Thursday, December 21, 2006

Bioethics and Emmanuel's Return

Our guest blogger this week is John Silvius, Center Associate for Environmental Ethics.

In the December 4 entry, we reflected upon the incarnation, where God became flesh and dwelt among us as our Emmanuel. His entry into this world to reconcile it from the fall signifies the value He places upon human life and all of His creation. But how will He bring reconciliation and justice to all?

The writer of Hebrews, quoting from Psalm 8, exclaims, "You have made Him for a little while lower than the angels . . . you have put all things in subjection under His feet" (Heb. 2:7-8). But then the writer laments, "But now we do not yet see all things subjected to Him" (Heb 2:8b). Indeed, the Earth remains shrouded in the darkness of sin, greed, injustice, and conflict. How then can we sing the words of hope and joy penned by Isaac Watts in 1719?

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

The answer comes when we realize that these lyrics, inspired by Psalm 98, look beyond the present age to the future return of Emmanuel to Earth. At that time the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6b). Then joy will overflow from fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains, and justice and righteousness will prevail.

Today, although we do not yet see Him enthroned as king on Earth, we celebrate at Christmas His first coming to pierce the darkness of human hearts and to free us from sin. By His first coming, He aimed to reconcile and then transform us by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:2). Then, as ambassadors, we bring the light of Emmanuel’s kingdom of grace, mercy, and truth to the broader culture. To a culture that devalues human life and all of God’s creation, we are called to present a biblical perspective through polite discourse and lifestyles that demonstrate victory over the materialism of our day.

Jesus taught us to pray, "Your kingdom come, Your will be done, On earth as it is in heaven" (Matt. 6:10). What attitudes and actions toward others or toward God’s creation are consistent with this prayer and your role as an ambassador of Christ? What roles can you play in your family, church, community, and in education to engage the broader culture with a “biblical bioethic?”

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Of Babies and Body Parts

This holiday season is all about new life. But in a cruel parody of the Christmas story, grisly news has emerged from the Ukraine. According to the BBC News Service, it appears that healthy newborn babies have been slaughtered as a source of stem cells. Video evidence from actual autopsies reveals dismembered infants, and raises disturbing questions about how they died. According to the BBC:

Ukraine has become the self-styled stem cell capital of the world. There is a trade in stem cells from aborted foetuses, amid unproven claims they can help fight many diseases.

But now there are claims that stem cells are also being harvested from live babies.
A British forensic pathologist is "very concerned to see bodies in pieces," as might be the case if stem cells were removed from the bone marrow of these infants.

There is real value to using bone marrow as a source of stem cells; such treatments have been used with volunteer adult donors for many years. Yet the rich clients who pay to obtain them from dead babies cannot seriously expect that some sort of "ethics" will guide the Ukrainian doctors who are complicit with murder.

If this horrible story turns out to be true (and the early evidence is very worrisome), it will be just one more indication of the hype and hysteria over "stem cell research" that promises much more than it can deliver.

BBC News Story

Monday, December 04, 2006

Emmanuel and the Environment

Our guest blogger this week is John Silvius, Center Associate for Environmental Ethics.

In the last entry, we saw that the incarnation is "the ultimate testimony to the value of all human beings." The baby born of Mary in the straw amidst the animals in the stable also provides the foundation for a Christian environmental stewardship ethic. For when God became flesh and dwelt among us as Emmanuel, He demonstrated that the value and the good He saw in His original creation (Genesis 1), now groaning under the curse of sin (Romans 8: 19-23), was worth His entry into flesh to "reconcile all things to Himself . . . whether things on earth or things in heaven" (Colossians 1:20). The breadth of Emmanuel’s redemptive plan extends to the soil and water, the lion and the lamb, and to His fallen stewards of creation. This should give us pause this Christmas when we converse with those outside of Christ. Many unbelievers doubt that God or heaven-minded Christians care about the environment. Allow me to illustrate.

A recent book, Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, by E.O. Wilson, is written in the form of an open letter to a Baptist pastor. It is a plea for religion and science to unite "on the common ground of biological conservation" to solve the environmental problems of Earth. Wilson, a distinguished Harvard biologist and self-proclaimed "scientific humanist," makes this challenging statement: "I am puzzled that so many religious leaders, who spiritually represent a large majority of people around the world, have hesitated to make protection of the Creation an important part of their magisterium. Do they believe that human-centered ethics and preparation for the afterlife are the only things that matter?"

How would you respond to Wilson’s question? Have we unknowingly conveyed an unbiblical message that Emmanuel came to save humans only while leaving the rest of creation that groans for His coming? May the message of Emmanuel and the scope of His redemptive love which includes the whole of creation (or "the environment") embolden us to articulate with grace the message of a robust "Christian environmental ethic."

Center for Bioethics Resource Page on Environmental Ethics

Monday, November 27, 2006

The Bioethics of Bethlehem

As we enter Advent, it may be worth pausing in our mad seasonal rush to reflect on the significance of Emmanuel, or "God with us," from Matthew 1:23.

For Christians, this means that God sent His Son in human form, to save mankind from sin and condemnation. Yet we seldom consider the amazing detail that Jesus was Himself fully man from the very beginning, which means that He started His earthly life as an embryo.

Doctor Luke records in his gospel (1:26-45) the joyous announcement by the angel Gabriel that Mary would be with child. Just a few weeks later, Mary visits her cousin, six months pregnant with John, who would become the Baptist. When Mary greets Elizabeth, John could not restrain his excitement, though yet unborn. He leaped in his mother's womb in the presence of the embryonic Jesus! Nigel Cameron has said it well:

[He] was not merely the tiniest of humans, he was the cosmic creator, the Word by whom the Godhead has spoken into existence the vastness of time and space. And the One who will one day be our Judge.
The incarnation is the ultimate testimony to the value of of all human beings, even those not yet born. At Christmas, this is truly good news.

Christianity Today article:

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

DNA as Destiny?

Since the completion of the Human Genome Project, there seems to be a growing sense that everything, including our behavior, can be explained by our genes. According to this idea, there's a gene (or genes) for addiction, for sexual orientation, even for altruism. Now that we know the human genetic code, we can understand everything about our nature.

Recent work in epigenetics is undermining such determinism. Epigenetics is the study of those influences that act “over and above” genetics. For example, one study showed certain genetic mutations that normally lead to obesity in rats can be turned off by a modification in diet. The same amounts of food were given, but expression of the abnormal gene was blocked by changing the type of food.

In another study performed in mice, more intimate behavior of mothers towards their offspring led to increases in the size of the hippocampal region of the brain, a change that would normally have been ascribed to genetics alone.

The point is that DNA is not destiny. In the words of one writer, “Free will is not only real; to a yet undetermined extent, it can override DNA.” The implications for ethics and behavior are obvious. In contrast to the reductionism of secular science, free will is not an illusion, and our choices matter.

Original article:

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Abandoning the Prime Directive?

In his Epidemics, the great healer Hippocrates gave this advice: 'As to diseases, make a habit of two things -- to help, or at least to do no harm.' The Roman physician Galen said it more compactly, as 'primum non nocere,' meaning, 'first of all, do no harm.'

Since the era of Hippocrates, the keystone of medicine has always been that physicians can be relied on to do their best for their patients. To borrow a phrase from Star Trek, this is the 'Prime Directive' of medicine: doctors are always to heal, never to harm.

Apparently, that may change, if the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecology has its way. As reported in the Scotsman news service: "The College is arguing for 'active euthanasia' to be considered for the overall good of parents, sparing them the emotional burden and financial hardship of bringing up the sickest babies."

That a professional medical society would seriously make such a statement is rather disturbing. It is a sad commentary on the way the medical practice has changed since World War II. Instead of focusing on the goal of healing, modern medicine emphasizes relief of suffering. This subtle change tends to diminish the patient as person, and instead targets the disease process itself, to the detriment of the healing profession and society as a whole.

At least there are some voices of reason in the UK these days. Neonatologist John Wyatt has said it well: "Intentional killing is not part of medical care . . . [O]nce you introduce the possibility of intentional killing into medical practice you change the fundamental nature of medicine."

In the midst of the wonderful technological advances in health care, physicians must never abandon their Prime Directive.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Brave New Fathers

As a follow-up to Aaron's blog last week about reproductive tech, I came across an article in the LA Times. The story raises profoundly disturbing questions about how society views reproduction and having babies, and crosses the line into the chilling realm of eugenics.

The news article starts out with Chad and David, a gay couple in Fairfax, Virginia, sorting through possible ‘egg donors.’ Chad likes #694, who scores high in academics and music, but David prefers #685, who has the edge in athletic ability and dance.

Here’s the plan: the two men hope to have a child through gestational surrogacy. This will involve paying a carefully-chosen woman to provide the eggs, since they want to “exert some control over the child’s genetic makeup.” These eggs, combined with the men’s own sperm, would produce several embryos by in vitro fertilization. Some of the embryos would be implanted into another woman, also paid for her services, who would carry the baby (or babies) to term. In this way, Chad and David hope to become fathers.

Do you have any questions about this kind of arrangement? Here are some of my concerns:
  • Setting aside any moral objections to homosexual relationships, research has shown that children need both male and female role models for proper development.
  • According to Chad and David, this “felt more like catalog shopping than human reproduction.” It seems like human beings and their parts have become commodities to be bought and sold on the open market.
  • Selecting one person for reproduction over another based on genetics denies the ethical principle of equality of persons. Such eugenics ideas have discriminated against the poor and disadvantaged, and history has taught us we pay a high price.
  • Speaking of eugenics, what of the embryos that are not implanted? Surely those with genetic defects will be discarded, violating the sanctity of human life. At the very least, leftover embryos will be frozen, leaving them with an uncertain future.
  • What of society at large? Have we so instrumentalized procreation that children are more a ‘product’ than actual sons and daughters?

My thanks to Stephen Grabill ( for bringing this article to my attention.

Original LA Times article:,0,5016763.story

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Reproduction and Our Modern Attitude

Our guest blogger is Aaron Costerisan, this year's Center for Bioethics Fellow:

In an article entitled 'Reproduction Revolution: Sex for Fun, IVF for Children,' Jo Whelan marvels at our change in attitude toward reproduction since Louise Brown became the first “test-tube” baby in 1978: “Who would have predicted how common IVF would become back in 1977, when Louise Brown was just a speck in a Petri dish?”

Today many couples are using IVF (in vitro fertilization), with a success rate at least equal to that of natural procreation. In addition, couples are increasingly relying on IVF combined with pre-implantation genetic diagnosis to select embryos that do not have inherited diseases.

Whelan sees in these developments the seeds of a radical shift in the way we view sex and reproduction. Might it be feasible in several decades for most people to bring children into the world through IVF, whether or not they suffer from infertility? Do the reigning attitudes in science and medicine indicate that, should such a possibility become reality, parents would be considered irresponsible not to screen for the best embryos? The rising practice of selecting embryos on the basis of male or female gender might be a clue to where we are headed.

While it may seem cruel or heartless to deny parents the opportunity to prevent having a child with a fatal or debilitating disease, we must ask, “At what cost?” Selection implies that other embryos – other living human beings – are passed over, and then “discarded” or indefinitely frozen. And the more embryos one has to choose from (or discard), the better the chances of finding a “good” one.

In addition, reproductive and contraceptive technologies are bringing about a widening divide between sex and procreation. More and more, we determine the timing and circumstances of child-bearing. By removing conception from the “imprecise” realm of nature, we can decide just what kind of baby we will have.

Surely, neither contraception nor assisted reproduction is illegitimate in all cases. Yet we cannot ignore the ways in which exercising such control can cause us to view our bodies as mere instruments for our pleasure, and our children as the products of our willful, careful choosing – arriving on our terms, fulfilling our hopes, and more or less matching our expectations.

Full article in the New Scientist:

Monday, October 16, 2006

A Papal Pronouncment on Ends and Means

A good result can never justify intrinsically unlawful means. That was the gist of the statement by Pope Benedict XVI on September 16, to participants in a symposium on stem cell research organized in Rome by the Pontifical Academy for Life.

Some other noteworthy excerpts:

May I also point out, in the face of the frequently unjust accusations of insensitivity addressed to the Church, her constant support for research dedicated to the cure of diseases and to the good of humanity throughout her 2,000-year-old history.

If there has been resistance -- and if there still is -- it was and is to those forms of research that provide for the planned suppression of human beings who already exist, even if they have not yet been born. Research, in such cases, irrespective of efficacious therapeutic results is not truly at the service of humanity . . .

The human being is not a disposable object, but every single individual represents God's presence in the world.

The Pope has underlined a view of embryo research informed by a resolute committment to the sanctity of life from conception. Rather than opposing beneficial research, he simply reminds us that we need not destroy other human beings to achieve valuble clinical goals. Such goals can be obtained through adult sources of stem cells, to the furtherment of human flourishing everywhere.

Full text of Papal statement:

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Of Bunnies and Men

Scientists are moving forward with plans to create hybrid human and rabbit embryos. This was the news three days ago from the U.K., where three teams of researchers were seeking to gain approval from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to create embryos that are 99.9 per cent human and 0.1 per cent rabbit. They are also looking into the possibility of blending genes from humans and cows to create chimeras.

A chimera (pronounced keye-MARE-ah), from Greek mythology, was “a monstrous creature made of the parts of multiple animals” (def. from Wikipedia). The thing had the head of a lion, but the body of a goat, and a snake for its tail. This fire-breathing beast had to be detroyed by the hero Bellerophon, with the help of Pegasus, the winged-horse.

In biology, the word ‘chimera’ describes an animal that can (rarely) occur naturally, with the blending of genetic material from two or more different embryos. However, science can now produce animal chimeras in the laboratory from two completely different species. For example, in 1984 a geep was produced by combining embryos from a goat and a sheep.

The U.K. proposal is really not all that new, inasmuch as rabbit/human chimeras have already been produced in China in 2003, though not allowed to divide for more than a few days. The new wrinkle is to use such hybrids as a source of stem cells for medical research. The embryos would be mostly human, but would contain some animal genes. They hope to provide a new source of stem cells “without the ethical problems of tampering with human life.”

How does that work? Scientists hope to justify destructive human embryo research by adding in a few bunny genes? Is that ethically an improvement? Does that honor human nature?

If such ideas make you uncomfortable, it’s because of the inherent “yuck factor.” We have a natural revulsion to mixing our genes with animals. Leon Kass has written that such reactions are a form of wisdom: “Repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it.”

Call it instinct, intuition, or natural law, this is scary stuff.

U.K. news article:

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Reality Check for Plan B

It's about time, claims bioethicist Arthur Caplan. In a recent commentary on MSNBC, Dr. Caplan, Director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, lauds the recent decision to make emergency contraception (also known as Plan B or the "morning-after pill") available without a prescription. After all, he goes on, preventing pregnancy is better than abortion. Isn't that what both sides want?

Well, it depends. For one thing, it depends on how you define pregnancy. Science has traditionally taught that pregnancy begins with fertilization, the union of sperm and egg in the reproductive tract of a woman. Except that such a definition of pregnancy has become inconvenient lately. For a number of reasons, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists now describes pregnancy as "beginning with the successful implantation of a fertilized egg."

Human life begins at conception, but it takes six days for a new embryo to travel down the Fallopian tube to implant in a woman's womb - long enough for the powerful dose of progestin in Plan B to interfere. In other words, at least part of the time Plan B causes an early abortion.

Supporters of abortion rights have long claimed that widespread availability of Plan B would reduce the number of abortions overall, but a disturbing report from Great Britain indicates otherwise. Plan B has been available without prescription in the U.K. for many years. Yet between 2001 and the present, the number of abortions has actually increased (from 186,000 to 194,000). With full over-the-counter approval of Plan B by the FDA two months ago, such a pattern will likely be repeated in the U.S.

Abortion centers are endorsing a pill that does not live up to its promise of providing an "easy fix" for unplanned sexual activity. In this way, they offer false hope, and may actually increase the numbers of abortions in the process.

Oh, by the way, last year Planned Parenthood made $25 million in profits on Plan B.

Arthur Caplan's commentary is available at:
For more about the U.K. experience with Plan B:

Sunday, September 24, 2006

A 'Genetic Outlaw' Speaks Out

A law professor in Minneapolis has recently become an "outlaw" in the eyes of some. Her crime? She chose not to have an abortion when she received a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome. Elizabeth Schiltz had her baby anyway, and writes about her experience in Defiant Birth: Women Who Resist Medical Eugenics (2006, Spinifex Press). She also tells of other women who have faced severe pressure to abort because they were carrying a less-than-perfect baby.

Modern technologies have created a crisis of too much information. From the older methods of amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling, to more recent techniques for preimplantation genetic screening of embryos, women have more reasons not to have their babies than ever before. It is well known that almost 50% of fertility centers now permit screening of embryos for gender, with the “wrong” sex discarded. Many centers are able to eliminate the carriers of certain genetic traits, some of which have little or nothing to do with disease.

Primplantation genetic diagnosis, or its modern cousin, preimplantation genetic haplotyping, can now screen embryos for 6,000 different diseases. This has led Professor Schiltz to remark, “I can't help but see 6,000 new reasons that parents will be branded as sinners or made to feel socially irresponsible for bringing their children into this world.”

What the eminently quotable James Russell Lowell has said about mishaps is surely true of modern biotechnologies: they are like knives that either serve us or cut us, as we grasp them by the blade or by the handle. The ultimate victim of all this will be human nature, sacrificed on the altar of our desire for perfection.

For more about Elizabeth Schiltz:

Sunday, September 10, 2006

A New Idea in Stem Cell Research?

It was too good to be true. A recent report from Reuters documents a new technique that produces early stem cells, but without destroying embryos. But the devil is in the details.

As I discussed in my July 30th post, destroying embryonic humans for the supposed betterment of others violates long-held ethical standards against the taking of innocent lives. Since those who honor the sanctity of life from conception have made so much ethical fuss, scientists have been searching for other ways to produce early stem cells. Would it be possible to remove one or two cells from an embryo for this purpose, but not destroy it?

The new "breakthrough" is actually a modification of a technique that has been around for awhile. The older technique, called preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), samples a single cell from an early (three-day-old) eight-cell embryo. In the past, a genetic analysis would be performed on the extracted cell to determine the fitness of the embryo for implantation into a woman's womb. Certain serious genetic diseases would result in rejection of the embryo.

The new idea is to use PGD technology to remove a single cell from a three day-old embryo to use as a starter cell for a stem cell line, leaving the embryo intact to be implanted later. Would this be an ethically acceptable way to produce embryonic stem cells?

First of all, I applaud the idea of research that attempts to avoid destroying life. Yet it is hard to imagine what good accrues to the embryonic humans involved. In other words, here is a potentially harmful procedure for which the embryos cannot give their consent, that does not benefit them in any way. This violates the principle of informed consent in research.

Furthermore, it turns out that the whole thing has been misrepresented. The research report, which appeared in the scientific journal Nature, did not accurately report the facts. Since it was a procedure performed in the laboratory, "none of the embryos was implanted and in fact several were destroyed. And no cell lines were created from single cells, but instead created by incubating several cells together." In other words, they did not accomplish what they claimed to have accomplished: an ethical way to produce embryonic stem cells.

It's bad enough when scientists want no restraints on research that many find ethically problematic, but then to distort their findings to assuage ethical criticsm seems like the height of hypocrisy. Stem cell researchers must do better.

Photo and Reuters News report from:

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Blogging with Brewster

I thought this week we would take a break from the serious side of bioethics, and just check out Brewster Rockit's take on blogging. We'll get back to more intense matters next week, when I resume my usual blorg, er . . . blog.

For more Brewster:

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Desperate Donors

Anyone who doubts that there are terrible human rights abuses in the world should consider the latest news on “transplant tourism.” This is the practice where rich Americans go overseas to a less developed country to purchase an organ for transplant.

Perhaps you have kidney failure, and don’t wish to endure the long wait for a new organ in the United States. Just head for the Philippines, where you can buy a transplant operation for $100,000, of which the donor may receive as little as $1000.

Long waiting lists for transplants have given rise to a market that exploits and victimizes the poor. According to one 71-year-old Canadian, “When you're desperate, morality goes out the window” (as reported by CBC News). But such desperate measures have a sinister side that even the transplant tourists do not suspect, or perhaps choose to ignore.

It is well known that transplanted organs in China often come from executed prisoners. The shocking news is that many of the donors are in prison simply because they are members of Falun Gong, whose only crime was practicing the meditation and exercise that this religious group recommends.

Consider the report in the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch on August 22nd. Reporter Deborah Shelton relates the story of Huangui Li, a 62 year-old Chinese woman arrested in 2001 for distributing banned literature. Ms. Li was taken to a hospital where physicians examined her fitness to be an organ donor. She believes that her high blood pressure (making her organs unsuitable for transplant) may have saved her life. Ms. Li now lives in the U.S.

The report documents a large number of abuses: between 2002 and 2003, as many as 2000 Falun Gong had their corneas removed at detention centers in a number of Chinese provinces. In a six-year period, 41,500 organs were removed from prisoners, many of them Falun Gong.

Even if the organs don't come from prisoners, the gap between rich and poor means that transplant tourism will always be inherently exploitative. Such practices are illegal in many countries of the world, and immoral by any standard. Immanuel Kant has said that human beings should always be ends, and never means. In China and elsewhere, this standard has been turned on its head.

Saint Louis Post-Dispatch Article
WHO Bulletin on Organ Trafficking

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Bioethics of Bodies

Several of my pre-med biology students have asked me about Gunther von Hagens' exhibit "Body Worlds," now touring the country. Since we offer cadaver dissection as part of our undergraduate courses in human biology, I guess my initial reaction was "Hmm, sounds educational; I guess that's alright." Mind you, I had not seen the exhibit. Now, having viewed images from the Body Worlds Web site, I've changed my mind, and I'm downright uneasy about this new brand of voyeurism.

Body Worlds is a an exhibit of plastinated human cadavers that have been completely dissected and posed in "artistic" positions. The Web site touts the result as "edutainment," but may seriously violate human dignity in the process.

Take, for example, the remarks of bioethicist Ruth Levy Guyer, whose invited commentary appeared on National Public Radio's All Things Considered on August 12th. After visiting the exhibit, she asks the question, "Do we really need to entertain ourselves with dead bodies?" Guyer describes one such "artistic" pose: an athlete with arms outstretched, holding a ball in one hand and his internal organs in another. Guyer is amazed that people can so casually pass by the figure of "a recumbent partially-dissected young woman, with her partially-dissected fetus in-situ." Such unnatural poses seem to show a real disrespect for the dead, and for the living human beings they once were.

It gets worse. As reported on the NPR Web site, reporter Neda Ulaby documents that the cadavers may not all come from ethical sources. Some are obtained from China. Dr. von Hagens claims that he only uses sources he trusts, yet "no outsider has verified that they might not be, in a worst-case scenario, dissidents killed in a Chinese prison." At the very least, it appears that the science centers who exhibit these displays may not have subjected the matter to much ethical review.

You may be interested to know how we handle cadaver dissection in a university setting. Here is an exerpt from the syllabus of one of our human biology courses:
Several classes will take advantage of a unique resource: a human cadaver. This specimen will help us to more effectively learn human anatomy. The impulse that led this gentleman to donate his earthly remains for our study is a noble and generous one, one that we should all appreciate . . . The cadaver should be treated at all times with great respect. It should never be given a name, but should be referred to as "the specimen" or "the cadaver." The cadaver should never be posed or placed in an undignified position.
The contrast between our respect and appreciation for the human form and the exploitation of exhibits like Body Worlds should be abundantly clear. Utilitarian attitudes are more and more taking the place of the sanctity of life. An important signpost of this change in focus is seen in the way we treat our dead.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Business of Babies

Debra Spar, an economics professor at Harvard, has written a nice piece that shows just how pervasive the desire to have children can be, and how easily economic manipulation can take advantage of it. She writes:
To those who suffer from it, however, infertility is a wretched curse — a disease that isn’t really a disease, with an outcome that seems to defy nature . . . many infertile couples become consumed with the desire to conceive, and are willing to do whatever it takes to create a child of their own.

The science of assisted reproductive technology (ART) has taken advantage of this desperation-driven market. In some cases, it has resulted in blessings for those who can afford such techniques as in-vitro fertilization or intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection, but at what cost for society as a whole?

Many are concerned about the commodification of reproduction, with the possibility that we will see children more as product than progeny. What are the limits? Do all couples have a right to reproduce, to have a child "of their own?" What about the unintended consequences of the unfettered drive to have a technological baby?

Many couples who engage in ART haven't really thought through the long-term implications of their decision. That is one reason there are over 400,000 frozen embryos in cryogenic storage in the U.S. alone. The couples who "own" these embryos have created a legal and moral dilemma. Are they persons or property? Should they be destroyed, given over for stem-cell research, or donated to childless couples who wish to adopt them? Most couples have deferred their decision to some later date, even if they have no intention of implanting the embryos themselves.

Sympathetically, Professor Spar recognizes that regulating the fertility industry and its excesses will be difficult: "These decisions will not be easy, since they will inevitably involve drawing thin lines across a slippery slope and subjecting private tragedies to public scrutiny."

Professor Spar's article can be found at:

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Stem Cell Stalemate

I asked my Sunday School class this morning a question. Enshrined in our religious heritage and law is the command, "Thou shalt not kill." Are there any legitimate exceptions? We came up with three: 1) wartime, 2) self-defense, and 3) capital punishment.

Of course, we could debate the nuances of each of these. For example, several religious traditions would deny there is such a thing as a "just war," while others would affirm the concept. Self defense depends on the circumstances, and even in the case of bodily attack, lethal force is not always appropriate. Capital punishment is justified in Scripture (Gen. 9:6), but in practice, there may be racial or economic inequities in the way it is administered.

On what basis do we destroy embryonic humans for the supposed betterment of others? I recognize that some do not accept the personhood of early embryos. But even among those who do (or at least who respect this idea), you may hear the argument, "Since they're going to be destroyed anyway, shouldn't we destroy the embryos so that some good may result?" This is an understandable question, but there are many flawed assumptions embedded within it.

First of all, the embryos are under the control of the families who produced them. They are now in frozen storage in fertility clinics. Their fate is not inevitable. The parents can choose to donate them to other childless couples. Such "embryo adoption" would give these embryonic humans a chance to live a full life.

Second, what is this "good" that may result? There are no currently usable medical therapies that utilize embryonic stem cells. On the other hand, there are 72 actual medical treatments utilizing adult stem cell sources. These are ethically non-problematic, and are saving lives right now. By the way, appealing to "good" in this way implies that the only "good" that human beings can have is for the parts they supply others. Don't go there.

We began this discussion by asking what circumstances might justify an exception to society's rigid rules against killing. Which of these exceptions applies to embyros? This is not war, this is not self-defense, and we certainly can't claim that embryos have committed a capital offense. Indeed, embryos are the most innocent members of our society.

Getting Started

This Web log reflects my own views about human life, and what gives each one of us dignity and value. In spite of new biotechnologies and the marvels brought about by medical science, the basics of our existence haven't changed throughout history.

What does it mean to be human? Those who adhere to a high Judeo-Christian perspective believe it means a great deal. Others hold to a secular humanism that defines man in reductionist terms, a mere product of time and chance.

Is every human being a person? To be a person is to be a member of the moral community, to have moral worth. This blog will defend the conception view of personhood: a human being is a person from the moment of conception and at every subsequent moment. In other words, a human being is a person by virtue of being a human being. To put it another way: there is no such thing as a human non-person.

The nature of humanity informs many major issues in our public discourse: abortion, reproductive technologies, human embryonic stem cell research, cloning, assisted suicide, euthanasia, genomics, and resource allocation. Let's talk - your comments are welcome!