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: http://www.newscientist.com/channel/sex/mg19225741.300

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: http://news.scotsman.com/topics.cfm?tid=10&id=1477452006

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: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/14398371/
For more about the U.K. experience with Plan B: