is as big a deal as it seems. Adult neural stem cells taken from cadaver fetuses--remember adult stem cells is a popular term--have dramatically reduced the symptoms of Parkinson's disease, according to a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. From the story, as conveyed by New

A single injection of neural stem cells has markedly improved the symptoms of Parkinson's disease in monkeys, paving the way for stem-cell therapies in humans with the condition. Richard Sidman at the Harvard Institutes of Medicine in Boston, US, and colleagues recreated the symptoms of Parkinson's in African green monkeys by injecting them with a chemical that damages neurons that make dopamine--a neurotransmitter vital for controlling movement. They then injected the monkeys' brains with neural stem cells taken from human fetuses that had been miscarried at 13 weeks. A month later, the monkeys showed marked recoveries. "They could stand, walk, feed themselves, and had regained independent living," says Sidman.
The benefits were not permanent.
After around four months, the animals again began to deteriorate, probably because the stem cells were being attacked by the monkeys' immune systems. However, they were still much healthier than untreated monkeys.
What is interesting is that this same experiment has been performed in one human using his own tissues--with strikingly similar results. Dr. Michael Levesque removed about a pea-sized section of Turner's brain. He isolated neural stem cells, proliferated them in culture, and then returned Turner's cells back into his brain. Despite only being treated in one lobe, Turner testified in Congress (and told me) that he enjoyed years of almost complete remission. His Parkinson's symptoms have now returned and he yearns for another treatment.

Bottom line: It continues to appear that adult stem cell research will offer tremendous human benefit. This technique still has to be tried much more fully in human trials, and I hope they use the Levesque technique to avoid tissue rejection and the concern some will have over using fetal tissues if it comes from aborted fetuses. But despite the ongoing assertions of the famous, embryonic stem cell research does clearly not appear to offer the "best hope" for patients with Parkinson's disease. Time for politicians and the media to get a clue.


More Bad Science Reporting on Cloning

I grow weary: Science journalists should report science matters accurately, without spin and the usual hype seen in the ESCR/human cloning debates. Alas, we don't see much of that in this report, byline Dave Mosher of LiveScience. The story is about Ian Wilmut, the veterinarian who supervised the cloning of Dolly the sheep, who, since his animal cloning enterprise went belly up has been driven to clone human life. Wilmut wants to create human/animal chimera embryos by using SCNT with human DNA and animal eggs.

But this post isn't about that issue, it is about imprecise reporting. From the story:

Wilmut proposes that scientists take a DNA-packed nucleus from a diseased person's cell, then slip it into an animal egg from which the nucleus has been removed. About one times out of eight, a clump of human embryonic stem cells should grow. Once the clump is large enough, medical researchers could test experimental drugs on the cells without destroying a single human embryo.
First, why should it work one time out of eight? Despite thousands of attempts, scientists still haven't been able to clone human embryos and obtain stem cells from them using human eggs. Moreover, it is simply disingenuous to claim that a "clump of human embryonic stem cells" would grow. If the technique worked--a big if--the result would be an embryo that would be about 99% human. It would not be a clump of stem cells and it would raise ethical issues that would be unique in human history.

The reporter also fails to note that Wilmut has been making a lot of claims of late about the benefits of human cloning research. He asserts in this article that chimera embryos could lead to vastly in creased drug testing because it could avoid having to test the products in mice. Perhaps. But given the failure of human cloning so far, and in light of Wilmut's increasingly anything goes pronouncements, such as now supporting reproductive cloning in some cases, and considering his expressed desire to engage in unethical medical testing of unsafe embryonic stem cells on dying people, Wilmut's assertions should be looked at with at least some skepticism. Alas, too often the science press these days act more like star-struck fans than true journalists.


Canadian Doctor Sentenced for Assisted Suicide

Dr. Ramesh Kumar Sharma, a British Columbian physician, pled guilty to attempting to assisted the suicide of a 92-year-old nursing home resident. The woman survived. Although he was not jailed, has been stripped of his license to practice medicine and subjected to other restrictions during his probationary period. Good. Doctors are not licensed as killers.

P.S. In an earlier incident, he was convicted of having sex with a patient. This guy really doesn't take the Hippocratic Oath seriously which prohibits both euthanasia and sexual congress with patients.


Monday, June 11, 2007

Data Stored in Living Cells

According to this report, scientists have stored data in living neurons for the first time, opening the potentiality for "cyborg computer chips." From the story:

Many believe that complex patterns of neuronal firing are templates for memory, which the brain uses when storing information. Imprinting such "memories" on artificial neural networks provides a potential way to develop cyborg chips, says Ben-Jacob. These would be useful for monitoring biological systems like the brain and blood since, being human, they would respond to the same chemicals.
I do not believe that there are any ethical issues raised with this technology as it relates to human exceptionalism or human dignity. However, I do wonder whether we are biting off more than we can safely chew.


Stem Cell Radio

This is an interesting radio interview (NPR: Diane Rehm) about the current stem cell controversies. It is worth a listen. The guests are

Rick Weiss, science reporter for "The Washington Post"

Dr. John Gearhart, professor of medicine and director of the stem cell program at Johns Hopkins University

Dr. William Hurlbut, physician and consulting professor at the Neuroscience Institute at Stanford University Medical Center; member of the President's Council on Bioethics

For the most part, the conversation was respectful and informative, albeit it was (typically) two-against-one. But, I resent Gearhart's claiming that opposing his view--full federal funding of ESCR--will cost lives. One could also say, as some do, that every dime put into ESCR is money that is not available for adult stem cell research, where, some believe, the greater potential for clear and more immediate therapeutic benefits can be found, and that therefore, his views will cost lives. But that would be wrong, too.

People in this debate should be free to promote their views without being accused falsely of "costing people lives." Indulging such scare mongering is to hit below the belt and to disrespect the democratic process.


Would-Be Human Cloners Stymied by Egg Dearth--Again

Human cloning researchers are again whining that their important work is being held back by a lack of human eggs. This time, it is researchers from Harvard, as reported a few days ago in the Boston Globe. From the story:

A year after Harvard University scientists began trying to create cloned human embryonic stem cells, they have been stymied by their failure to persuade a single woman to donate her eggs for the groundbreaking but controversial research.

The goal of the work is to create embryonic stem cells--all-purpose formative cells that can develop into virtually any cell in the body--that are genetically matched to a patient with a particular disease, such as diabetes. Studying such cells could give scientists new insights into the diseases and possibly lead to treatments.

"It's an important experiment and we can't do it," Kevin Eggan, an assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard.

Gee, women are reluctant to risk their lives, health, and/or fecundity for unethical human cloning research. Watch out though: As repeatedly reported here, and alluded to in the story, this is leading to a coming drive to buy eggs from destitute women--the new colonialism. In the meantime, perhaps these researchers should work on projects that everyone can support.


The "Price" of Happiness: Some Things Can't be Commodified

Can money buy happiness? Some social scientists in the UK took a look. And they discovered that the primary factors that make for a happy life aren't money, but strong social connections.

The researchers created a "life satisfaction scale," that ranged from one (miserable) to seven (euphoric). They then tried to put the unquantifiable in money terms, figuring the "extra money the average person would have to earn every year to move up one point on the scale to another. They also worked out how far life events and changing social relationships on their own could move someone up the satisfaction scale." The results don't surprise me but are worth considering. From the story:

By comparing these two types of information, they were able to put a "price" on social and lifestyle factors. So, for example, they found that having excellent health was worth the equivalent of a £304,000-a-year pay rise in how happy it made you feel.

Marriage increases happiness levels by the same amount as earning an extra £54,000 a year, although, surprisingly, living together was worth more, at an extra £82,500. Meanwhile, chatting to your neighbours on a regular basis would make you as happy as getting a £40,000-a-year pay boost.

The scale also works in reverse, however, so that the grief of becoming widowed decreases your satisfaction-with life by the same amount as your salary dropping £200,000 a year.

Dr Nattavudh Powdthavee, one of the main researchers, said: "One of the things we wanted to find out was the answer to the age-old question--can money buy the greatest amount of happiness for us?"

What they found, he explained, was that the results showed the importance of social relationships. "One potential explanation is that social activities tend to require our attention while they are being experienced, so that the joy derived from them lasts longer in our memory," he said. "Income, on the other hand, is mostly in the background. "We don't normally have to pay so much attention to the fact that we'll be getting a pay packet at the end of the week or month, so the joy derived from income doesn't last as long."

If one is broke, money becomes a bigger factor, of course. But some of the unhappiest people I have known have also been the wealthiest.

Still, I think the good professors missed the most important factor. This is Smith on life, so take it for what it is worth, but I have come to believe that the primary factor for our happiness--or even more important, joy--is love, the ability to love others, to be loved, and for those of a faith persuasion, to give love to and experience love from, one's concept of God. Get the love part right, particularly when it is experienced as a two-way street, and chances are you will be joyful--even in times of stress, grief, dying, and turmoil. As the Beatles put it, "Love is all you need." The rest is details. And that truly is priceless.


Sunday, June 10, 2007

Kevorkian and Wallace, Sitting in a Tree...

...k.i.s.s.i.n.g, as the old childhood ditty goes. Mike Wallace took another giant step outside of objective journalism--assuming it still exists anymore--to come to his pal Kevorkian's defense with letter to the editor in the New York Times. Kevorkian can't "evangelize," (Wallace's term) for euthanasia per the terms of his parole, so I guess Wallace intends to do it for him.

Disgraceful. Wallace is certainly free to adore Kevorkian. He is free to promote euthanasia legalization. But he should recuse himself from all journalistic reportage on the Kevorkian story in specific, and on euthanasia/assisted suicide in general. But don't hold your breath.


Columnist Meets the "Real" Jack Kevorkian

Mitch Albom, a columnist for the Detroit Free Press interviewed Kevorkian face-to-face, and apparently was taken aback by what he experienced. After a little time with Kevorkian, Albom writes, "I couldn't imagine a suffering so bad that I would want Kevorkian to be the last person I'd see on Earth." Here are a few other key moments from his column:

As we spoke, I heard intelligence, self-assurance, even arrogance. What I didn't hear was humanity. He didn't seem to think much of the human race. He likened life to "a tragedy." He quoted famous people saying they wouldn't bring babies into this world. When I said that would wipe out mankind, he said, "What's wrong with that?"

I began to sense a man who was more interested in death than life. Death was his academic passion, and sick patients were part of that academic pursuit, like lab rats...

I don't know what's the way to go. But after an hour, I knew I wouldn't want to go via Jack Kevorkian, a man for whom the world is bleak, happiness is rare, belief is a waste of time and life is a finite, meaningless entity. The act he champions may indeed be one of compassion, but how can it be delivered by such a cold, cold heart?

A lot of people continue to cling to the idea of euthanasia as "compassion." But it isn't, or, at least, it certainly wasn't for Kevorkian. The root meaning of that word is to "suffer with." Kevorkian just discarded people.


The New Colonialism: Exploiting the Poor for Their Body Parts

This article out of Korea about the charlatan, Hwang Wu-suk, is a prophetic warning about what the future may hold. He plans to continue to research human cloning, but not in South Korea. Hwang, who unethically obtained eggs for his earlier failed research, has stated he can't do his work in his own country because women are too protected (my take) from exploitation:

"Hwang believes that it is difficult to continue stem cell research in South Korea because it is hard to obtain ova," the government official said. "He is considering participating in an international consortium so he can continue his research abroad where conditions are more favorable to cloning researchers than here."
But here is the real kicker: Hwang will be working with a U.S. company, meaning that if this goes as planned, it would be a case of what my friend William Hurlbut calls "outsourcing ethics." If ethical rules protect the vulnerable in biotechnological or other medical research, why, just go to places--usually in undeveloped countries--where the law is more, shall we say, malleable:
It also said that Hwang will clone embryonic cells by transferring cell nuclei, and U.S. researchers will then develop them to fully-grown stem cells. Stem cells have the potential to transform into various types of human body cells, meaning they can be utilized as a "repair kit" for diseases.
The joint research of Hwang and the U.S. firm will mostly be conducted in a country other than South Korea or the United States since it is difficult to obtain ova in both countries, the paper said.Outsourcing ethics or the new colonialism: Anyway you put it, it is spelled e.x.p.l.o.i.t.a.t.i.o.n.


Friday, June 08, 2007

Nancy Pelosi's "Amen Moment"

Senator John Edwards was justly ridiculed when he stated in 2004 that people in wheelchairs would be able to walk if John Kerry were elected, because he would alter President Bush's embryonic stem cell funding policy. This bit of outrageous hype was quickly labeled Edwards' "amen moment."

Now, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has had a shameless amen moment of her own, asserting in the recent House of Representatives debate:

"Science is a gift of God to all of us and science has taken us to a place that is biblical in its power to cure," said Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, arguing for the bill's passage. "And that is the embryonic stem cell research."
The thing is: ESCR hasn't cured anything. This kind of wild hype is shameful and should be ridiculed far and wide. But the media won't even arch an eyebrow. They analyze every story and statement through the prism of destroying the Bush policy. In such a biased and ignorant milieu, no statement or argument made on behalf of embryonic stem cell research is too wild to be taken seriously.


A.B. 374 NOT Killed by the "Religious Right"

Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez has whined that the assisted suicide bill was defeated because it was "demonized by the religious right." Baloney. The religious right has about zero political power in California, particularly in the Assembly.

This bill was stopped because liberals, disability rights organizations, civil rights activists such as the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the California Medical Association, advocates for the poor, and others worked a vigorous grass roots campaign under the aegis of Californians Against Assisted Suicide to defeat the bill. Sure the religious right opposed it, along with the Catholic Church. But they weren't the difference. Other bills these groups oppose passed the Assembly without any trouble, for example, just the other day a bill to legalize same sex marriage. (That issue is not up for discussion here.)

No, it wasn't the "theocrats:" It was the realization by many progressives in the legislature that opposing assisted suicide is the truly liberal position.


Ka Ching! Kevorkian to Receive $50,000 From University of Florida to Speak

The Kevorkian train continues to roll. Help kill 130 people, most of whom he deemed to have lives not worth living due to disabilities. Seek the right to engage in human vivisection. Tear out one man's kidneys, an ex cop with quadriplegia from a gun shot wound, after assisting his suicide. Urge experimentation on condemned prisoners, those being euthanized, and living fetuses inside and outside the womb--and a university will gladly pony up big bucks. Truly, crime pays. So does promoting the devolution of medical ethics and the intrinsic value of human life.


Thursday, June 07, 2007

A.B. 374: Ding Dong the Bill is Dead!

I just received a report that A.B. 374, which would legalize assisted suicide in California, does not have the votes to pass in the Assembly and hence, will not be brought up for a vote. This is a great, hard fought, victory for a strange bedfellow political coalition consisting of liberals and conservatives, the secular and the pious, pro life and pro choice, medical professionals and advocates for the poor. I don't have a link to the story about it in the Sacramento Bee, but this is the gist:

Hotly contested legislation to allow doctors to prescribe fatal medication to terminally ill patients was shelved Thursday in the Assembly. Assembly Bill 374 lacked enough votes for passage and time was running out, with the Assembly facing a Friday deadline for acting upon bills by its members. "The people are there and the politicians aren't," said Will Shuck, chief of staff for Assemblywoman Patty Berg, a Eureka Democrat who helped write the bill.

AB 374 is dead for the year. It could be resurrected in January, Shuck said, but he is not sure whether that will happen.

A similar measure, one of the Legislature's most hotly contested, died in a Senate committee last year.

It will be. Assisted suicide advocates are truly dedicated to their agenda. Still, as I have said, I think the next big battleground will be Washington State, where there will probably be an initiative on the issue next year.

I fully appreciate the reasons why people might be attracted to and support assisted suicide. But, as I discuss fully in Forced Exit, it is a siren song that, in my view, would crash our society on the rocks and expose the most defenseless among us to terrible exploitation.


Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Phony Cloning Ban Loses in House

Legislation that redefines human cloning so that it legalizes it while purporting to ban it altogether is all the rage these days among Big Biotech boosters. An attempt to pass such a phony ban in the Congress lost today by a majority vote. Yuval Levin has the details over at NRO.


Sweating Out Assisted Suicide in Sacramento

The word from Sacramento is that the authors of A.B. 374, and Assembly Speaker Nunez have turned the political pressure cooker to the red zone as they seek 41 votes to pass the bill into the California Senate. So far, they are apparently not there. The news is that the bill has been put into the category of Pass & Retain, meaning it will not be brought up today.

Two more days. Let's hope that the refusing Democrats (all Republicans oppose) hold strong. Their courage is not only laudable, it is right. Meanwhile, I am biting my nails.


More Progress on Cell Reversion

Scientists continue to make headway on the goal of reverting adult cells back to an embryonic stem cell state. From the story:

Their procedure makes ordinary skin cells behave like stem cells. If the same can be done with human cells - a big if - the procedure could lead to breakthrough medical treatments without the contentious ethical and political debates surrounding the use of embryos.
This work is still in mice, and as a scientist makes clear in the story, there is still a very long way to go. But if this works, if the benefits touted for embryonic stem cells are found to be obtainable from ordinary skin cells--credit President George W. Bush's ESCR federal funding policy, which created an incentive for scientists to find alternatives to ESCR.


The Real Reason James Sherley Was Denied Tenure by MIT?

James Shirley, the biologist was denied tenure by MIT. An African-American, he claims racism. I suspect (but cannot prove) however, that it is his anti-human cloning and ESCR mindset that caused his denial--which is highlighted in "A Stem-Cell Heretic Makes His Case: MIT Scientist Says Embryo Research Is Unlikely to Lead to Cures," byline Peter Landers of the Wall Street Journal (no link). Here are some good pull quotes:

Embryonic stem-cell researchers are prone to touting the potential of their work to treat all sorts of ailments, from diabetes to Parkinson's disease. Don't bet on it, says James Sherley, a stem-cell specialist himself, who has become a notable heretic in the field... The 49-year-old MIT associate professor, who earned M.D. and Ph.D. degrees from Johns Hopkins University, formed his scientific view after many years studying cancer and cell division. He thinks embryonic stem cells, to be useful, would have to be turned into adult stem cells first. In that case, he asserts, there is no need to rush into research with the embryonic cells...

Stem cells from embryos only a few days old have the power to turn into any organ. [Actually, this remains entirely theoretical since it hasn't been actually accomplished.] Thus the hope for cures: If embryonic stem cells can be coaxed to turn into pancreatic cells making insulin, for example, diabetics treated with the cells might be able to avoid regular insulin injections. In theory, the same starting line of embryonic cells could be used to create new nerve cells for the paralyzed, cardiac cells for damaged hearts and so on. Stem cells in adults, by contrast, are generally limited to replenishing the organs where they're produced.

But Dr. Sherley isn't buying the proposition that more-versatile embryonic stem cells would be easier to use in treatment. The transformation of an embryonic stem cell, he says, is a one-way street: Once one of the cells turns, say, into a pancreatic cell, it can't go back. That's different from adult stem cells, which typically divide into two--one "differentiated" cell with a specific function and another stem cell. In this way, adult stem cells keep their own numbers steady, even as they regenerate the organ they belong to.
The story makes it clear that Shirley's views are heterodox. But science is supposed to have heterodox thinkers. Unfortunately, the word "heretical" used in the headline is the precise problem with science today: Scientists who don't unequivocally support ESCR and human cloning research can expect to be metaphorically burned at the stake.


Treating African Children as Human Guinea Pigs?

If this story is true, it is not the first time that Africans have been used in unethical experiments that would never be attempted in developed nations. Pfizer is being sued by Nigeria for killing and disabling children whilst testing a drug for the treatment of meningitis. I will not make any judgment here whether the charges are valid, and Pfizer denies all wrongdoing. But, the story, if true, is cause for great concern. Here is the heart of the controversy:

The Nigerian authorities say 200 children were involved in the Trovan experiment, without the approval of local regulatory authorities. They allege that as many as 11 died because of the treatment and that others developed deformities, including brain damage and paralysis.

Trovan was approved in the US in 1997 for use by adults but not by children. Two years later the US Food and Drug Administration warned that the drug could cause liver damage. The medicine has since been discontinued...

Bryant Haskins, a Pfizer spokesman in New York, said the drug was administered in accordance with Nigerian law. "These allegations against Pfizer, which are not new, are highly inflammatory and not based on all the facts," he said. "We continue to maintain ... that the Nigerian government was fully informed in advance of the clinical trial; that the trial was conducted appropriately, ethically and with the best interests of patients in mind; and that it helped save lives."

Pfizer has said previously that it obtained "verbal consent" from the parents of the affected children, and that the drugs were administered properly. But, before the trial, Juan Walterspiel, a disease specialist for Pfizer, warned the company that the drug was not "tested for its sensitivity before the first child was exposed to a live-or-die experiment".

Human rights groups have already accused some drugs firms of using Africa as a testing ground for medicines not approved by Europe or the US. In response to the Nigerian case,
Drug companies have treated the lives of Africans with lesser concern than Americans before, for example, in AIDS testing on infected pregnant women that used a placebo when testing a new drug rather than an efficacious medication that was already known to help prevent transmission to babies. Such unethical human experiments are a denial of the intrinsic equal worth and value of each human life.


Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Making Animals More Usable in Medical Research

This article in Wired demonstrates that, due to genetic engineering, animals may be becoming even more useful in medical research. From the story:

A panel of 36 mice could finally deliver the long-unfulfilled promise of personalized medicine. The mice were specially bred to contain just about any genetic predisposition in humans. They should help scientists determine which drugs are dangerous--or more effective--for individuals before they reach the market...

The testing won't be a silver-bullet solution to drug toxicity: Mice are not exactly like people. Plus, interactions between genes and environment are hard to duplicate in a lab. But the mice should help scientists understand these ambiguities, and using them should be a major improvement over testing drugs on just a few types of mice.


Kevorkian: "Let the Crippled People Demonstrate"

The disability rights community may be getting a bit under Jack Kevorkian's skin.

Also, contrary to his lawyer's many claims, Kevorkian apparently isn't near his death bed.

He said his hepatitis isn't bothering him currently, but he worries that his liver disease could flare up at any time.
Pardon my cynicism, but is anyone surprised?


More Evidence A.B. 374 Assisted Suicide Bill in Trouble

Assemblywoman Patty Berg, the driving legislator behind A.B. 374, the bill to legalize assisted suicide in California, is calling for reinforcements from the left wing base of the Democratic Party. Apparently, she doesn't have the votes to prevail, and so she is pulling out the "anti-choice" canard, claiming that the awful theocrats are on the verge of carrying the day. But, she also admits that it isn't the dreaded pro-lifers and Catholics that have brought the bill to the brink of defeat, but members of a potent liberal political coalition. From her plea:

Amazing as it may seem, the Right is just a few votes away from stopping a bill that has support of 70 percent of the state's voters. We're talking about the California Compassionate Choices Act, AB 374, which would give terminally ill patients the right to use medication to control their dying, just like the Death With Dignity Act allows Oregonians to make that choice.

If you think California should be immune to the anti-choice message, you'd be right. But that's what makes this play so unnerving. Anti-choice organizers are keeping the zealots in the closet, and cloaking themselves as protectors of the underclass. In short, they're using liberal ideology against the liberals.

The fact is, good and loyal progressives oppose assisted suicide for reasons of human rights. Indeed, opposing assisted suicide/euthanasia is liberal--properly understood--in that it protects the weak and vulnerable from exploitation and supports the equal worth and value of each and every human life--regardless of state of health, cognitive capacity, or physical capabilities.

I am encouraged but not yet popping the cork on the champagne bottle. Berg stomping her feet and warning darkly about a victory for the "Right" is a sign of near-desperation. But that doesn't mean the fight is won. Casting aspersions of this kind on your opponents often works in politics. We will have to keep struggling, as we have repeatedly in the past here in California, to "kill the bill, not the ill."


Monday, June 04, 2007

CBS: Credit Where Credit is Due

The CBS Web site has posted my NRO piece on Jack Kevorkian, which provides information in Kevorkian's own words about his actual motives and history, important issues that most media simply won't discuss. Thanks to CBS for the attempt at balance.


Sunday, June 03, 2007

Mike Wallace's Kiss Up Interview of Kevorkian: The Corruption of Journalism

I just watched the 60 Minutes interview of Kevorkian, and it was everything I expected it wouldn't be. First, "the hug" is not shown. The video of Kevorkian's release is shown, and when Wallace is meeting Kevorkian, the video cuts just before Wallace's infamous smiling bear hug of his pal. Second, Wallace does not disclose that he too, is an avid euthanasia proponent. Third, Wallace never brooks Kevorkian's obsession with "obitiatry," Kevorkian's word for human vivisection. Nor did Wallace mention or ask Kevorkian about tearing out the kidneys of Joseph Tushkowski and offering them for transplant "first come, first served." He did not mention nor ask Kevorkian about the undisputed fact that most of Kevorkian's "patients" were not terminally ill. He did not mention nor ask Kevorkian about the fact that Kevorkian has never advocated that euthanasia be limited to the terminally ill. Etc., etc., ad nauseum.

Kevorkian speaks about Youk being "terrified of choking to death." Kevorkian says, "It is up to me to dispel that terror." But he promotes terror by reinforcing the fears of ALS patients and their families that they will die by choking. I researched this matter carefully, speaking with some of the top hospice doctors in the world. I discovered that with proper medical interventions, people with ALS do not choke to death. Indeed, I carefully examined this matter with Dame Cecily Saunders, the founder of the modern hospice movement. She told me that in decades of hospice practice, not one of the thousands of ALS patient under her care ever died of choking. Not only did Kevorkian not tell Youk that, but 60 Minutes permitted the fear to be broadcast once again.

Kevorkian even had to ask Wallace to be a little tough in the interview. Scandalous. Irresponsible. Journalism at its most unjournalistic.


Real Life Rip Van Winkle Awakens

Jan Grzebski has awakened after 19 years of unconsciousness. When he was in an accident, Poland was in the throes of a communist tyranny. Now it is free, and rocking and rolling (which I also saw on my recent visit there). From the story:

"When I went into a coma there was only tea and vinegar in the shops, meat was rationed and huge petrol lines were everywhere," Grzebski told TVN24, describing his recollections of the communist system's economic collapse. Now I see people on the streets with cell phones and there are so many goods in the shops it makes my head spin."

But here is the crucial part of the story many will insist is not pertinent to certain recent controversies:

"It was Gertruda that saved me, and I'll never forget it," Grzebski told news channel TVN24. "For 19 years Mrs. Grzebski did the job of an experienced intensive care team, changing her comatose husband's position every hour to prevent bed-sore infections," Super Express reported Dr. Boguslaw Poniatowski as saying...He [Grzebski] said he vaguely recalled the family gatherings he was taken to while in a coma and his wife and children trying to communicate with him.

How wonderful Gertruda loved him enough to care for him so devotedly and for so long--and that she was allowed the chance to see her hopes and prayers realized. Others who wanted to do the same for loved ones have not been so fortunate.


Saturday, June 02, 2007

Swiss Suicide Clinics Help Kill the Depressed! No Kidding!

Swiss authorities are surprised, nay, SHOCKED, that Swiss suicide clinics help the depressed to kill themselves. Well, of course they do! After all, the Swiss Supreme Court has ruled that the mentally ill have a constitutional right to assisted suicide.

If you "own" your body and killing is an acceptable answer to human suffering, what do you think is going to happen? Let's wake up out there!


Friday, June 01, 2007

Dutch "Organ" TV Game Show A Hoax

Well, I bit. It turns out that the Dutch television show in which a woman was going to decide who would receive her kidney was a hoax designed to pressure the government into changing the organ procurement laws. The reason the hoax was so successful is that such a program seemed quite believable. In any event, it sure got the attention of the world.

HT: SHSer JacquefromTexas


Another Take on Kevorkian

Detroit Free Press columnist Brian Dickerson opines that Kevorkian was just a man ahead of his time. Imagine the "reality show" television potential, he writes, if Kevorkian were working today:

How differently things might have turned out if the nation's first shock doc had waited until 2007 to make his debut. He'd have been a star instead of a pariah, and network executives would be murdering one another for the rights to film him at work.

In "Whose Life Is It, Anyway?" terminally ill patients would compete for the opportunity to end their suffering with the host's expert medical assistance. A panel of medical experts would scrutinize each contestant's symptoms -- "That's an impressive cough, Mrs. Schlabotnik, but you didn't knock it out of the park" -- and viewers at home would cast their votes for the most hopeless prognosis.
But here, I think, Dickerson is wrong:
As things turned out, the conventional wisdom is that Kevorkian's premature crusade has doomed physician-assisted suicide, at least for this generation. Except in Oregon, where the practice enjoys limited legal sanction, pro-euthanasia activists have succeeded mainly in mobilizing the religious conservatives Kevorkian despises.

In Michigan, the conservative backlash Kevorkian triggered arguably has stymied stem cell research and gay marriage as well as abortion and euthanasia.
The actual backlash was from disability rights activists. It was Kevorkian's assisting the suicides of disabled people to general societal applause that caused Diane Coleman to form Not Dead Yet, and that changed everything. In my very informed opinion, it was NDY and its disability rights colleagues that actually stopped euthanasia from spreading around the country--not religious conservatives.


Reuters' "Five Facts" About Kevorkian

This Reuters sugar piece on Kevorkian leaves out some of the most pertinent parts of his story.

Here are five other facts that would seem to be more relevant than Kevorkian teaching himself Japanese:

1. The majority of his assisted suicides were not people with terminal illnesses, and indeed, five were not sick upon autopsy.
2. Kevorkian ripped the kidneys from one of his latter assisted suicides and offering them up at a news conference for transplantation.
3. Kevorkian wanted to experiment on men/women being executed.
4. Kevorkian began his assisted suicide campaign in order to be able to conduct "obitiatry," that is, euthanasia coupled with human vivisection.
5. Kevorkian advocated setting up regional euthanasia clinics to which anyone with a determined desire to die could attend.

Over the years, the media has barely covered these matters. But surely they are important to reaching a judgment about Kevorkian and his actions. This is precisely why the media is deemed untrustworthy by a growing number of people: They frequently leave out facts that are relevant and pertinent--but which get in the way of the "story" they want to tell.


Adult Stem Cells to Do Away With Need to Slaughter Animals for Meat?

Dutch scientists are trying to create meat in the lab. If they succeed, the hope is that people can eat pork--and presumably other meats--without the need to raise and butcher food animals, which is seen as more humane and environmentally friendly. From the story:

Under the process, researchers first isolate muscle stem cells, which have the ability to grow and multiply into muscle cells. Then they stimulate the cells to develop, give them nutrients and exercise them with electric current to build bulk.

After perfecting that process, scientists will then need to figure out how to layer tissues to add more bulk, since meat grown in petri dishes lacks the blood vessels needed to deliver nutrients through thick muscle fibers.
I certainly have no objection to this, although I doubt it will go very far. There are billions of mouths to feed in the world and I wonder if growing meat in the lab could ever be done with sufficient efficiency and productivity to succeed commercially. But in limited cases, such as space travel (as mentioned in the story), it could fit the bill.

Growing muscle in the lab from adult stem cells could also have tremendous human medical application.


Jack Kevorkian: Would Be Human Vivisector

This is my last planned installment on the release of Jack Kevorkian from prison. The article could have been called "Kevorkian in His Own Words," for I present his motives for engaging in his assisted suicide campaign, as he stated them--the right to engage in human experimentation on people he was euthanizing or executing.

He began seeking the right to engage in what he came to call "obitiatry" as far back as 1959. In the 1980s, he continued writing in journals, adding the use of condemned prisoners' organs as a benefit to society out of the death penalty. When he was finally turned down by all prisons, he "conceived of the idea" of transferring this desire from the condemned to those seeking euthanasia. And this was the point all along, as he wrote in Prescription Medicide:

I feel it is only decent and fair to explain my ultimate aim: It is not simply to help suffering and doomed persons kill themselves--that is merely the first step, an early distasteful professional obligation (now called medicide) that nobody in his or her right mind could savor. [W]hat I find most satisfying is the prospect of making possible the performance of invaluable experiments or other beneficial medical acts under conditions that this first unpleasant step can help establish—in a word obitiatry.
What kind of experiments? Pure quackery:
If we are ever to penetrate the mystery of death--even superficially--it will have to be through obitiatry. Research using cultured cells and tissues and live animals may yield objective biological data, and eventually perhaps even some clues about the essence of mere vitality or existence. But knowledge about the essence of human death will of necessity require insight into the nature of the unique awareness of or consciousness that characterizes cognitive human life. That is possible only through obitiatric research on living human bodies, and most likely centering on the nervous system...on anesthetized subjects [to] pinpoint the exact onset of extinction of an unknown cognitive mechanism that energizes life.
Kevorkian never quite got there, but he came close. He ripped out the kidneys of one of his later victims and held a press conference offering them to the public, "First come, first served."

Here is how I conclude:
Don't expect any of these disturbing issues to be raised by Mike Wallace or Kevorkian's other interlocutors. The media want to tell a fairy tale of Jack the Martyr jailed for pursuing the enlightened cause of compassion and "death with dignity." But the truly interesting story that will go mostly unwritten is how a clearly twisted personality--driven to his assisted suicide campaign by an obsession with human vivisection and a desire to exploit the weak and desperate for crass utilitarian purposes --became, for a time, the most famous and popular doctor in the world.

P.S. I just was told by a radio producer that Wallace met Kevorkian when he got out of prison. In this story, Mike Wallace is not a journalist but an advocate.