The Humanitas Project


Living in the Biotech Century

News, Resources, and Commentary

January 2, 2007



Creating babies with disabilities...


‘Designer’ Babies with Made-to-Order Defects?


Prenatal testing creates controversial options for parents with disabilities



Image: Cara and Gibson Reynolds

Mel Evans / AP

Gibson and Cara Reynolds of Collingswood, N.J., are outraged by opposition to using embryo screening to allow dwarf people to have dwarf children.  “You cannot tell me that I cannot have a child who’s going to look like me,” Cara Reynolds said.

“The power to create ‘perfect’ designer babies looms over the world of prenatal testing.


“But what if doctors started doing the opposite?


“Creating made-to-order babies with genetic defects would seem to be an ethical minefield, but to some parents with disabilities—say, deafness or dwarfism—it just means making babies like them.


“And a recent survey of U.S. clinics that offer embryo screening suggests it’s already happening.


“Three percent, or four clinics surveyed, said they have provided the costly, complicated procedure to help families create children with a disability....


“But the survey also has led to a debate about the definition of ‘normal’ and inspires a glimpse into deaf and dwarf cultures where many people do not consider themselves disabled....”


Associated Press/MSNBC – December 21, 2006



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Eliminating babies with some studies, up to 90 percent of women found to be carrying a Down baby had an abortion...


Group Recommends Down Syndrome Testing

by Lauran Neergaard



“There’s a big change coming for pregnant women: Down syndrome testing no longer hinges on whether they’re older or younger than 35.


“This week, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists begins recommending that every pregnant woman, regardless of age, be offered a choice of tests for this common birth defect.


“The main reason: Tests far less invasive than the long-used amniocentesis are now widely available, some that can tell in the first trimester the risk of a fetus having Down syndrome or other chromosomal defects.


“It’s a change that promises to decrease unnecessary amnios—giving mothers-to-be peace of mind without the ordeal—while also detecting Down syndrome in moms who otherwise would have gone unchecked.


“The new guideline is published in the January issue of the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology.


“About one in 800 babies has Down syndrome, a condition where having an extra chromosome causes mental retardation, a characteristic broad, flat face and small head and, often, serious heart defects....”


Associated Press/Washington Post – December 31, 2006 (free registration required)


The medicalization of everyday life....


What’s Making Us Sick Is an Epidemic of Diagnoses

by H. Gilbert Welch, Lisa Schwartz and Steven Woloshin



“For most Americans, the biggest health threat is not avian flu, West Nile or mad cow disease. It’s our health-care system.


“You might think this is because doctors make mistakes (we do make mistakes). But you can’t be a victim of medical error if you are not in the system. The larger threat posed by American medicine is that more and more of us are being drawn into the system not because of an epidemic of disease, but because of an epidemic of diagnoses.


“Americans live longer than ever, yet more of us are told we are sick.


“How can this be? One reason is that we devote more resources to medical care than any other country. Some of this investment is productive, curing disease and alleviating suffering. But it also leads to more diagnoses, a trend that has become an epidemic.


“This epidemic is a threat to your health. It has two distinct sources. One is the medicalization of everyday life. Most of us experience physical or emotional sensations we don’t like, and in the past, this was considered a part of life. Increasingly, however, such sensations are considered symptoms of disease. Everyday experiences like insomnia, sadness, twitchy legs and impaired sex drive now become diagnoses: sleep disorder, depression, restless leg syndrome and sexual dysfunction.


“Perhaps most worrisome is the medicalization of childhood. If children cough after exercising, they have asthma; if they have trouble reading, they are dyslexic; if they are unhappy, they are depressed; and if they alternate between unhappiness and liveliness, they have bipolar disorder. While these diagnoses may benefit the few with severe symptoms, one has to wonder about the effect on the many whose symptoms are mild, intermittent or transient....”


Dr. Gilbert Welch is the author of Should I Be Tested for Cancer? Maybe Not and Here’s Why (University of California Press). Dr. Schwartz and Dr. Woloshin are senior research associates at the VA Outcomes Group in White River Junction, Vt.


The New York Times – January 2, 2007 (free registration required)


But many consumers may not be convinced...


FDA: Cloned Livestock Is Safe to Eat




Cloned dairy cows share hay at a Maryland farm.

“Meat and milk from cloned animals may not appear in supermarkets for years despite being deemed by the government as safe to eat. But don’t be surprised if ‘clone-free’ labels appear sooner.


“Ben & Jerry’s, for one, wants consumers to know that its ice cream comes from regular cows and not clones. The Ben & Jerry’s label already says its farmers don’t use bovine growth hormone.


“‘We want to make sure people are confident with what’s in our pints,’ company spokesman Rob Michalak said. ‘We haven’t yet landed on exactly how we want to express that publicly.’


“For food that does come from clones, the Food and Drug Administration is unlikely to require labels, officials said.


“The FDA gave preliminary approval Thursday to meat and milk from cloned animals or their offspring. Federal scientists found virtually no difference between food from clones and food from conventional livestock....”


The Associated Press/ – December 28, 2006


Chasing toddlers at age 70...


Spaniard, 67, Becomes World’s Oldest Mum with Twins



“A 67-year-old Spanish woman became the world’s oldest new mother on Saturday when she gave birth to twins, a Barcelona hospital said.


“The woman, who became pregnant after receiving IVF treatment in Latin America, gave birth by caesarean section, a spokeswoman at Hospital de la Santa Creu i San Pau told Reuters.


“Both the woman, from the southern Spanish region of Andalucia, and her babies were in good health the hospital said, though she added doctors had put the babies in an incubator....”


Reuters/Alertnet – December 30, 2006


Are Transhumanist ideas becoming mainstream?


UK Report Says Robots Will Have Rights



“The next time you beat your keyboard in frustration, think of a day when it may be able to sue you for assault. Within 50 years we might even find ourselves standing next to the next generation of vacuum cleaners in the voting booth.


“Far from being extracts from the extreme end of science fiction, the idea that we may one day give sentient machines the kind of rights traditionally reserved for humans is raised in a British government-commissioned report which claims to be an extensive look into the future.


“Visions of the status of robots around 2056 have emerged from one of 270 forward-looking papers sponsored by Sir David King, the UK government’s chief scientist. The paper covering robots’ rights was written by a UK partnership of Outsights, the management consultancy, and Ipsos Mori, the opinion research organisation.


“‘If we make conscious robots they would want to have rights and they probably should,’ said Henrik Christensen, director of the Centre of Robotics and Intelligent Machines at the Georgia Institute of Technology.


“The idea will not surprise science fiction aficionados. It was widely explored by Dr Isaac Asimov, one of the foremost science fiction writers of the 20th century. He wrote of a society where robots were fully integrated and essential in day-to-day life.


“In his system, the ‘three laws of robotics’ governed machine life. They decreed that robots could not injure humans, must obey orders and protect their own existence – in that order....”


Financial Times – December 19, 2006


Promise, with caution, in the developing field of regenerative medicine—using adult stem cells...


He Turns Patients’ Cells to Body Parts

by Catherine Clabby


WFU scientist pushes his team to lead way to lead bioengineering



Staff Photos by Corey Lowenstein

Atala’s team coaxes cells to stick and grow on finger-bone scaffolds.

“Expect to be startled by what grows inside the research institute Dr. Anthony Atala is building in this old tobacco town. Everything is man-made, but it’s very much alive.


“Human blood vessels pulse inside sterile plastic boxes. Hunks of bone grow to shapes resembling fingers. Strands of muscle get exercised by small metal arms.


“Atala, a Wake Forest University doctor-scientist, is pushing hard to engineer functional organs, tissue and other body parts with patients’ own cells. If he succeeds, North Carolina might find itself at the forefront of a high-impact, high-dollar biomedical field that offers hope to amputees, paralysis victims and people needing organ transplants.


“Recruited from Harvard University in 2004, Atala is already a science star. A urologist by training, he disclosed this year that he had safely implanted the first bioengineered replacement organs – bladders – into disabled children and teenagers.


“Three national science magazines labeled his achievement a top breakthrough for 2006 because of its potential to save lives and lessen suffering....


“So Wake Forest is pouring millions of dollars into Atala’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Private investors are betting tens of millions more on a Pennsylvania company, Tengion, trying to move Atala’s bladders into the medical marketplace. Scientists from other states are moving to Winston-Salem to work on Atala’s team....”


The News & Observer – December 24, 2006


This was a year of modest changes...


Illegal Drug Use Among Teenagers Continues to Fall

By Christopher Lee


Prescription Abuse Persists, Survey Finds



“Federal officials are concerned that teenagers are abusing prescription medications and over-the-counter cold remedies even as their use of illegal drugs has generally declined over the past five years, according to a government survey released yesterday.


“Illegal drug use by teenagers has fallen 23 percent since 2001, but their use of prescription narcotics, tranquilizers and other medicines remains ‘relatively high,’ government investigators said.


“For the first time researchers asked whether teenagers were using nonprescription cough or cold medicines to get high and found reason for concern. Over-the-counter medicines often contain the cough suppressant dextromethorphan, which alters mood and consciousness when consumed in high doses and can cause brain damage or even death, officials said.


“About 1 in 14 12th-graders, or 7 percent, said they had taken such medicines to get high in the past year. Among eighth-graders, the figure was 1 in 25, or about 4 percent.


“‘This is now an area of drug abuse that we need to pay more attention to,’ said Lloyd D. Johnston, the University of Michigan researcher who led the annual ‘Monitoring the Future’ survey, now in its 32nd year....”


Washington Post – December 22, 2006 (free registration required)


“Without good brain function, living to age 100 is not an attractive proposition...”


How to Live to a Ripe Old Age Without Losing Your Marbles



“A gene variant that is linked to long life also helps to preserve mental lucidity in old age, scientists have discovered.


“An Israeli study involving 158 people who lived to 95 or beyond has found that those who inherit a particular version of the gene CETP are twice as likely to have a sharp and alert brain when they are elderly.


“They are also five times less likely than people with a different version of CETP to develop Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, according to the study by a team at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University.


“The insights into how ageing affects the brain could lead to ways of protecting cognitive function in old age.


“If drugs could be developed which mimic the protective function of the CETP VV variant they could transform the quality of life of the ageing population....”


The Times – December 26, 2006


Worth Considering...


From A Clash Within the West?

by Nathan Gardels



“…Increasingly, pragmatic Americans speeding toward the future are looking to traditional religion for moral and ethical guidance as they commit to their mutation in the new age of biology. This is not surprising: New advances in science seem to have resurrected the religious imagination by raising anew all the questions of origins and destiny.


“Leon Kass, the chairman of President Bush’s Council on Bioethics, for example, has returned to a study of the Biblical book of Genesis for answers about bioethics in the 21st century. In his book, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, he sees genetic engineering as our contemporary equivalent to the limitless hubris of the Tower of Babel, which God struck down.


“What is paradoxical is that the great European voice of secular reason, Jürgen Habermas, has arrived at a similar conclusion. In a conversation with Cardinal Ratzinger before he became the Pope, Habermas asked whether ‘modern democracies of necessity must draw from moral—especially religious—sources that they cannot themselves produce.’ He concludes that liberal democracies must leave a wide open space for religious expression and religious forms of life, particularly when confronting issues at the frontiers of science. ‘A liberal political culture can even expect that secularized citizens will participate in the efforts required to translate relevant contributions from religious into popular language.’


“In a new book, A Time of Transitions, Habermas is even clearer, saying that ‘the West’s Judeo-Christian heritage is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights and democracy—the benchmarks of Western civilization. To this day we have no other options. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter.’ Habermas goes on to contest ‘unbridled subjectivity’ which he sees as clashing with ‘what is really absolute; that is...the unconditional right of every creature to be respected in its bodiliness and recognized in its otherness as an ‘image of God.’”



Nathan Gardels is editor of New Perspectives Quarterly.  This essay appeared in the Fall 2006 issue and is available online.




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