Recently in Bioethics Category

Peter Ludlow on Wikileaks

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Philosopher Peter Ludlow presents the motivation behind Wikileaks to show that ways to resist it won't work, because they assume things that aren't true about why people are doing this. It's basically absolutism about the availability of information. The principle is that if there's information, then we should all have access to it. It's not remotely about calling people toward being more accountable or trying to promote a particular political agenda (aside from the absolutism about freedom of information, anyway, which is a political agenda).

The argument reminds me an awful lot of the kind of mindset Michael Crichton was arguing against with Jurassic Park. It's absolutism about the dissemination of information, without regard to any moral principles about whether it's good to do so or even wrong to do so in particular cases. In that way, it's highly parallel to those who pursue scientific research merely because they can and regardless of any of the ethical objections to doing so.

Fetal Pain

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Pro-choice activists are making a big deal about a new study claiming to show that human beings feel no pain until about 24 weeks into their fetal life. Lots of studies have appeared contradicting each other on this, so this is hardly news. There's been lots of debate on this for several decades now, and this doesn't seem to me to have acquired some special status above all the other studies yet. Science doesn't work that way. As Ken Miller is fond of stating, you need established confirmation by further studies by people with different methodology before you accept something as established science. You need consensus. This is one study among many, and they don't all agree with each other.

I'm still not sure how it's relevant, anyway. I know of no fully pro-life argument claiming that it's the consciousness of the fetus that makes abortion wrong. There are some moderate pro-choice arguments that restrict the period of abortion to early term that use this claim as part of their basis. But those who base their opposition to abortion on the fact that it's a human organism with its own DNA and thus a full human being with full moral status will be unmoved by this, and those who base their opposition to abortion on the fact that abortion robs the fetal human organism of a future life like our lives will also be untouched.

[cross-posted at Evangel]

Update: Several people have raised important points that are independent of mine, in comments both here and at Evangel and via email.

1. We shouldn't assume the physical structures involved in this study are the only ones that can give rise to pain. There is, after all, well-known ultrasound evidence of relatively early fetuses responding with painlike behavior. Those who question early fetal pain explain it as mere stimulus-response without anything internal, but such a claim is mere behaviorism (i.e. relying on an empirically false view) unless there's a strong argument that the painlike behavior can't be a result of actual pain. I've heard from someone who has carefully reviewed the study much more fully than I could, and from a strong medical background, that the argument in the article simply ignores other possible structures for pain.

2. All that can be observed if pain-behavior and neural activity in places in the brain believed to be associated with pain sensations. No one can empirically detect anyone else's pain-sensations. This argument cuts both ways, since it's possible (from my perspective) that no one else but me feels pain, including early fetuses. But it also undermines the argument that, assuming other people do feel pain, all brain activity leading to pain will be alike in all individuals. As a good substance dualist, I have to have some sympathy for this point.

3. I've heard indirectly from a scientist who does work close to this very area who questions the claims about sedation of fetuses. But, as I said (in my lack of understanding of the state of these questions), this article will need to be tested in the arena among others who have alternative claims to make that they also manage to publish to see if it has staying power. It's not a consensus, and it appears the alternative views have several things to differ with in the approach and arguments of this article. So there's no reason to jump the gun here and think this offers much strong evidence for anything, even if it were relevant to abortion (which it's not, at least if the intent is to undermine reasonably strong pro-life views rather than moderate pro-choice views).

A study published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine concludes that 40% of diagnoses of brain disorders are misdiagnoses. These are people diagnosed with conditions such as being in a persistent vegetative state, which is often taken as sufficient for removal of life support because of the assumption that no person remains.

This study finds that a significant percentage of people who are diagnosed as being in such a state are not only conscious but can even be made to communicate simple "yes" or "no" by being told to think about some concrete thing if they mean "yes" and a different concrete thing if they mean "no". Different parts of their brain would be active if they were conscious and given these instructions, and that could be detected, A number of these patients were thus able to communicate after being declared to have brains of jello with no possibility of consciousness.

This calls for a massive rethinking of how we should interpret what's going on in persistent vegetative state diagnoses. Either there are different conditions that look the same for all that can be detected (prior to this new method of detecting consciousness, anyway), or the one state that's been called a persistent vegetative state is fully compatible with consciousness, despite what doctors have assumed. Our courts have relied on that judgment to excuse what turns out to be the killing of a conscious human being. This new research raises the standards pretty steeply for when we should make life-or-death decisions based on such diagnoses.

The LifeNews article about this study includes a suggestion in the opposite direction. If these patients can indicate, consent, can't they be asked if they want to die? The doctor the article quotes as being interested in this does acknowledge that there are still problems with consent. I don't think the article shows much awareness of how significant such problems are. It's notoriously difficult to know when someone has rationally consented even if they can communicate in complete sentences, and this doctor thinks he can get patients who can only use this roundabout method to give legal consent to being killed? How will they determine whether the person is being rational in consenting? Congress prohibited the selling of organs, because it's too easy for people at the lower end in terms of income to be manipulated into giving up their organs. Shouldn't we extend at least as much courtesy to those who might be manipulated into giving up their lives?

[cross-posted at Evangel]

Fabricating DNA

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There's now a method of modifying the DNA in a blood or hair sample to make it appear to be someone else's DNA.

I saw this on an SVU episode from earlier this season that was on last night while I was finishing up grading an exam. I was hoping they'd just made it up, but I guess not. This is the kind of discovery that it might be immoral to publish if there weren't any way to distinguish the modified DNA from original DNA, but it seems they have concocted a method to detect the subterfuge.

Recently several seemingly-independent sources came up with a series of new recommendations for cancer screenings, saying that new research shows that we should no longer be screening for certain kinds of cancer at the ages we've been doing so, that it should be fine to wait until later on and save the expense that earlier screenings cost.

These recommendations have led to an interesting debate between those who think the cost of prevention is worth it even if more money gets paid than would otherwise happen and those who think cost-cutting is more important than the number of lives saved, because the number of lives saved isn't worth the cost.

A number of voices on one side in the debate, though, has repeatedly made what seems to me to be a terrible argument. They complain that those who object to the new recommendations are simply ignoring the new data. It's as if they stomp their foot and say that the numbers support their position, so the other side should back off. As I said, this is a terrible argument. If this were an empirical debate, that would settle it, but that's not what the dispute is over, so that argument is simply irrelevant. The very interesting debate that I've seen play itself out, as I pointed out above, is between the following two groups:

A. those who think that, even though it might cost more money in the long run, it's still worth screening earlier because it saves enough lives to be worth the extra cost even if it costs more than it would to catch the cancer later and not pay the cost for a lot of people who didn't need the screenings
B. those who think that the cost of screening all these people who didn't need it isn't going to be worth it in the long run, even if it means some people who would have found their cancer and been able to treat it will die because they didn't catch it soon enough

That's a moral debate, not an empirical one. View A places more value on people's lives (which they insist is still enough, even if smaller than we thought) than the financial cost (and that cost's effect on society). View B places more value on the financial cost (and its effects on society) than the number of lives that would be saved (which they say is too low to be a huge factor). Both views can agree on all the facts and still disagree on what we should do. So it doesn't help to keep insisting that the change in recommendations comes from new data from new studies with hard numbers to back it up. The disagreement still occurs even given the new data.

Eggs as Persons

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Pro-lifers are trying to pass an initiative defining human organisms as persons all the way back to conception. Opponents of the initiative apparently can't think of a better way to oppose this than to call it the "eggs-as-persons" initiative. I would have thought they'd be smart enough to know the biological difference between a conceptus and a mere egg. Or maybe they just think the voting public is stupid enough not to know the difference.

I also have to note that it amazes me completely that one of their arguments against this is that it now becomes child endangerment for a pregnant woman to drink too much or do something that seriously threatens the health of the fetus. Let me say that again. They think it shows how bad this proposal is that the proposal entails treating someone as engangering a child's health by drinking too much or engaging in wrestling matches while pregnant. Do they think the average voter approves of moms damaging their children by drinking heavily or by abusing their bodies in other ways while pregnant?

But then when you look at the articles from this paper (and the other papers affiliated with it) at any length, it doesn't take too long to realize that they don't have any sense at all of how to convince those who disagree, even though they seem to have a fondness for sending unsolicited email to people who disagree. This is entirely typical of the kind of story they send (several times a week at least) to my university email account. I guess you could call them independent, but it doesn't strike me as the kind of independence I expect when I think of the independent media who are supposed to raise a critical eye to those who hold the central reigns of political power.

I've found the same gross misrepresentation of the pro-life position on stem cell research in several different places over the last few weeks. The most surprising place to find it is in a philosophical work in a chapter on the moral status of the fetus. Referring to the position that moral status begins at conception, Anne Fagot-Largeault says:

Since the 1980s, however, there have been extraordinary advances in scientific technology, and these have brought into sharp relief some of the drawbacks of the preceding position. In fact, the position leads to some unconscionable outcomes. On the one hand, it implies that an embryo that is, for example, the carrier of the genetic defect that results in Down syndrome has the same right to live as a non-carrier. On the other, the view entails that we must not use embryonic research in order to strive to eliminate such maladies as Thalassemia -- to do so, according to this view, would entail choosing between the lesser of two evils. In general, this implies a very tragic conception of the moral life, namely that whenever humans substitute their choices for those of God, they can only make matters worse.

Nowadays, this position has lost much of its force. With the explosion of stem cell research, there are so very many cells that have embryonic potential that the supposed natural organic distinction that was once relied upon has crumbled under its own weight. The claim that stem cells have an enigmatic ontological status itself now seems enigmatic. [Fagot-Largeault, "The Fetus in Perspective: The Moral and the Legal" in Laurence Thomas, ed., Contemporary Debates in Social Philosophy, p.117.]

What seems enigmatic to me is why anyone would think the pro-life view on stem cells is that stem cells themselves have any moral status. If you stuck a stem cell in a woman's uterus, I wouldn't be holding my breath waiting for it to implant itself and begin developing. You have to alter a stem cell to make it an embryo for that capability to develop, just as you have to alter an egg by fertilizing it or turning it into a clone to give it that potential. No one thinks stem cells themselves have any special status. The only opposition to embryonic stem cell research is that acquiring the stem cells involves killing an embryo. It's not that there's anything special about the stem cells that should lead us to protect them. It's that the embryos should have protection as human beings. Stem cells can be acquired in other ways, and no one objects to those ways. It's hard to exaggerate how unfair it is to the pro-life view on stem cells to claim that anyone assigns some enigmatic status to stem cells themselves or that the embryonic potential of stem cells somehow undermines the distinction between what counts as an organism and what doesn't. There's no scientific reason to support the confusion of (a) stem cells that have potential to become embryos and (b) embryos themselves.

This isn't the first time I've seen this ridiculous portrayal of the pro-life position. I've seen it several times now, but it's pretty disturbing to find it in an academic paper in a philosophy textbook. The author isn't actually a trained philosopher. She's a biologist. But that's no excuse. biologists should be aware of the positions they're writing in response to if they're going to publish essays in philosophy textbooks arguing philosophically against those positions. That I've seen the very same argument in unrelated places suggests to me that perhaps there's a more widespread misconception going around among those who favor killing embryos for the greater good of people who weren't killed at the embryonic stage.

It's hard for me to resist commenting, while I've got the above quote in front of me, on her line about an embryo with the genetic defect leading to Down syndrome and an embryo without such a defect. It's hard to see how it's unconscionable to think those two embryos have the same moral status. It's hard even to see how it's conscionable to think the two embryos have a different moral status. Even those who immorally think it's perfectly all right to abort a fetus purely because it has Down syndrome (a view that a lot of pro-choicers think is horrific, I should add) do not justify such an argument on the view that such a fetus has less moral status than any other fetus. They justify it based on compassion for the fetus that, if they abort it, will never have the supposedly-awful life that they project Down syndrome people to have. There's never any suggestion of the fetus itself having less right to life. It's that view that I find unconscionable, and my reasons for finding it unconscionable make as much sense even on pro-choice premises.

There's one other argument in the quoted passage that makes no sense to me. A lot of people think there are some things that are wrong enough that it requires a huge amount of good being at stake to overcome the moral resistance to doing it so that it would be potentially all right. Killing a human being is one of these. On pro-life principles, it's not going to be easy to get around this problem for policies that lead to killing a lot of human beings whose existence only occurred in order to kill then, in order generate lines of stem cells that have some undefined possibility of leading to some good medical treatments if they can get around the tumor problem and if the more promising stem cell methods without the moral problems doesn't get there soon. That's a pretty clear moral argument, one that I admit involves controversial premises, but none of those premises involves a distinction between (a) making choices and (b) refraining from making choices so that God's can occur instead. The important distinction in the pro-life argument about embryos is that the moral prohibition on killing human life doesn't get easily overcome even if there's a great potential for good that comes from it, as anyone outraged at Joseph Mengele's research could attest to. It's not that making any old choice between two evils should lead to inaction, as if inaction means we don't interfere with God but action means we do. It's that doing some things would be so bad that even good consequences wouldn't be enough to overcome the moral wrongness of the action. You can only conclude that it's opposed to what God wants once you establish its moral wrongness. That's not part of the argument at all. It's the implication of the conclusion of the argument.

Perhaps future-Justice Sotomayor's judicial inclinations on abortion will be tested relatively soon once she assumes Justice Souter's now-vacated (as of today) seat on the Supreme Court (pending her all-but-assured confirmation by the heavily-Democratic Senate). The 4th Circuit decided a case last week that considers the constitutionality of a Virginia abortion ban that in almost every respect is just like the federal law that the Supreme Court narrowly upheld in an opinion written by abortion swing-voter Justice Anthony Kennedy.

The federal law and the Virginia law differ in one respect. The federal law bans deliberate partial-births (defined by delivery up to a certain biological point) in order to kill the fetus. That procedure is outlawed as a method of abortion. The Virgina law bans one further thing. If a doctor is carrying out an abortion by another method, and the fetus happens to get past that point of delivery defined by the law as a partial-birth, it is a crime to kill it via any method. In other words, once the fetus reaches the point defined by the federal law as a partial-birth (whereby it's a crime to deliver the fetus to that point in order to kill it), it counts in Virginia as a crime of a similar level if the doctor goes ahead and kills the fetus whether the intention was to abort it that way or another way earlier in the process.

In other words, the difference between these two laws is that one does not criminalize deliberate attempts to kill the fetus after it reaches the relevant partial-birth stage as long as the doctor had planned to kill the fetus earlier but failed to do so. The other does criminalize that. Which law is more consistent? Surely the Virgina one. It criminalizes any killing past that point, whether there was an intention of killing beforehand or not. Compare the laws against disposing of an infant born from a failed abortion. The U.S. Senate unanimously supported such a law. It doesn't matter if the doctor intended to abort the fetus. If it got to the point where it would normally be illegal to kill it, the fact that it was born as a result of a failed abortion doesn't make it legal to kill it. This just extends the same sort of reasoning to the partial-birth abortion ban the federal government passed that the Supreme Court has declared constitutional. So it seems as if it's actually the logical implication of the federal law, even if the federal law didn't go this far. It basically relies on the principle, found in Judith Jarvis Thomson's famous 1972 paper defending abortion, that a woman doesn't have a right to the death of the fetus just because she has a right to be rid of it from her body.

The 4th Circuit vote was narrowly-divided 6-5 along lines that happen to correspond with the party of the presidents who appointed them. Judges don't often follow a narrow ideology reflecting exactly that of the president who nominated them, but in this case it did work out that way. One judge was appointed by President Clinton as a recess appointment and renominated by President George W. Bush as a courtesy (as presidents do from time to time for previous presidents of another party), but he really counts as a Clinton appointment, since Clinton appointed him initially. Those appointed by Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Bush signed the opinion that upheld the law. Those appointed by President Clinton signed the dissent (none remain from Carter and Obama's one nominee to that court hasn't been confirmed yet).

In effect, the Democratic appointees on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals have endorsed the view that a woman not only has a right to be rid of the fetus but also has a right to its death if being rid of it most of the way doesn't kill it. Otherwise they have nothing to complain about if they're really following Supreme Court precedent (which does bind them). The dissent here strikes me as a pretty obvious case of ideology trumping the law, even granting all Supreme Court precedent as the law. I really hope that if the Supreme Court hears this case it will affirm the 4th Circuit judgment by a 6-3 margin. It will likely not get more than that since three justices remain who will likely seek to continue their opposition to laws like this, but I suppose it's barely possible even if extremely unlikely that Justices Stevens or Breyer will defer to precedent they didn't original support. But no one has any clue about Judge Sotomayor's views on this sort of issue. She could be well to the left of anyone on the Supreme Court for all I know, but it's certainly possible that she's even to the right of Justice Kennedy for all that she's written about the issue (which is basically nothing besides issues relating to the free speech of abortion protesters).

One of the most reprinted articles on abortion in applied ethics anthologies is Mary Anne Warren's 1973 article "On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion". Her general approach is to claim (without argument) that moral status has to do with personhood and then to claim (without argument) that personhood consists of having certain characteristics chosen in order to get the result that a fetus isn't a person. She does argue for the first claim in other work, particularly her discussions of animal rights, where she basically explains the heightened moral status of adult human beings in terms of pragmatic, non-intrinsic value (which I have to say isn't very satisfying as an account of moral rights, even if it might work for legal rights). But there's no actual argument for either claim in this article. She just takes it to be obvious that what opponents of abortion have long taken to be obvious is just false. Her account has always seemed to me to be question-begging, since the pro-lifer might not grant either premise.

But it's one thing to present a question-begging argument. It's quite another to misrepresent the opposition and to assert obvious falsehoods, and Warren does both. There are two real howlers in her article, and it amazes me that it gets as much attention as it does. I know of no better article defending the general approach she takes, so I continue to use it, but this isn't because I think her article is remotely good. It's because the position she defends probably has no better defense, and thus if I want to represent it among the possible views I'm going to discuss in class I might as well choose the most easily-accessible among the presentations of views like hers (particularly if I also teach her position on animal rights, where she does at least give some argument for the first premise). Plus, I spend enough time reading through new readings and preparing new material to teach whenever I use a new book in my endless quest to fight the rising textbook prices and the urge of students not to buy the books when the prices get too high. If I can limit the number of new readings I do, I will usually do so. So I continue to teach her article.

The two biggest problems in Warren's article are these:

(1) She gives an absolutely terrible argument against the view that potential personhood grants moral rights, one that grossly misrepresents even the crudest versions of such a view.
(2) Her view of personhood leads to some outrageous claims about moral status than no reasonable person should accept, and it's not even clear that her position is consistent in the end.

Late-Term Abortions

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I wanted to post on this over a week ago, but computer difficulties ensued, and my file of stuff to blog about was inaccessible. Bruce Alderman offers a fairly careful explanation of why some people who are otherwise inclined toward pro-life directions on abortion might allow for abortion in some late-term cases. He even goes far enough to say that most of the late-term cases should be less-controversially ok than even many of the earlier-term cases.

Shouldn't it be obvious that late-term cases should be more morally problematic than early-term ones? After all, those who think moral status develops from lower moral status to the full status of adult human beings will often say most of this development takes place in utero, and more pain is caused by late-term abortions as well, so those who base the moral question on how much pain is causes should think earlier abortions are not as bad. What Bruce points out, though, is that most late-term cases are often done for reasons that pro-lifers are more often willing to acknowledge as less problematic. The example he gives is of a teenager who had an abortion because her life was at risk if she continued the pregnancy. I'd be willing to guess that the exception most easily allowed by pro-lifers would be cases where it's two lives lost or one lost, and having an abortion leads to the only one lost. So I'm not sure allowing these cases leads to a view all that far removed from the typical pro-life position.

Where I think Bruce's view departs from the typical pro-life opposition to late-term abortions is that he notices that most late-term abortions are not for the typical reasons women give for early-term abortions. The vast majority of late-term abortions are to save the mother's life, to avoid pretty serious health consequences for the mother, or because some kind of major birth defect is discovered late in the game. This makes Bruce conclude that it's strange for pro-lifers to have such opposition to doctors who perform late-term abortions, as if those abortions are much worse than the early ones.

I do have a couple problems with Bruce's analysis (and the rest of this post is adapted from my original comment on his post). He seems to treat abortions having to do with life-threatening situations for the mother and those having to do with defects in the fetus as if they're in the same category. I wouldn't consider them remotely the same. I can understand an abortion to save the life of the mother, at least if she has other children to take care of. It would be a great tragedy, and I'm still not sure it's morally ok to perform an active killing of an innocent to save someone's life, but I can understand the motive.

I'm a lot less understanding of those who would have an abortion at 26 weeks just because they think there's a likelihood of some kind of disease or disorder in the child. That's no better than those who kill their child when they found out there's a risk (but certainly no guarantee given all the false positives of such tests) of Down Syndrome. That sort of act is just downright evil and cannot be motivated by anything but selfishness on the part of the parents or an extremely warped sense of what quality of life a Down Syndrome person can have. Lots of pro-choice people fully agree with me on this.

Not all cases are like this, though. Sometimes it's a matter of some condition that you know is there and that you know will not allow for continuing development past a few days or weeks. But isn't our obligation to care for such children and try to make their lives comfortable rather than killing them? The mere presence of such a child in the womb rather than having been born shouldn't change that. My suspicion is that the majority of late-term abortions are in this last category and not the life-saving category. Even if I'm wrong, they shouldn't be lumped together, and it would still follow that late-term abortion doctors would be doing something pretty seriously immoral if they do it for this reason, and most who do it are doing it for this reason at least sometimes.

That, of course, doesn't make it ok to kill doctors who perform late-term abortions, but I do think this is an important enough issue not to smooth over as if there's no distinction to be made between late-term abortions whose motivation is less bad and late-term abortions whose motivation is pretty awful.

President Obama announced today that he's lifting the ban on government funding for the destruction of living, complete human organisms in the embryonic stage. In his speech announcing this change, the President declared the choice between faith and science to be a false dichotomy, thus insinuating that the objections from the pro-life side (which are, in the popular mind, associated with faith rather than the philosophical backing that they tend to have among most pro-lifers) are anti-science. He speaks of pro-life objections as coming from thoughtful and decent people, which might suggest that he doesn't think such views are anti-intellectual, as many of my philosophical colleagues typically assume them to be. But in presenting his view as the middle road between the anti-science and pro-faith view on one side and the pro-science and anti-faith view on the other, it's hard to avoid the suggestion that pro-life objections are anti-science.

This becomes clearer later in his speech. He sees this order as part of a larger move to restore the promotion of good science. He sees it as a recovery from Bush Administration resistance to good science. Aside from the fact that those who make such claims have a pretty distorted view of what the Bush Administration actually did and what policies it actually supported in general, the claim is particularly ludicrous in this case. The pro-life objection to destroying human embryos has nothing to do with science or anti-science. It's based on a philosophical conclusion, that human life at any stage has the moral status that human life at any other stage has. The most science can show is that what empirical features are true of human life at any stage, not what moral status something with certain empirical features must have. That's a philosophical question, not a scientific question, and it's one the current President claimed to be beyond his pay grade, so he can't consistently now claim that science does give the answer in as clear a way as this speech insists.

The argument for full moral status does not deny the empirically-observable facts about human development. Consciousness, complexity of thought, fully-formed organs, and other features sometimes thought to be necessary for full moral status are simply irrelevant, according to the standard pro-life picture, and nothing science observes will tell us otherwise. It takes a philosophical presupposition to resist that conclusion, a presupposition not shared by the pro-lifer. So labeling the pro-life view anti-science is grossly unfair and unbecoming for the President of the United States, particularly when he's just called such people thoughtful and decent. Ironically, Obama's own position is also based on an ideological assumption that there's nothing wrong with killing an embryonic human being, and yet he says in this speech that "scientific decisions" should be "based on facts, not ideology". I won't call this hypocrisy, since he may simply not know what he's doing, but his words and actions are certainly inconsistent.

There's a further insult to pro-lifers hidden in this speech. He says, "with proper guidelines and strict oversight, the perils can be avoided". What perils does he mean? It sounds as if he's saying that the ethical objections can be handled by applying proper guidelines and oversight, but it's hard to see how that would be unless the proper guidelines and oversight would prevent the killing of any embryos for the purpose of deriving stem cells, and that's exactly the policy he's trying to remove with this executive order. So it's as if he wants people to get the impression that proper oversight and guidelines will avoid all the objections being raised against this research, when in reality the only way to have guidelines and oversight of that nature would have been to retain the Bush policy, which was already the ingenious middle way between the two extremes, one that recognized the value of the research while not allowing further human organisms to be destroyed. Now President Obama wants to claim that spot by abandoning Bush's middle-ground view and going for the more extreme view that refuses to recognize any of the moral objections of a sizable minority of the American populace (something like 41% according to one poll).

A rogue commenter reinvigorating the discussion at this post has led me to clarify something relevant to the abortion debate that I've been moving toward for a while now. There are a number of arguments on both sides of the abortion discussion that involve conceptual slips across important distinctions, and I think it's worth clarifying the assumptions that enable this process.

First, we need to separate out the following three-way distinction: biological humanity, what I'll call Warren-personhood, and moral status. Biological humanity is simply what biologists would classify as being human, as opposed to being a member of a different species or not being an organism at all. Warren-personhood is what most philosophers nowadays mean when they speak of personhood. I'm not convinced that this concept lines up with most people's notions of personhood, but it's become a technical term in philosophy for having certain capacities such as consciousness, self-awareness, the ability to plan for the future, and so on. I call it Warren-personhood because Mary Anne Warren's important pre-Roe article "On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion" is the first instance I know of for this use of the term. Moral status is what it sounds like. Something has moral status if it would be wrong to treat it in certain ways for its own sake (and not just because it's someone's property or because it robs the world of beauty). Most people prefer to talk about moral status in terms of rights, but I prefer not to, because I think moral status is more expansive than rights, and I don't think rights are fundamental to begin with.

One more terminological matter is important before I say what I want to say. Here are two concepts: a three-sided planar figure and a three-angled planar figure. Those aren't the same concept. One concept has to do with how many sides the figure has, and the other has to do with how many angles it has. Philosophers will call these two concepts co-extensive. The extension of a term is the entirety of things that fall under it. The extension of 'tree' is simply all the trees. The extension of 'triangle' is all the triangles. The extension of each of these two concepts is the same as the extension of 'triangle'. The two concepts are co-extensive. Yet they aren't the same concept. Some concepts will be co-extensive but not necessarily so. It just happens that the concept "major party U.S. vice-presidential candidates through 2008 named Geraldine and Sarah" is co-extensive with the concept " major party U.S. vice-presidential candidates through 2008 who are women". But they might not have been if some other presidential candidate had selected a woman as V.P. or if McCain or Mondale had selected a different woman.

The pro-life position typically takes the first and last concepts in my list (biological humanity and moral status) to be coextensive, sometimes by means of taking the second (Warren-personhood) to be coextensive with each. But the pro-life argument doesn't need to rely on that. It can be done as long as moral status comes with being biologically human. One response to the pro-life position is simply to distinguish between these two concepts, as if that's the end of the discussion. But that response fails to consider the possibility that the concepts are distinguishable but co-extensive (or, more precisely, just that everything falling under the first concept falls under the third). All that would have to be true for that is that every biologically human organism has moral status. To assume otherwise is to beg the question against the pro-lifer by asserting without argument that human organisms might not all have moral status.

The only argument I've ever seen for such a position is to assume Warren-personhood is what matters for moral status, something the pro-lifer doesn't assume. Thus the argument assumes, in effect, what it's trying to establish, or at least part of what it's trying to establish, which is that Warren-personhood and moral status are co-extensive (or, more precisely, that nothing in the biologically human category has moral status unless it's a Warren-person). I'm really unsure that such a thing can be established without begging the question against the pro-life view. I'm actually pretty sure it can't, actually, or I probably would have seen such an argument, and I'm pretty familiar with the philosophical literature on abortion.

I'm not saying that this favors the pro-life argument very much. It;s more a recognition of why neither side is moved by the other. I've long seen the assumption behind this kind of pro-choice argument as question-begging, but I think this way of framing gets at my worry a lot more precisely. It's not really a matter of getting the concept of personhood wrong, as I've said in the past. It's a matter of two views on the relation between these different categories, with really little in the way of careful philosophical argument that either side can use to convince the other on its own terms of its stance on the foundational issue.

When I was looking for information on the X-Gene for the mutants and race piece I'm working on, one website I was looking at wrongly cited X-Men (the 1991 series) issues 2-3 as one place the X-Gene comes up. I was immediately suspicious, because I'd just read those issues when I was thinking about submitting a proposal for Magneto's moral philosophy for the Supervillains volume (which in the end I decided not to do, even though it would have used material I've put some work into both from the political section of my ancient philosophy teaching and the just war and terrorism section of my applied ethics teaching). I hadn't seen anything about an X-Gene in my recent reading of those issues, but I decided to read them again anyway, and it led to an interesting thought process about the story, something I hadn't spent as much time thinking about the first time through.

The main plot involves Magneto discovering he was genetically re-engineered by Moira McTaggart when he was reduced to a baby. She decided to figure out how the close friend of Charles Xavier could do the things Magneto did, and she discovered an instability in his brain due to the power he was channeling. This did explain how Charles Xavier's friend could become a terrorist. She apparently saw this as hindering who he really was, so she sought to give him a second chance by removing the instability. Many people might think she was preventing a power outside his free choice from influencing him.

What generates the conflict in these issues, though, is that he has a different view. He sees it as her playing God and making every choice he made since then suspect. It's as if he thinks his choices are only free if they go naturally the way they would have without interference from someone changing his internal structure as he existed naturally. I have to say that whether she's right or not, he certainly isn't. How does removing an instability resulting from too much power being channeled through him count as behavior modification of the sort that undermines free will?

But then he forces her to apply the same process (removing an instability particular to him?) to some of the X-Men so that they will follow him and not Xavier. She does it, and they do. Huh? How can removing the instability particular to him from the X-Men who don't have it make them loyal to him and not Xavier? If they do have it, won't it stop their powers from doing the same thing to them and clouding their moral judgments? So removing it wouldn't make them like Magneto. I'm not sure what Chris Claremont was thinking with this one.

Then they snap out of it eventually, because the process only works if the subject never uses their powers. The use of powers undoes it, because somehow the powers are tied into the way the brain has naturally developed, and the genetic re-engineering gets forced back into its natural state somehow by the powers in order to ensure proper functioning. This is also a little strange, because it sounds as if the re-engineering is messing with nature and proper functioning, except the original explanation with Magneto sounded like it was restoring a natural balance that the powers were interfering with.

This was Chris Claremont's last story on X-Men, and in some ways it was a nice send-off to its longest-running writer to end on a battle with Magneto that hits some of the main themes Magneto has always differed with the X-Men on, but it's too bad that a very important premise of the story is so confused, both on the theoretical level about what's going on in this hypothetical scenario and in terms of ethical reflection on that situation. I remember not really liking this story all that much when it came out (seventeen years ago now!), as hyped as it had been with Claremont returning to start off the new X-Men teams and the new book and my favorite new artist Jim Lee rendering the visuals. The first issue is still the highest-selling comic book ever. I don't remember my reasons, but it didn't strike me as worth the attention. I wonder if this was part of the reason.

Little People

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We were out for a walk today, and Sophia and Ethan had gotten ahead of the rest of us. As they approached a road, we called them back. Ethan stopped, and Sophia kept going. So Ethan went over to Sophia, picked her up, and carried her back toward us. Sophia protested in a way that imitated Ethan's usual protesting (which in turn imitates what his teachers say to him when telling him a general rule about not saying no to teachers or some such thing. Here is the exchange that began with that. The first line itself would have been funny enough, but she doesn't stop there.

Sophia: It's not ok to bring little people back to their moms and dads.
Me: Are you a little person?
Sophia: Yeah.
Me: Is Ethan a little person?
Sophia: Yeah.
Me: Is Bear-Bear a little person?
Sophia: Yeah, and so is Isaiah.
Me: Is the baby a little person?
Sophia: Yes, they are.

So she assumes a fetus is a person (whereas some philosophers I know might wonder if Isaiah is a person on their account of personhood, or perhaps they'd think his personhood is just now beginning to emerge now that he's beginning to communicate better). But she also thinks her stuffed bear is a little person. (In both cases it means she's working from a conceptual framework that doesn't require consciousness or the capacity for pleasure or pain for personhood. I'm not sure if there's some condition her assumptions about personhood require, though. I think for the bear she might be speaking in the world of her imagination or something.)

Then she does a third interesting thing. She goes on to use a singular 'they' with the correct grammatically-plural but semantically-singular verb (as opposed to saying "they is", which occurs in some colloquial English dialects even for a real plural "they" but not ever in standard colloquial English, which still says "they are" for a singular referent when gender is unknown). What's funny is that she and Ethan are in full disagreement about whether the baby is a boy or a girl. She wants a sister, and so she must be getting one. Ethan is expecting another brother. [We'll be happy if Isaiah thinks more of the baby than he would a stuffed animal he can throw things at, since that's exactly what happened the last time he was near a newborn. He nailed it in the head with a pretty hard plastic toy. That boy can really aim, but he needs some more discernment of targets.]

Anyway, Sophia isn't going to go out of her way to avoid using male or female terms for this kid. It's just so natural for her that she used the singular 'they' (and got it right) without thinking that she has this view she's putting forward about a baby sister. She's learned the language better than a lot of cranky language prescriptivists who think this expression is some offensive innovation in recent years (even though it occurs in the King James Version of the Bible, not to mention Shakespeare and Jane Austen).

Fetal Skin Cells

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Jay Watts, in the midst of saying a lot of other things, argues against using the skin cells from aborted fetuses for research. I'm not convinced that there's a strong pro-life argument against this practice, though. What follows is my comment on Jay's post:

I think we need to separate the following acts:

1. Taking skin from a dead human being in order to save thousands of lives.
2. Killing someone in order to save thousands of lives by using their skin.

There might be general moral disagreement over 2 among different ethical theories, but I don't think most views have problems with 1 unless they assume the libertarian premise that people's body parts shouldn't be used without permission, even if the person is dead. I generally share that premise when it comes to something on the level of whole organs, but I don't think it's a big deal if the government scrapes some skin off me without my permission after I die and then uses it for saving thousands of lives.

So what's different with abortion? The only difference I can think of is that these fetuses are being killed immorally, even if it's legal. But suppose it were even illegal. Once you allow what I allowed for in 1, it shouldn't matter if I happened to have been murdered or if I died of a disease in the hospital that no one was morally responsible for giving me. So why should it matter with aborted fetuses?

I'm not seeing a strong pro-life argument against this except maybe on consequentialist grounds, and that would only be because people might improperly draw the wrong conclusion from allowing this to the view that the killing itself was justified. But is that a good enough reason to avoid saving thousands of lives?

Obama and Infanticide

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Barack Obama's opposition as an Illinois State Senator to the Born Alive Infant Protection Act has been making the rounds, with a lot of people overstating their case on both sides. Some conservatives are taking this as a sign that Obama thinks infanticide is morally ok, and some liberals are acting as if his approach is what any supporter of keeping abortion legal before viability should say. I'm not sure either is true, but I'm also not sure this reflects well on Obama.

Here is the law. It says that if a baby is born alive, whether by intended delivery or by failed abortion, it is legally a person, a human being, a child, and an individual. It counts as born alive only if it is completely removed from the mother (ignoring an umbilical cord connection, which does not count as a sufficient connection according to this law). Partial-birth abortion is thus not ruled out, because a partial birth is not a complete removal of the fetus. As long as the birth has not fully taken place, this law threatens no actual abortion rights.

Obama's reason for not supporting this ban is not because he thinks it's ok to kill a born fetus. As far as he's said, he does not actually support infanticide (and he didn't vote against the law; he just voted present, although that in itself was part of a strategy devised by Planned Parenthood of Illinois to protect pro-choice politicians from voters seeing how pro-choice they are). For his actual words, see comment 9 here. What he says is that he worries about the logic. Here is what seems to me to be his argument:

1. The Supreme Court has declared laws banning abortion before viability to be unconstitutional.
2. There is no difference between the moral status of a fetus inside its mother before viability and the moral status of a born baby at the same developmental stage.
3. Therefore, banning the killing of a born baby at this stage is morally tantamount to banning abortion at a pre-viability stage. (from 2)
4. Therefore, the law is unconstitutional. (from 1 and 3)

This argument does not amount to supporting infanticide morally. It is merely an argument based on the constitutional issue. According to Supreme Court precedent, this law is unconstitutional, and thus it's pointless to pass it. He gives no moral argument against the ban, just a pragmatic one. So from this speech alone it's impossible to get any clear support for infanticide.

Nevertheless, I think this is a terrible argument. The first premise is clearly true. I would argue that the second is also true. I see no difference in the intrinsic moral status of the fetus merely because it is contained within someone or is separate. However, I don't think 1 and 3 guarantee 4. There's no legal reason why morally inconsistent laws can't occur. You can ban something that's morally equivalent to something else that's unconstitutional to ban, as long as the first thing isn't unconstitutional to ban. But the real problem I have with the argument is his inference from 2 to 3.

The standard pro-choice argument is not that a mother has a right to kill a fetus growing within her. Only the most extreme abortion-choice proponents hold such a view. The standard view is that a woman's right to control her body is morally more important than whatever rights a fetus might have. That argument allows for a fetus to have some sort of moral status such that killing it would be prima facie wrong, even if the bodily rights of the mother outweigh that. What this means is that the standard pro-choice argument does not accord a mother the right to the death of the fetus. If it survives removal, her rights have been satisfied. That means the moral status of the fetus is what kicks in to determine what you should do in such a case, and this law settles that question. It does not threaten the woman's bodily rights, at least not according to the standard justification of abortion rights.

Judith Jarvis Thomson's "A Defense of Abortion" is sometimes said to be the most-reprinted article in philosophy, and I believe it. It's one of the most influential papers in all of applied ethics, and several of the arguments Thomson makes have become standard moves in completely unrelated discussions.

One of Thomson's claims is that it would be morally indecent to have an abortion in the ninth month for fairly trivial concerns but that we shouldn't expect a young teenager in her first trimester, pregnant by means of rape, to go through with a pregnancy. She thinks it would be a wonderful moral decision to choose to go through with it, but it's more than we should expect. Philosophers regularly speak this way. They find a middle ground between what is wrong and what is morally required. That range includes anything that would be morally excellent to do but not morally required. This does fit with a lot of people's moral intuitions. There are sacrifices that would be morally admirable to make, but no one is really obligated to make them. This class of actions is called supererogatory. Thomson is saying that it's supererogatory to go through with a pregnancy in some conditions, but it's morally obligatory to go through with it in other cases.

What struck me as odd as I was reading the paper again this time around while preparing to teach it was her use of Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan to express this view. She says the ninth-month abortion in the above paragraph wouldn't even be an example of a Minimally Decent Samaritan. We should expect more morally. But going through a pregnancy in the other case would be an example of a Very Good Samaritan, i.e. well beyond the call of duty. I'm not going to dispute the possibility of distinguishing between a range of cases, with some supererogatory and some morally obligatory. It does seem strange to use the Good Samaritan parable to do so, however, since Jesus' point in that parable is that you ought to love your neighbor as yourself, and your neighbor is anyone in need, which means you ought to go way beyond what you thought you were obligated to do, and this is even in cases involving complete strangers whose social position means you wouldn't normally even rub shoulders with the person. In other words, Jesus is at the very least minimizing the category of supererogatory actions. He doesn't explicitly deny that there are such actions, but it's hard to avoid the impression on reading the parable that he thinks most actions philosophers would classify as supererogatory as actually morally required.

That suggests an interesting response to Thomson's argument. What about those who don't hold to a view like Thomson's about supererogatory actions? What we ought to be as good as we can be? What if we ought to do as much good as we can do? Thomson's intent is to assume for the sake of argument that a fetus has full moral status and a right to life, arguing then that there are still reasons to think abortion is morally permissible under certain conditions (and as she goes it becomes clear that those conditions aren't just extreme ones like rape but include any case of failed contraception, provided that the abortion takes place early enough in the pregnancy). There are lots of places people might question her argument, but one place I hadn't thought about was to question her reliance on there being a wide range of supererogatory acts. If not, then you might concede all her other points and still oppose abortion. If you think it's morally better to go through with a pregnancy, as Thomson concedes (and many pro-choice people have since then), then once you deny supererogation you end up with a moral obligation not to have an abortion, and this has nothing to do with fetal rights (Thomson is no longer assuming for the sake of argument that the fetus is a person when she gets into the Good Samaritan stuff).

So Thomson's argument gets turned on its head. She started with an argument defending abortion even if the fetus is a person with full moral rights, and once you deny the supererogation premise you end up with an argument that abortion is often immoral, without assuming anything about the personhood of the fetus. It does involve a pretty controversial premise, but it's an interesting argument nonetheless, and there are lots of people who deny supererogation (or at least should do so given their other commitments).

I started the semester off in my applied ethics class with a unit on abortion, so I've been thinking a lot about arguments in the abortion literature that you don't often see at the popular level. I haven't taught this subject since fall 2004, so I'm sort of coming at a lot of this from a fresh perspective and rethinking a lot of the arguments I've been familiar with. Several things have occurred to me that seemed worth blogging about, so you can look for several posts on abortion in the next week or so as I write up my thoughts on some of these things.

One highly-anthologized article on abortion is Don Marquis' "Why Abortion Is Immoral". Marquis sets out to explain why abortion is immoral without assuming the personhood of the fetus. He instead develops an account of why killing in general is wrong. Killing is wrong, says Marquis, not because of some intrinsic property of the thing being killed (e.g. its capacity to feel pain, its consciousness, its ability to plan for the future, its self-concept, and so on), but because of the future it would otherwise have or be likely to have if you don't kill it. The reason it would be wrong to kill me is because of what you're taking away from me if you do so -- my future. The reason it's wrong to kill anything is because of the future you're robbing it of.

Now it follows that you're robbing a fetus of a future, and the future you're robbing it of is one like the future you and I have. You're even robbing it of more of a future, since it won't even get what you and I have already had that's now in our past. So abortion is wrong because it robs a fetus of a future like ours. This is so even if a fetus isn't a person. It has moral status not because of its current properties but because of what you would be taking away from it if you do certain things to it. In other words, its future (or what would otherwise be its future) is what guarantees the wrongness of killing it (and what you might derivatively call its right to life, but this is now being framed in very different terms.

That's the primary argument of Marquis' article. He doesn't spend much time developing it. Most of his effort goes toward motivating his theory of why killing is wrong and explaining why it's superior to person-based accounts. In this post, I'm not going to focus in on whether his theory of killing is correct, but I do want to flag a part of his support for it that strikes me as question-begging or at least as only appealing to a relatively small subset of potential readers.

One of the features he presents for his view on why killing is wrong is that it gives the right results about a number of other issues. Philosophers often give such arguments. They present a theory about something, and then they point out that their theory fits nicely with people's intuitions about other matters, and the alternative theories they're considering conflict with those same intuitions. The problem in Marquis' use of this strategy is that he chooses some controversial intuitions, indeed a pretty strange combination of them.

McCain on Stem Cells

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Several people have asked me where I got the information that John McCain has changed his view on stem cell research. His position used to be the same as that of former Senator Bill Frist, who opposes the creation of new stem cell lines except in cases where the embryo is already going to be destroyed. I have defended this position as consistent with pro-life principles about the full moral status of the fetus (and again here in a slightly different context), but many people who are pro-life do not agree. A lot of people think the issue should largely be defused now, however, since the discovery that embryonic-like stem cells can be developed without destroying embryos at all. I was under the impression that McCain was one of them.

I'm pretty sure one of the political blogs I read that usually has very reliable, up-to-date information about candidates had a mention in the last week or so of this change in McCain's view, but I can't remember where. What it said is that McCain had changed his mind in light of this new research and no longer supports research even on embryos that will already be destroyed, citing the new research as evidence that we probably will no longer need to do that to get enough embryos for the research that he still considers necessary. Since I couldn't find where I saw this, I spent some time looking around for recent statements by McCain on the issue. Here's what I came up with.

Gerald Bradley wrote in the National Review on January 18:

McCain has said -- it is true -- that he approved embryo-destructive research in the limited case of so-called "spares"-- those embryos "left-over" after couples have exhausted their interest in IVF. I disagree with him.In face-to-face conversation with McCain I said not only that such research was wrong, but that it would never be limited to "spares." I said that big biotech needed a far larger supply of research subjects than "spares" could provide. McCain asked to continue that conversation, to hear more. Now he realizes that there is no need to exploit "spare" embryos, in light of recent successes with adult cells. And so he has been telling South Carolinians over the last few days.
According to the Catholic News Agency, this was where he stood about a week later:

When he was asked how he reconciled his otherwise solid pro-life voting record with his support for experimentation on "surplus" embryos, Sen. McCain called his decision to back the research "a very agonizing and tough decision".

He continued, saying, "All I can say to you is that I went back and forth, back and forth on it and I came in on one of the toughest decisions I've ever had, in favor of that research. And one reason being very frankly is those embryos will be either discarded or kept in permanent frozen status." The senator, while standing firm on his decision added, "I understand how divisive this is among the pro-life community."

Referring to the recent break through in stem cell research which allows scientists to use skin cells to create stem cells, McCain said that, "I believe that skin stem cell research has every potential very soon of making that discussion academic.... Sam Brownback and others are very encouraged at this latest advance...."
Now I don't see that as necessarily conflicting with Bradley's first-hand report. All it does is give McCain's justification at the time and then his indication that he thinks it was the right decision. It doesn't say if he still holds it, just that he stands firm in his view that it was the right one and that in the future it will be a non-issue. It says nothing about what he thinks we ought to be doing right now. So I don't see how this is inconsistent with what Bradley reports hearing from McCain in person.

But then there's this:

When a woman asked whether promising new methods of stem cell research
would end McCain's support for embryonic stem cell research, he replied
firmly: "I have not changed my position yet."
So now I'm not sure what to think. He very clearly does not think his initial view was wrong at the time he made it, and he pretty obviously thinks that soon it will not be an issue and that we will not end up needing to use "spares" for this research. Bradley's impression was that he now no longer wants to fund use of "spares". He seems not to have fully made that decision at this point, though, unless he's being misquoted or taken out of context (which I wouldn't put past Dana Milbank but certainly wouldn't assume is true).

Whichever is the case, I don't have a problem with McCain's initial view, although I think it would be good if he backed off in the face of this new research. He does seem to be moving in that direction at the very least under the influence of his close friend Senator Sam Brownback. My suspicion is that he's in a transition at the moment. His website account of his view on stem cell research notably does not treat this particular issue at all:

Stem cell research offers tremendous hope for those suffering from a variety of deadly diseases - hope for both cures and life-extending treatments. However, the compassion to relieve suffering and to cure deadly disease cannot erode moral and ethical principles.

For this reason, John McCain opposes the intentional creation of human embryos for research purposes. To that end, Senator McCain voted to ban the practice of "fetal farming," making it a federal crime for researchers to use cells or fetal tissue from an embryo created for research purposes. Furthermore, he voted to ban attempts to use or obtain human cells gestated in animals. Finally, John McCain strongly opposes human cloning and voted to ban the practice, and any related experimentation, under federal law.

As president, John McCain will strongly support funding for promising research programs, including amniotic fluid and adult stem cell research and other types of scientific study that do not involve the use of human embryos.

Where federal funds are used for stem cell research, Senator McCain believes clear lines should be drawn that reflect a refusal to sacrifice moral values and ethical principles for the sake of scientific progress, and that any such research should be subject to strict federal guidelines.

I don't see anything there about using stem cells from embryos about to be destroyed. He says he hasn't changed his view yet, but I think he's probably at least suspended his view until further notice, even if he has not yet adopted Brownback's (while giving every indication that he probably will at some point).

Radical Life Extension

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Ilya Somin takes on Daniel Callahan on an issue we don't hear about all that much: radical life extension. Callahan argues against any technology that could extend the human lifespan to double its length. His reason? It's not tragic that people die, at least if they've lived a relatively long life. Somin seems to take this approach as indicative of social conservatism. There are so many things wrong with this that I'm not sure where to begin. I'll start somewhere though, and I hope I'll get to it all.

1. If this is supposed to be an argument against life-extending technology, it fails hopelessly. Suppose it isn't tragic if someone dies at age 86. Does that make it wrong to extend the person's life to 145, say? I don't see how that follows.

2. The fact that dying at age 86 is relatively better than dying at age 2 does not mean dying at age 86 is not tragic.

3. Similarly, the fact that we can alleviate our existential agony at confronting death at 86 by saying "oh, it's all right; she lived a good life" also does not mean dying at age 86 is not tragic. It's simply a sign that we seek to find coping mechanisms by comparing lives that are relatively not as bad as others. That doesn't make death ok, and it doesn't mean death isn't tragic even with a relatively long life. It certainly doesn't mean a longer life wouldn't be better.

4. There is good reason to think all death is unfortunate. Why wouldn't it be better to extend our lives indefinitely? Even if an 86-year life is better than a 23-year life, it doesn't mean 86 years is the best there can be. There are people (I know a number of them) who claim that they wouldn't want to live too long a life, but that's at least partly because we're used to shorter lives and partly because this existence in a fallen world involves a lot of grief. There come points in life when we wish for more but don't have it. That doesn't make a 200-year life bad, though. It just means a 200-year life might well have lots of bad things in it, just as a 100-year life can, and just as a 50-year life can. The fact that there will likely be twice as much bad might drive people from wanting the possibility, but there will just as likely be twice as much good. I suspect the real desire not to see a 200-year life as good is that we've become too used to not wanting what we can't have.

5. I don't know if Callahan is a Christian, but most social conservatives in the U.S. are. If Somin thinks this is typical of social conservatives, I'd be extremely surprised if he's correct. Christians tend to think of eternal life as intrinsically good. It's true that longer life in this life isn't the goal for Christians, but the extended life itself is intrinsically good according to Christians, even if the more important goals are spiritual, including eternal life in the new heavens and new earth. So I have a hard time thinking Callahan's view should be typical of social conservatives.

6. What's worse for Callahan's view according to Christianity is that the current limit on life is actually a penalty. Death is intrinsically bad, and Christians can't deny that even if they seek to see extra years as not intrinsically good. It is at the very least a consequence of sin, and most Christians would see it as a penalty for sin. Even if animals would have died had humanity not sinned, human death is the result of sin according to Christianity. The only sense in which death can be an instrumental good is that it is a release from the fallenness of this world, but even that is only true of someone who will receive eternal life after this world.

This just leaves me bewildered that this view could be seen as representative of social conservatism, even aside from the reasoning that I've questioned. I'm not going to advocate putting lots of effort into extending our lives in order to put off something I consider every human being to deserve. It may be important to treat out bodies well because we're made in the image of God and represent him, and it may be good to see the intrinsic goodness of life as God has created it, but that doesn't mean it's good to put in a lot of effort to stave off what God has declared to be the end of every human being in this life. Christians do have reasons to try to resist expending a lot of resources on this sort of thing. But I don't think Callahan's opposition is well-grounded, and I hope it doesn't become the approach associated with social conservatism. It sounds to me more like resisting change for the sake of resisting change rather than having any real grounding for such opposition.

On Tuesday several news sources announced a new technique to derive stem cells that seem to be just like embryonic stem cells, except that it can come directly from any adult cell (at least that's how I understand what they've done). If this is all it claims to be, then there does seem to be no need to derive embryonic stem cells from any method that kills an embryo. It's unsurprising that pro-life groups feel vindicated in their claim that we needn't pursue methods that are ethically controversial to get this benefit, and CNN recognizes this in an article yesterday.

What baffles me is that they've sought to present this as if both sides of the embryonic stem cell debate feel vindicated. They even have a quote from Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) to that effect:

Our top researchers recognize that this new development does not mean that we should discontinue studying embryonic stem cells," he said in a written statement. "Scientists may yet find that embryonic stem cells are more powerful. We need to continue to pursue all alternatives as we search for treatments for diabetes, Parkinson's and spinal cord injuries.

He added that Tuesday's announcement "reiterates the need for federal support for medical research and again points out the president's misplaced priorities in vetoing the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations bill which included a substantial increase for the National Institutes of Health."

Now if he'd only said the first part, I wouldn't necessarily have any problem. I might disagree with his assumption that human beings at such an early stage have no moral status, but I wouldn't complain about his point. Someone seems to have achieved something that could accomplish what advocates of destroying human organisms for stem cells had wanted to do but without destroying any human organisms. But it's possible that that's not true.

As Russell Korobkin points out, it's still necessary to investigate whether these cells have all the features people want in embryonic stem cells and whether they will have negative features that will prevent their use (e.g. like the cancers in all the embryonic cells, although I have to point out that their presence wouldn't make this any worse than what we've got with embryonic stem cells). It's also still worth thinking through exactly what's going on here to see if it does raise any ethical objections. I certainly haven't done that.

Nevertheless, here is what you cannot rationally do. When someone presents something that at worst does not confirm your position and at best undermines it significantly, you do not present it as vindication of your view. This research may well show that it's completely unnecessary to destroy human embryos for what we might have wanted them for. Senator Harkin has been proposing federal funding to destroy human embryos. If this research is what people are saying it is, then it may well remove any need to do what so many question without sacrificing any consequences. The fact that this may not turn out to be what it's been claimed to be does not vindicate Senator Harkin's position. At best (for him), all it does is not confirm the opposing position that there will be better ways to do what Harkin wants. Not confirming your opponent's position is not vindication of your own position. The non-existence of Santa Claus doesn't confirm his opponents' position on this issue, but it would be crazy to suggest that it confirms support for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. It's simply irrelevant. Well, so is the failure of a proposed method for producing similar cells. And this isn't the failure of such a method anyway. It's the announcement of what seems like a strong possibility of non-failure in one such method.

So I would encourage the author of the CNN piece and Senator Harkin to pay a little more attention to what counts as vindicating a thesis. The way the piece reads, and the way Harkin's statement comes across, it sounds as if it's ok to ignore a positive movement toward confirming one view as if it also moves positively toward confirming the opposite view. It's fine to say that you don't know if it really does confirm that view, but don't pretend it somehow confirms the opposite view when there's no reason to think it possibly could do so.

The New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled unanimously that doctors are not liable for giving inaccurate information to women seeking to have an abortion. Justice Barry Albin wrote the opinion, which says:

On the profound issue of when life begins, this court cannot drive public policy in one particular direction by the engine of the common law when the opposing sides, which represent so many of our citizens, are arrayed along a deep societal and philosophical divide.

First of all, this gets the issue compltely wrong. There's no debate whatsoever among actual doctors and scientists about when life begins. It begins at conception. Period. There are some who frame the issue in terms of when life begins, but they do so at odds with science. Those who claim that life does not begin at conception or that there's any serious scientific debate over when life begins are opposing science. People like to complain about the Bush Administration or social conservatives being anti-science, and this seems like such a clear case of the very thing those people complain about. If it's anti-science to suppress or deny controversial but nonetheless dominant views in the scientific community, then it's certainly anti-science to deny and suppress the universal position of all scientists that biological life begins at conception.

Now there is a debate over when moral rights begin. Some tie that question to what they call personhood, and then they define personhood in terms of capacities that only develop later on. They thus conclude that a fetus has no moral worth, and anything can be done to a fetus without any moral worries. That is a controversy, and people disagree about it, including scientists. But it's not a scientific question at all. It's a philosophical question about what sort of living being has moral status and is the subject of rights and moral worth. This particular doctor did not speak to such matters but simply told the woman who was asking whether the baby was already there, "Don't be stupid; it's only blood." When a nurse later told the woman that parts of the baby were still inside, she wondered how something that's only blood could have parts still there. The doctor lied to her, and she had depended on him for accurate information to inform her moral decision.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy took a lot of heat from supporters of abortion rights in his recent opinion overturning lower court decisions that had declared partial-birth abortion bans unconstitutional. One thing many had complained about was that he had put quite a bit of effort into arguing that women are often not given accurate information about what the abortion process consists of and what is actually true of a fetus at the stage in question (6-7 weeks). Many complained that he was portraying women as stupid, ignorant, and in need of men to make their decisions for them. I haven't read the opinion closely, so it's consistent with what I know about the opinion that he did use language that comes across this way. But the general point does not require such a view of women. The general public is disturbingly ignorant on many matters, including scientific information relevant to moral questions. That this is so with abortion is demonstrated by this NJ case.

Doctors and pro-choice advocates who abuse their positions and take advantage of that ignorance by lying to women, as this doctor did, especially when they stand to gain financially or in any other way from such abortions, are doing something that in any other domain of medical science would be punishable by law. But abortion is the sacred cow that doesn't seem to require being treated like any other medical procedure. That was Justice Kennedy's main point, and I think this case demonstrates that his rhetoric, whether it was as anti-woman as people claim or not, is directed at a real problem that, even on pro-choice principles, ought to be addressed. Unfortunately, the NJ Supreme Court doesn't seem to recognize that. Fortunately, South Dakota and Illinois have similar cases that might end up differently, which would give the Supreme Court the opportunity to resolve the split among circuit courts.

Baptist Blogger has a very interesting and thought-provoking post on Christianity Sexuality and the Ethic of Pharmaceutical Enhancement. He's not talking about what is now coming to be called "male enhancement" but about such drugs as Viagra. I'd never looked into the actual scientific behind drugs like this (i.e. what they actually do and what their effects are on a level more specific than the popular understanding), never mind thought about the ethical issues they raise, so I learned quite a few things from this post. I'm not sure I agree with everything the post says, but I don't think I'm going to work out a careful view on this anytime soon, so I'm not going to raise any worries now. I did find it an interesting read that raises some good questions worth thinking about by those for whom this is an issue.

In case anyone might want to comment on this post, be aware that comments might more easily be trapped in the spam filter or held for moderation for a post on this subject, due to the presence of certain keywords. If you leave a comment and don't see it within a reasonable amount of time, send me an email, and I'll check to see if it got eaten by the filter.

Update: Ha!

Stem Cell Rhetoric

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From Hillary Clinton's statement on the Bush veto of the stem cell funding bill
You know, later today, apparently, the president will veto a bill passed by Congress to support stem cell research.
Now, this is research that...holds such promise for devastating diseases. Yesterday, I met with a group of children suffering from juvenile diabetes. I co-chair the Alzheimer's caucus in the Senate. I've worked on helping to boost funding for research to look for cures and a way to prevent so many devastating diseases. And we know that stem cell research holds the key to our understanding more about what we can do. So let me be very clear: When I am president, I will lift the ban on stem cell research.
This is just one example of how the President puts ideology before science, politics before the needs of our families, just one more example of how out of touch with reality he and his party have become. And it's just one more example as to why we're going to send them packing in January 2009, and return progressive leadership to the White House. 

No mention of the president's actual reasons for vetoing the bill. No mention that a large percentage of U.S. voters have strong moral objections to their tax dollars funding the deaths of human embryos. The way she tells the story, there are the people who want to help look for cures for diseases, and there are those who are just mean and prefer that sick people to get better.

Further, she gives a very clear implicature that there is a ban on stem cell research by talking about lifting it. But there is no such ban. Period. There is a ban on federal funding for such research, but no one has ever banned the research itself, at least in this country, and several states are now funding the research. So she misrepresents the position of the president and much of the opposing party, and then she says something about the current policy that's pretty much the moral equivalent of a lie.

Next, she makes it sound as if this is ideology and politics on one side and science and the needs of families on the other side. Yet there's no need to deny anything that scientific study has shown on the issue in order to argue against federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. There is information that each side of the debate downplays (e.g. the successes of adult stem cells, the potential for other methods of getting stem cells, and so on). Both sides want to tilt the evidence a little in their direction, but there's no way she can make the argument that her side is always on the side of science, while the other side is always against it. Neither case is based on science, in fact, since both views can admit the same scientific information. The real issue is about whether certain kinds of scientific research are immoral, and a lot of people do think this particular kind is thoroughly immoral, while others think there's absolutely nothing wrong with it.

Embryo Banks

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Suppose you had a whole bunch of children whose parents didn't want them, and they left these children frozen in a laboratory somewhere. After a while, it would be impossible to recover these children, but no one could do anything about it due to the parents' rights over what happened to them. This was perfectly legal. The only thing people could do would be to try to reason with these parents to get them to give up these children for adoption, to reason with the companies that allowed parents to do this, or to wait until the Supreme Court changed enough due to moral outrage from those who saw this as wrong, so they could overturn their precedent on the issue and allow Congress to pass laws against the practice.

Then someone comes along with a way to minimize the loss of all these children. Short of changing the laws, they argue, the best we can do to help these children is to allow people to pay the parents for them so they can adopt them. So they decide to set up a clinic that allows people to take a look at these children to see if there are any there they want to adopt. Some conservative groups complain that it cheapens life to allow parents to do this, calling it eugenics and designer children, since they can pick and choose the characteristics of which child they want to adopt. However, ordinary adoption methods also have that element, do they not? This method just helps save those children who would otherwise be left for dead. Doesn't it seem like a good policy to save these children who would otherwise have no life?

Oh, and these children are all still in their embryonic state, and the people opposing this notably pro-life development are supposedly pro-life. You do the math.

Scientists have been using embryos from destroyed human organisms to investigate treatments for Parkinson's disease. The hope was to get these undifferentiated cells to take on the characteristics of the cells in the brain so that damaged brain cells could be replaced by the stem cells. Except from explicitly social conservative news outlets, all the press this kind of research has been getting has been nothing but favorable. Hardly anyone in the mainstream news mentions the obstacles in getting embryonic stem cells to work in this way, as opposed to the successes already achieved in using adult stem cells. Even if there is more potential good that might be accomplished by embryonic stem cells, it strikes me as a little dishonest to report only that and to ignore that actual success of adult stem cells and the difficulties with embryonic stem cells that have yet to be overcome. So there is already reason to suspect dishonesty in the news media on hiding some facts related to this research.

Even so, I have nowhere seen any mention of actual harm that this technique might cause (apart from the harm caused to the embryos themselves, of course), even among socially conservatives. Yet apparently there's long been a worry among scientists that this kind of stem cell technique would cause a different effect once the cells were at work in the brain. Undifferentiated cells have a real danger. They do not have the instructions regular brain cells have, and they need to absorb those. The hope was that they would. But what happens when cells in a part of the body do things they're not supposed to do? They become tumors. There are now indications that this may very well happen if this research goes forward with human beings. According to the article, this is something "scientists have long feared". Why, then, has hardly anyone been reporting that this kind of problem might occur? I would have expected at least those who are more conservative on this issue to mention it now and then, but I've never heard it from anyone. Are the scientists themselves hiding it so as not to decrease even further their chances of getting funding?

[hat tip: Cold Hearted Truth]

A commenter on the Philosophy et cetera cross-posting of my Moral Pollution post says the following:

I don't feel that embryos are "persons" at all, in fact the only reasons I've seen to be against stem-cell research are religious ones. I admit, I haven't comprehensively studied the issue, but from what I have read, that seems to be the case.

I decided that my response was worthy of a post, which I've cross-posted at Philosophy et cetera. You don't need to know much of the abortion literature to know that this is wrong. All you need to do is pick up any of a number of standard applied ethics anthologies to know the most common argument for embryonic personhood. Most of them contain John Noonan's paper defending the traditional pro-life view, and that is indeed a philosophical argument, no matter how bad you might think the argument is.

The top Vatican bioethicist has spoken out against the new stem cell method that seems to be able to produce embryonic stem cells without killing embryos. [hat tip: Mark Olson] One might expect pro-lifers might be cautious in case the facts are not as they have been presented. Still, this sort of criticism is a little surprising. Is this really the standard Catholic view? It seems to me to be based on very strange reasoning.

As far as the article reports, this is the reasoning. This method relies on in vitro fertilization, which the Roman Catholic Church opposes in general. I understand the argument that in vitro fertilization if immoral as it's often practiced, with far more embryos created than are implanted to be developed. A consistent pro-life view will oppose that practice. But opposing in vitro fertilization in principle? That just seems irrational. The explanation seems to be that in vitro fertilization necessarily replaces conjugal relations in a way that artificial insemination may or may not do so. So artificial insemination can be ok or wrong, depending on whether it replaces conjugal relations. But in vitro fertilization always replaces conjugal relations.

This argument makes absolutely no sense. How many people who engage in in vitro fertilization or artificial insemination do so to avoid having sex? The only people I can think of are single moms who have someone donate sperm without engaging in sex, but I would hope the Catholic church doesn't oppose unmarried people not having sex. The ordinary married couple who uses in vitro methods to conceive is not doing so to avoid sex. They're doing so because sex is insufficient to cause conception in their case, and they're hoping in vitro methods will succeed. That doesn't mean they've abstaining from sexual relations. People do abstain from sexual relations for reasons other than prayer if they're using natural family planning to avoid conception, and that does go against biblical teaching, but that isn't what goes on in the ordinary case of in vitro fertilization. This objection just doesn't make any sense.

In preparing for my discussion of euthanasia next week, I was reading through a summary of Dan Brock's positions on the matter. Brock is widely considered one of the foremost medical ethicists among philosophers. After explaining why self-determination is a good thing, he argues that one of the things that it's good to have self-determination about is our own death. There are important factors in self-determination that are served if we have control over our own death. I'll grant that having some control over some things to do with our death serves the value of self-determination in some important ways. But then he summarizes his discussion with the following statement:

If self-determination is a fundamental value, then the great variability among people on this question makes it especially important that individuals control the manner, circumstances, and timing of their dying and death.

Maybe I've been reading the Stoics too much, but this just sounds irrational. Someone who wants to die soon and figures out how to kill themselved in the way they want at the time they want can usually do a very good job of fulfilling this especially important goal, but most people would like to live fairly long lives if possible. Some might not want to live under certain conditions, which is his point, but how can someone who wants to keep living place this sort of control over your death as such an especially high level and then want to keep living? If it's that important, we should just kill ourselves and be done with it. Wouldn't it be better to live in such a way that if we die we would consider our life to have been what we would want it to have been in the time alotted to us? Putting such high value in something we can't control unless we choose to die soon just seems fruitless. The Stoics were right about at least this. It's setting yourself up for valuing something especially high that chances are you simply won't achieve. But if that's so, then I just can't understand choosing to value it at such a level.


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Sam has posted more pictures of the kids.

Christian Carnival XCII is up at World of Sven.

New evidence has been unearthed about the political context of Jefferson's infamous "wall of separation" language. [HT: SmartChristian]

There's a new article in Nature about two new techniques for deriving stem cells. These both sound pretty interesting. Some people are claiming that they get around the ethical objections. If they're successful and do get around the ethical objections, we might expect less pressure from those who want to destroy embryos for stem cell research. I doubt it, though. Alternative techniques in the past haven't stopped those who are single-minded in getting this one so far unsuccessful area of research to be federally funded. See Sun and Shield for discussion by someone who understands the science better than I do.

A little while back, Eugene Volokh had an extended disussion of the New York Civil Liberties Union's attack on military recruiting. Most of his post is great, but I think one element is especially worth highlighting. The general sort of approach he's criticizing has an "Any Stick is Worth Beating the Military With" sort of approach. Normally, they'll complain when affirmative action in its two main forms is not applied. The two main forms are lowering requirements for getting in and going out of your way to try to increase the representation of underrepresented groups by targeting those groups and appealing to them in specially designed ways. If someone isn't doing that, then they aren't pursuing diversity. Yet now they're complaining that military recruiters are targeting minority students, as if that's somehow bad.

Wired News has a fascinating article on face transplants. It contains an interesting statement. Some doctors have suggested that the novelty of the surgery and the lack of certainty on what risks even are make informed consent impossible. I commented on Jonathan Ichikawa's post about this, pointing this out, wondering what they might have meant by that, and his response struck me as equally unusual. He thinks this is an attempt to make a philosophical argument out of an ick factor. Is that really what's going on? What does this statement about informed consent amount to? I have some thoughts, but I really wanted to see what people think about this without my suggesting anything.

This has got to be the most rhetorically manipulative blog posts I've read in a long time. It's shameful that a blog purportedly about philosophy, supposedly written by professionals, could produce such a poor post, but I guess it's becoming less surprising to me over time that philosophers cast aside careful thinking when it comes to abortion and related issues almost as much as other people do [hat tip: ProLifeBlogs]. I wrote this post something like a week ago, and I decided to wait a few days to see if putting time between reading the post and posting my response would enable me to soften my language. All it's done is allow me to rewrite it, clarifying what I want to say in a more careful way. I really think a post this bad deserves a response with as harsh as what follows. If a student handed me something like this, I wouldn't just give it an F. I'd give it a zero and then wish I could have given it negative points.

You only have to read the first sentence to see how bad this is. Something's wrong with their formatting, so I can't copy and paste, and I'm not going to type out the whole (really long) sentence, so you're just going to have to follow the link. Just the first sentence does all of the following:

I've seen quite a few claims that Bill Frist has abandoned his pro-life principles by proposing federal funding for using stem cells from embryos that will be discarded anyway. See IntolerantElle's post and the links from there for examples. This post started as a comment on her post.

I think this argument goes too far. Frist isn't necessarily inconsistent on this. It's not clear at all that he's contradicting his pro-life stance. What he's proposing is that it's no more wrong for someone to kill these embryos by extracting stem cells than it is simply to throw them away. They will be destroyed. There's no way to prevent that given the current law that these embryos are the property of parents. He's suggesting that in destroying them the stem cells should be retained so that at least this immoral action can have some good consequences.


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