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Living in the Biotech Century

News, Resources, and Commentary

May 12, 2008



“There was never any doubt the Palins would have the child...”


Alaska Governor Sees ‘Perfection’ in Son with Down Syndrome



In this April 23, 2008, file photo, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and her husband Todd Palin hold their baby boy, Trig, in Anchorage, Alaska.  Palin's fifth child was born April 18 with Down syndrome, a genetic abnormality that impedes physical, intellectual and language development. (AP Photo/Al Grillo, File)

AP Photo

In this April 23, 2008, file photo, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and her husband Todd....

“The results of Gov. Sarah Palin’s prenatal testing were in, and the doctor’s tone was ominous: ‘You need to come to the office so we can talk about it.’


“Palin, known for a resolve that quickly launched her from suburban hockey mom to a player on the national political stage, said, ‘No, go ahead and tell me over the phone.’


“The physician replied, ‘Down syndrome,’ stunning the Republican governor, who had just completed what many political analysts called a startling first year in office....”


AP/Yahoo! News – May 3, 2008




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“Plant rights” — Is picking a daisy immoral?


The Silent Scream of the Asparagus

by Wesley J. Smith


Get ready for ‘plant rights.’



“You just knew it was coming: At the request of the Swiss government, an ethics panel has weighed in on the ‘dignity’ of plants and opined that the arbitrary killing of flora is morally wrong. This is no hoax. The concept of what could be called ‘plant rights’ is being seriously debated.


“A few years ago the Swiss added to their national constitution a provision requiring ‘account to be taken of the dignity of creation when handling animals, plants and other organisms.’ No one knew exactly what it meant, so they asked the Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology to figure it out. The resulting report, ‘The Dignity of Living Beings with Regard to Plants,’ is enough to short circuit the brain.


“A ‘clear majority’ of the panel adopted what it called a ‘biocentric’ moral view, meaning that ‘living organisms should be considered morally for their own sake because they are alive.’ Thus, the panel determined that we cannot claim ‘absolute ownership’ over plants and, moreover, that ‘individual plants have an inherent worth.’ This means that ‘we may not use them just as we please, even if the plant community is not in danger, or if our actions do not endanger the species, or if we are not acting arbitrarily.’


“The committee offered this illustration: A farmer mows his field (apparently an acceptable action, perhaps because the hay is intended to feed the farmer’s herd—the report doesn’t say). But then, while walking home, he casually ‘decapitates’ some wildflowers with his scythe. The panel decries this act as immoral, though its members can’t agree why....”


The Weekly Standard – May 12, 2008


What does it mean to be human?


Dignity, Not Utility, Must Govern Bioethics



“Human dignity rises above all other considerations in biomedical research and health care and must govern ethical decisions in the lab and at the bedside, Dr. Edmund Pellegrino, the chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, told Stanford law students April 9.


“Dr. Pellegrino covered the council’s newly published anthology, ‘Human Dignity and Bioethics.’ The book is a response to critics who have complained that dignity is both too vague a standard and too theologically oriented to have a place in bioethics.


“Addressing students in a classroom at Stanford Law School, Dr. Pellegrino made a forceful claim for the inescapability of dignity—the lived experience of being human—for anyone making ethical choices in research, in the clinic and in general biology.


“‘Wherever you start, wherever you go, you’ll have to come back to either accepting the notion or denying it utterly, and then we can weigh out for you the implications of denying that to a human being,’ Dr. Pellegrino said.


“‘There are too many examples in the world’s history of the denigration of the special nature of being human,’ he said. ‘I can only mention the Holocaust. It’s a reality then—a value you must deal with....’”


Catholic Online – May 7, 2008


Editor’s NoteA free copy of the book mentioned in this story, Human Dignity and Bioethics, is available online, in PDF and hard copy.


“The authors oppose what they see as brutality motivated in part by good intentions...”


A Human Person, Actually

by Peter Lawler


A Review of Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, by Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen



“In their bold new book, Embryo, philosophers Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen defend the proposition that the embryo—the organism that comes into being as the result of fertilization, the union of sperm with oocyte—is in fact a human being. And that means that an embryo has ‘absolute rights.’ An embryo should never be used as a means to pursue someone else’s ends, however laudable or life-saving, they say. Certainly, embryos shouldn’t be killed to assist frustrated parents attempting in vitro fertilization (IVF), or even to further pathbreaking medical research. The authors stop well short of recommending all of the potential changes in law that would necessarily follow from their argument. All they ask is that scientific research that involves the killing of embryos be outlawed—or, at the very least, that it be denied public funding, and that future IVF procedures be practiced in such a way that they do not produce surplus embryos that are ultimately discarded. The authors oppose what they see as brutality motivated in part by good intentions—brutality they hope to correct with moral reasoning based in scientific knowledge. Open-minded readers should find their case powerful.


“The embryo, George and Tollefsen argue, is a whole being, possessing the integrated capability to go through all the phases of human development. An embryo has what it takes to be a free, rational, deliberating, and choosing being; it is naturally fitted to develop into a being who can be an ‘uncaused cause,’ a genuinely free agent....”


Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College in Georgia and a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics. His most recent book is Homeless and at Home in America.


City Journal – April 18, 2008


Manufacturing humans lab-made embryos fabricated from artificially produced eggs and sperm...


New Sources of Sex Cells



“Earlier this month, the world had its first look at a pregnant man, a jarring reminder of how conventions in the way humans are created could shift. Just a week later, scientists, bioethicists, lawyers and journal editors convened in Hinxton, UK, to ponder how long it will be until sperm and eggs can be made entirely in a Petri dish from, say, skin cells induced to pluripotency. They asked questions such as how will these advances transform reproductive research and medicine? How might they change society? Is the bioethics community prepared?


“These questions have acquired a sense of urgency, at least in Britain, where a government bill updating the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act is working its way through the system. If passed by the House of Commons in its present form, the bill would allow basic research on human gametes derived in vitro but would not permit the use of such gametes for fertility treatment. Opponents may yet propose amendments designed to stop all embryo research—including the demonstration that in-vitro-derived gametes are normal by seeing whether they are capable of fertilization and further development....


“The organizers scheduled the topic of pluripotent stem cell derived gametes (PSCDGs) two years ago. Since then, making induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells has become relatively straightforward, but although the technique circumvents the ethical and technical problems associated with collecting human eggs and creating embryos, there are still serious ethical implications. Indeed, the facility with which iPS cells can be derived could make it easier to derive gametes from any person, living or dead....”


Nature – April 24, 2008


“Oh my God, I looked like a zombie. It wasn’t my face anymore...”


Pursuit of Youth Isn’t Always Pretty

by Julia Sommerfeld


Reality check on the war on wrinkles: Looking younger or just weirder?




Tamara O'Connor, 48, embraced her lines and dropped out of the war on wrinkles after too much Botox and Restylane wiped away her facial expressions.

“Wrinkles have become optional. So have age spots, forehead furrows and baggy eyelids. 


“Name a badge of aging and there’s a fix being peddled by your local dermatologist or plastic surgeon. Crow’s feet? Freeze them with Botox. Laugh lines? Inject them with Restylane. Saggy neck? Tighten and tuck with a scalpel.


“But is all this really making us look younger? Or just weirder? ...”


MSNBC – April 24, 2008


After 15 years, still very few examples of therapeutic benefits from gene therapy...


Gene Therapy Shows Success in Restoring Some Vision



An experimental gene therapy has helped restore partial vision to persons with congenital retinal disease.

“An experimental gene therapy has helped restore partial vision to people with congenital retinal disease, according to breakthrough studies which provides hope for treating various eye illnesses.


“Clinical trials showed success on three young adults at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who suffered from a rare and as yet incurable form of congenital blindness, according to studies published Sunday.


“The retinal degenerations include Leber congenital amaurosis, or LCA, a group of diseases that affect light receptors in the retina beginning in early childhood and often causing total blindness in patients in their twenties or thirties.


“‘This result is important for the entire field of gene therapy,’ study leader Katherine High was quoted as saying in the New England Journal of Medicine whose website reported the findings by a collection of international doctors and scientists.


“‘Gene transfer has been in clinical trials for over 15 years now, and although it has an excellent safety record, examples of therapeutic effect are still relatively few,’ High said.


“‘The results in this study provide objective evidence of improvement in the ability to perceive light, and thus lay the groundwork for future studies in this and other retinal disorders....’”


AFP – April 28, 2008


Learning how little we know about the origins of illness...


Redefining Disease, Genes and All

by Andrew Pollack



Duchenne muscular dystrophy may not seem to have much in common with heart attacks. One is a rare inherited disease that primarily strikes boys. The other is a common cause of death in both men and women. To Atul J. Butte, they are surprisingly similar.


“Dr. Butte, an assistant professor of medicine at Stanford, is among a growing band of researchers trying to redefine how diseases are classified—by looking not at their symptoms or physiological measurements, but at their genetic underpinnings. It turns out that a similar set of genes is active in boys with Duchenne and adults who have heart attacks.


“The research is already starting to change nosology, as the field of disease classification is known. Seemingly dissimilar diseases are being lumped together. What were thought to be single diseases are being split into separate ailments. Just as they once mapped the human genome, scientists are trying to map the ‘diseasome,’ the collection of all diseases and the genes associated with them....”


The New York Times – May 6, 2008


“We all have bad genes...we’re all potential victims of genetic discrimination...”


Congress Passes Bill to Bar Bias Based on Genes

by Amy Harmon



“A bill that would prohibit discrimination by health insurers and employers based on the information that people carry in their genes won final approval in Congress on Thursday by an overwhelming vote.


“The legislation, which President Bush has indicated he will sign, speaks both to the mounting hope that genetic research may greatly improve health care and the fear of a dystopia in which people’s own DNA could be turned against them.


“On the House floor on Thursday, Democrats and Republicans alike cited anecdotes and polls illustrating that people feel they should not be penalized because they happened to be born at higher risk for a given disease.


“‘People know we all have bad genes, and we are all potential victims of genetic discrimination,’ said Representative Louise M. Slaughter, Democrat of New York, who first proposed the legislation. The measure passed the House on Thursday by a 414-to-1 vote, and the Senate by 95-to-0 a week earlier.


“If the bill is signed into law, more people are expected to take advantage of genetic testing and to participate in genetic research. Still, some experts said people should think twice before revealing their genetic information....”


The New York Times – May 2, 2008


Worth considering...


From Uncomfortable Unbelief

by Wilfred M. McClay


A Review of A Secular Age, by Charles Taylor



“... Christianity introduced a fundamental tension between the experience of fullness in the context of secular time and the more profound fulfillment found in obedience to God. There were cultural variations on this theme, and there were ways that renunciation could be understood as a higher form of flourishing. But the point is that ... there was always ‘a good beyond simple human flourishing.’


“Then came the half way house of Providential Deism, under whose roof God’s presence and influence were, little by little, removed from the ordinary world. As [Charles] Taylor points out, this happened for a variety of reasons. In part it came from growing confidence in natural reason but also from currents deep within the Christian tradition. These currents had been brought out and stressed by the Protestant Reformers—as, for instance, in the honoring of ordinary, nonheroic life, with its vocations of work and family.


“Along the way, a more general anthropocentric shift in theology and moral philosophy occurred ... that inclined people to the view that there was a reliable moral sense already grounded in nature, so that service to God and pursuit of one’s own good were essentially the same thing, and a radical transformation of the human condition by divine force majeure was neither likely nor necessary.


“These changes happened on many different fronts, often in subtle ways. For example, the rise of social-contract theories of political science powerfully reinforced a strictly secular understanding of time, since such theories presumed that legitimate civil societies were those properly founded and sustained in ordinary historical time by the acts of ordinary men, rather than being established in sacred extrahistorical time by heroic founders and sustained by divinely sanctioned rulers. Such ‘radical horizontality’ contributed to the sense that God is an abstraction. To be sure, God was still seen as the Creator, still worthy of our awe and reverence, but God’s providence is, as Taylor puts it, ‘strictly generic,’ meaning that ‘particular providences, and miracles, are out.’ To put it bluntly, God is largely irrelevant to our day-to-day  conduct—and irrelevant to our choices about the means of individual flourishing.


“Gradually, by a succession of smaller steps, this state of affairs led to modern secularity, where we see for the first time in human history a form of ‘exclusive humanism’ that accepts ‘no final goals beyond human flourishing, not any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing....’


“This move to exclusive humanism is for Taylor the crucial move to secularity, but his narrative is insistent that the pathway to it was paved by a number of antecedents.... In the end, for Taylor the crucial source of the modern turn toward secularity was not science’s demolition of religion but modernity’s construction of the individual....”


“Uncomfortable Unbelief,” by Wilfred M. McClay, was published in the May 2008 issue of First Things and is available online to subscribers.  Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s book, A Secular Age, was published in 2007 by Belknap.




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Copyright © 2008