Human Exceptionalism

Life and dignity with Wesley J. Smith.

Leon Kass Awarded National Endowment for Humanites Most Prestigious Honor


Good for Leon Kass and well deserved! The country's most eloquent and articulate defender of intrinsic human dignity will be giving the NEH Jefferson Lecture, the Endowment's most prestigious honor. From the press release:
Dr. Leon R. Kass, a widely published author, award-winning humanities teacher, and one of America's leading moral philosophers and experts on medical ethics, will deliver the 2009 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) announced today. The annual NEH-sponsored Jefferson Lecture is the most prestigious honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.

"Leon Kass is an outstanding scholar, a gifted teacher, and one of our nation's leading humanists," said NEH Acting Chairman Carole M. Watson. "He has brought the wisdom of the humanities to bear on many topics, from bioethics to courtship, and his dedication to undergraduate teaching in the humanities has benefited a generation of students."
Kass was vilified by utilitarian bioethicists during his tenure as head of the President's Council because he opposes human cloning and stands up for human exceptionalism. In an age when the social outlaws and radicals get most of the attention, it is gratifying to see one of the true greats receive the credit he deserves.

It’s About the $: Libertarians Discover Futile Care Theory


I have crossed pens occasionally with Reason writer Ronald Baily and debated him (and others) at CUNY about transhumanism and other brave new world agendas. Well, Baily just [update, actually in 2006] learned about a Texas futile care case that, he writes, led to scorched earth commentary from the Left. (As regular readers of SHS know, it is legal in the Lone Star State to impose futile care upon unwilling patients.) From his column:
I somehow missed the culture war moment last month when it was reported that Baylor Regional Medical Center in Plano, Texas, disconnected a dying, uninsured cancer patient, Tirhas Habtegiris, from the ventilator that was keeping her alive. The 27-year-old abdominal cancer patient was conscious and did not wish to be disconnected because she hoped that her mother would arrive from Africa for one last visit before she died. The hospital warned the patient and her family that it would keep her on the ventilator for just 10 more days. Ms. Habtegiris died 16 minutes after the ventilator was shut off on December 14, 2005.
I hadn't heard about that one either, but I am not surprised.

Bailey says the Left was up in arms when the story became public because the cutoff seems to been motivated by money. Ya think? And he wonders why the political right didn't also jump all over the case. Perhaps they didn't know about it--as I didn't. However, if Bailey had done a little digging, he would have learned that pro lifers and others on the right have coalesced with disability rights leaders and others on the left to oppose futile care theory wherever it rears its ugly head. Indeed, this strange political bedfellow coalition has stopped the advance of Idaho's S. 1114, a bill that would legalize Texas-style futile care theory.

Meanwhile, Baily exhibits his usual terminal nonjudgmentalism about such moral issues, but notes that the issue of futile care is definitely about money:

Critics of Baylor's decision should also bear in mind that it's not as though Habtegiris did not receive medical care. She was admitted to one of the finest hospitals in America, which did treat her illness. We know that she was in intensive care at the hospital for at least 10 days and probably more. A recent study of intensive care using a ventilator calculated the cost at $2,255 to $3,040 per day, so her stay at Baylor cost the hospital at least $22,550. That's $22,550 that someone else's insurance or taxes will have to cover through increased costs....

Perhaps it was wrong for Baylor to pull the plug in this instance, but it is clear that in the real world of limited medical resources that the "authorities," whether private or governmental, will unavoidably be making similar life and death decisions in the future.

Maybe resistance is futile. But then again, maybe not: If we can alert the public to this danger, we may be able to prevent the agenda from sinking into the bedrock of medical ethics and economics.

Update: I didn't notice that Bailey's article is from 2006. It doesn't change the thrust of the post, but we strive to be accurate. Thanks, and sorry for any inconvenience caused to any SHSer.

Softball Interview With Accused Final Exit Network Accused Felon Ted Goodwin


The media love social outlaws, particularly those involved with assisted suicide, and rarely challenge them in interviews or journalistic profiles--a phenomenon I have discussed here at SHS before. That could explain why Ted Goodwin, the former head of Final Exit Network and vice president of the World Federation of Right to Die Societies, sat down with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for a chat, despite being under indictment: He knew he had nothing to fear.

True to form, Goodwin is not challenged or pressed. I mean catch the first question! From the interview:
Q: Tell me about the first "exit" you participated in. Were you scared?
Compassionate Ted was apprehensive, we learn, but his first suicide thought he was an "angel," and so a life's purpose was found.

Asked if he is religious, Goodwin soothes:
Every day of my upbringing my parents taught me decency and generosity and compassion for others. And so that's my spirituality. I look upon what we do as a ministry.
The tough interlocutor then asks how Goodwin "feels" when someone he has just been talking to expires:
This is a very difficult job to be able to befriend someone, to visit them sometimes four, five and six times--talk with them over the phone--and then to know that someday you're going to be in attendance when they end their own lives. It takes a real mental strength to be able to deal with that and not emotionally dissolve...
But he has what it takes and selflessly carries on. And here's a question that begged a follow up, which unsurprisingly, was never asked:

Q: Why do you accept people who are not terminal?

A: Why should we make that decision for someone, that their suffering is any less than those that have, by the grace of God, a time limit on their suffering?
I wonder why the interviewer didn't ask Goodwin why FEN cleans up after the suicide, removing the helium canister and the bag used to cause death. I wonder why he didn't bring up the Phoenix case in which a mentally ill woman was, it is suspected, "counseled" by FEN representatives. I wonder why he didn't mention that the man he is accused of assisting in suicide had been successfully treated for cancer.

Oh never mind: I am spitting into the wind.

The “Philosophy” of Climate Change?


I have been saying that science is becoming a religion (scientism), but this is ridiculous. A climate change parishioner has been found to have been wrongfully fired in the UK over his "philosophical belief" in global warming. From a column by the Telegraph's ever politically incorrect Christopher Booker:

A London employment tribunal has ruled that Tim Nicholson... was wrongly dismissed as a property firm's "head of sustainability" because of his fervent commitment to "climate change". Mr Nicholson had fallen out with his colleagues over his attempts to reduce the company's "carbon footprint". The tribunal chairman David Neath found the company guilty of discriminating against Mr Nicholson under the 2006 Equality (Religion and Belief) Regulations, because his faith in global warming was a "philosophical belief".

Recalling how "eco-psychologists" at the University of the West of England are pressing for "climate denial" to be classified as a form of "mental disorder", one doubts whether the same legal protection would be given to those who fail to share Mr Nicholson's "philosophical belief".

Yes indeed. The double standards cut across many areas of social concern beyond what we deal with substantively here at SHS.

Booker also notes that current measurements show that the Arctic ice is thickening, not thinning. But there is a remedy for that heresy: He can always be involuntarily hospitalized for mental health observation for his denial psychosis.

“Suicides R Us” Franchises Soon to be Available: Former UK Health Minister Wants to See Suicide Clinics


I remember seeing the movie Soylent Green in the early 70s. One of the shocks of the film has E.G. Robinson's character leaving a note to Charlton Heston that he was "going home," which turned out to be death via a euthanasia clinic. As I recall, the idea that society would become so crass and abandoning as to permit clinics where people would go to be killed was seen as beyond the pale.

Well, in the 1990s, Kevorkian urged the establishment of suicide/euthanasia clinics. Many laughed that off as advocacy from a fringe kook--even though he had better poll numbers than Barack Obama does today.

Now suicide clinic promotion has entered the mainstream of politics. None other than Patricia Hewitt, the former Health Minister in the Blair Government, wants to see them established in the UK. From the story:
Suicide clinics should be set up in the UK and "assisted suicide" legalised, Patricia Hewitt said yesterday.

The ex-Health Secretary will try to change the law next week so people who take terminally ill loved ones abroad to die cannot be jailed. But she eventually wants to go further and legalise assisted suicide. Ms Hewitt said she had been "quite troubled by the issue for several years". She added: "My own view is that we should have a law for people who are terminally ill but also mentally competent of making that very grave decision."
Forget the nonsense about terminal illness. As we have noted often, the Swiss suicide clinics that receive "suicide tourists" from the UK and elsewhere are not so constrained either in law or in practice.

It has been reported that the Dignitas suicide clinic in Switzerland turns a pretty penny offing people. But at least we can take comfort that when chain suicide clinics are established, the efficiencies of scale should bring the price of dying down to a level everyone can afford. Hey! In the USA, the billions or trillions (whatever) being spent from money borrowed from China to pay for the stimulus bill could provide the financing! You too could start a whole new career in the fast growing industry of suicide facilitation.

Culture of death? What culture of death?

Regulate IVF in an Age of No Boundaries? Not a Chance


Will Saletan of Slate writes an always thought provoking column that is a favorite of SHS's. The gold of Saletan's approach is that he takes a step back and expertly points out problems with, and logical outcomes of, behavior or policies--although he never seems to promote any real solutions. I suspect that he doesn't see that as his job.

Having previously discussed the slippery slope of IVF, in this column Saletan warns of another "slippery slope" on the side of the hill that would regulate IVF and related technologies. His column illustration is a pending Georgia bill that once sought to limit the number of IVF embryos that could be implanted--which, as I predicted, was hammered so hard that it had to be amended. The current bill would ban all human cloning--hooray--and would only permit IVF for the treatment of infertility.

Sounds reasonable to me, but Saletan notes that the bill could be construed to prevent fertile couples from using IVF coupled with pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD)--genetically testing the embryos for eugenic purposes prior to implantation to weed out the unacceptable--in order not just to have a baby, but to have the kind of baby (whether based on health or cosmetic desires) they want. From his column:

I don't know whether the bill will pass the Georgia House. But this is just the beginning. The bill is part of a nationwide project to regulate the emerging industry of embryo production. In one state or another--and then another and another--legislation will be filed to restrict IVF. Based on the Georgia experiment, these bills will probably make exceptions for infertility but not PGD. The battles, then, will be fought over which uses of PGD are acceptable. And these fights will be every bit as ugly as the preceding fights over abortion.

This column is dedicated to making us look at ugly facts and moral problems we don't want to see. For several years, one of these problems has been the slippery slope of PGD. Now we'll have to face, in all its ugliness, the slippery slope of regulating it.
I think Saletan gets a few things wrong in his piece. First, not all pro-lifers oppose IVF per se. The Catholic Church does, but that isn't the same thing.

More to the point of this post, the idea that in this day and age we will ever reach sufficient societal consensus to constrain our growing sense of entitlement to hyper control every and all aspects of our reproductive lives--regardless of the moral costs or the deaths caused thereby--is to miss the ocean in which we currently swim. And even if we did, I doubt the judiciary, which increasingly conflates the policy desires of the Liberal "choice ubber alles" Elite with the requirements of the U.S. and state constitutions, would permit these laws to stand.

But this is the real point behind the point: While I support legislation such as the one in Georgia, in the end, law alone is not the answer. What we really need is self restraint. But how is that promoted when any and all criticisms of anyone's "choices" are hammered as insensitive moralism? Until and unless we can escape the black hole of terminal nonjudgmentalism and reach social norms about these matters to which all are expected to abide, the "edges" will continue to be pushed, and those who do the pushing will continue to be celebrated on toxic shows like Oprah and in the even worse celebrity magazines, as the rest of us wring our hands about the collapse of our culture. Which is too bad: My hands are already pretty badly chaffed.

Governor Palin’s Address To The 2009 Special Olympics Shows the Beauty of Unconditional Love


In light of the President's unthinking slight ot the athletes who participate in the Special Olympics--and keeping in mind the 90% eugenic abortion rate that sadly belies our supposed commitment to "diversity"--I thought it would be worthwhile to post Sarah Palin's address to the Special Olympics given a few weeks ago. Whatever one might think of Palin's politics, her family's joyful acceptance of Trig into the core of their hearts illustrates the power of unconditional love. Her statements in support of the Special Olympics--which I believe the Kennedy Family played a key role in establishing-- shows that some things transcend--or at least, they should transcend--our divisions. What a gracious presentation.

SHS Funnies


I feel Goat's Pain.

Biologically, A New Human Life Begins When Fertilization is Complete


This argument wouldn't have to be made, but for science becoming post modern in some circles so that narrative counts more than facts. This has certainly been true with regard to biotechnology because some want to use human embryos instrumentally. But rather than just admit that and justify it ethically, definitions were changed, for example, claiming that an embryo only comes into being upon implantation, rather than at its beginning at the completion of fertilization. In that way--presto-chango--embryos in petri dishes could be used as so many kernels of corn.

But I looked into this issue when I was researching Consumer's Guide to a Brave New World. Every embryology text book I reviewed retained the non political definition of when human life begins, e.g. at the completion of fertilization. One is The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology (6th Ed.) (Keith Moore and T. V. N. Persaud, W. B. Sanders Company, Philadelphia, PA, 1998), which asserts:
Human development is a continuous process that begins when an oocyte is fertilized by a sperm. (page 2)
More to the point, the authors write:
Human development begins at fertilization [with the joining of egg and sperm, which] form a single cell called a zygote. This highly specialized...cell marks the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.(page 18)
The authors of another embryology textbook (Ronan O'Ramilly and Fabiola Muller, Human Embryology and Teratology, (Third Ed.), (Willey-Liss, New York, NY, 2001), also state on page 8 that upon the completion of fertilization:
a new, genetically distinct human organism is formed.
Since some don't want to call embryos what they are, as I pointed out in an earlier post, some politicized scientists use the word "pre embryo," as if it were something different in kind than an embryo after it implants. But scientifically, biologically, there is no such thing as a pre-embryo. Thus, the authors of Human Embryology and Teratology, in the name of scientific accuracy, place the term "pre-embryo" under the categorization, "Undesirable Term in Human Embryology," further asserting that "embryo" is the accurate and hence, "preferable term." They write further on page 88:
The term "pre-embryo" is not used here [in their book] for the following reasons: (1) it is ill-defined; (2) it is inaccurate...(3) it is unjustified because the accepted meaning of the world embryo includes all of the first 8 weeks; (4) it is equivocal because it may convey the erroneous idea that a new human organism is formed at only some considerable time after fertilization; and (5) it was introduced in 1986 "largely for public policy reasons."
But of course, such objective scientific analysis doesn't serve the polemic needs of some ESCR and cloning advocates.

Terri Schiavo Was Not a Carrot


The use of the "V-word" continues to be used in the most "enlightened" places. Today, it is an interview with health author Jane Brody in the NYT about her new book on planning for death. From the interview:

Q: When is the right time to start planning for death?

A: Start thinking about it when it's unlikely to happen any time soon. It's much easier to do it then. It's less painful. Get it out of the way. Many people are saying, "I'm going to take action now while I still feel good and I'm still healthy." You don't have to be old. If you recall, Terri Schiavo was 26 when she suffered a heart attack that deprived her brain of oxygen and left her a living vegetable for 15 years, at great cost and trauma to her family.
Terri Schiavo was not a carrot or a turnip. She was a human being with a profound cognitive disability. Calling her a "V" demeans her and dehumanizes her moral worth as a human being--just as the odious "N-word" does people with dark skin. It should never be used among enlightened people. Indeed, we need to grow as a culture so that anyone using it is treated with the same disdain by polite society as we do now to anyone who uses the crude "N" epithet.

Second: Terri's family was certainly grief stricken over her injury--the precise cause of which will never be known. But that is not what so badly traumatized them, and it is not what extracted a "great cost." Those inflictions came from the horror they felt--and still feel--because they were not permitted to care for her for the rest of her life in order to, instead, slowly dehydrate her to death by court order to the applause of much of society.

Brody needs to get a clue as to both her facts and her lexicon.

Hubris and “Endarkenment” in Science Editorial


As someone once accused by bioethicist Alta Charo of promoting an "Endarkenment" because of my views on ESCR--at least she did it to my face--I have to say that a recent Science editorial extolling President Obama's stem cell speech, demonstrates the very unenlightened approach it accuses former President Bush of pursuing. Oozing the hubris we have come to expect from the politicized science sector, and referencing Bush's late ESCR funding policy, the editorial (no link) states:
The authors of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States were children of the Enlightenment. They understood the power that flows from combining human reason with empirical knowledge, and they assumed that the political system they were creating would thrive only in a culture that upheld the values of the Enlightenment...

Recently, however, the precepts of the Enlightenment were ignored and even disdained with respect to the manner in which science was used in the nation's governance. Dogma took precedence over evidence, and opinion over facts. Happily, as was made clear by two policy announcements by President Barack Obama on 9 March 2009, the break in the traditionally harmonious relationship between science and government is now ending.
What garbage. President Bush's ESCR policy was long on facts and long on ethics. He acknowledged that an embryo is a human being. That's basic biology. He stated that because embryos are human beings, they should not be used as instrumentalities with government money. That is good ethics and it reflected existing federal law (Dickey Amendment)---indeed a law that President Obama just renewed with his signature. One can disagree with Bush's conclusion about how to best promote science within a proper ethical parameter. But he took an ethical position that specifically reflected "a combination of human reason with empirical analysis."

In fact, if any side of this debate has been anti-science, it has been the pro ESCR side. Anti science is redefining basic biological terms for a political purpose, as in the trope that an embryo that was not yet implanted, sometimes called the "pre embryo," is not a human life. None other than Princeton biologist Lee Silver admitted this was being done by his side in his pro cloning and genetic engineering book Remaking Eden, page 39, as quoted in my Consumer's Guide to a Brave New World (my emphasis):
I'll let you in on a secret. The term pre-embryo has been embraced wholeheartedly...for reasons that are political, not scientific. The new term is used to provide the illusion that there is something profoundly different between what we nonmedical biologists still call a six-day old embryo [the blastocyst] and what we and everyone else call a sixteen-day old embryo [an embryo that has begun to develop differentiated tissues].

The term pre-embryo is useful in the political arena--where decisions are made about whether to allow early embryo (now called pre-embryo) for experimentation--as well as in the confines of a doctor's office, where it can be used to allay moral concerns that might be expressed by IVF patients. "Don't worry," a doctor might say, "it's only pre-embryos that we're manipulating and freezing. They won't turn into real human embryos until after we've put them back in your body."
That's corrupting science because it is explicitly intended to prevent rational debate by obfuscating the facts about the humanity of the early embryo in order to reach a predetermined "ethical" conclusion, not based on facts but a junk biology narrative.

Science's editorial continues:
The president has taken a large and inspiring step to restore the historically beneficial balance between science and government; we should all now offer to help with the enlightened effort just launched.
Translation: We now have a rubber stamp back in office that will allow us to do whatever we want and will sign a blank check to pay for it. Talk about an Endarkenment!

President Obama Puts Foot in Mouth: Makes Offensive Remark About Special Olympics on Leno


This was gratuitously harmful politically to the president, and it reflects a thoughtlessness, I think, that belies his image as a sensitive egalitarian. President Obama has compared his poor bowling skills to the Special Olympics. From the story:
Towards the end of his approximately 40-minute appearance, the president talked about how he's gotten better at bowling and has been practicing in the White House bowling alley.

He bowled a 129, the president said.

"That's very good, Mr. President," Leno said sarcastically.

It's "like the Special Olympics or something," the president said.
Not to make too big a deal out of this, but all I can say is that if President Bush ever said something like that, the howling about how the remark reflected his inner anti-disability attitudes would never end.

Prostate Screening Unncessary! Prostate Screening Will Save Lives!


How can anyone trust anything written today about science? In an earlier SHS post, I touched on how a pair of new studies--we were told by the Washington Post--demonstrated that routine prostate screening for cancer isn't worth doing. The point of that post was not so much to focus on the findings but to criticize an American Cancer Society spokesperson for accusing those who get screened annually of pursuing a medicine of faith rather than evidence.

Imagine my jaw dropping, then, when I checked the Telegraph as I do every evening and the headline stated that the one of same studies cited in the Post story showed that routine prostate screening could save thousands of lives! From the story:

The European Randomised Study of Screening for Prostate Cancer (ERSPC), which looked at 182,000 men aged between 50 and 74, found that screening them for the disease could cut the number of deaths by 20 per cent.

If the trial's results were replicated it would mean up to 2,000 lives could be saved in the UK every year. Any national programme could follow the pattern for that of breast cancer screening, which tests women between 50 and 70 and saves an estimated 1,400 lives a year.

Screening would involved men reaching middle age being asked to attend a local clinic every few years to have a blood test. This would check for high levels of a protein called Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA), which increases in people who have a tumour. If the results suggested prostate cancer, a biopsy would be taken and, if the cells appeared dangerous, the patient would undergo surgery or be monitored until intervention was appropriate.
My head is spinning. Back to the Post article:

The PSA blood test, which millions of men undergo each year, did not lower the death toll from the disease in the first decade of a U.S. government-funded study involving more than 76,000 men, researchers reported yesterday. The second study, released simultaneously, was a European trial involving more than 162,000 men that did find fewer deaths among those tested. But the reduction was relatively modest and the study showed that the tests resulted in a large number of men undergoing needless, often harmful treatment.

Together, the studies--released early by the New England Journal of Medicine to coincide with presentations at a scientific meeting in Stockholm--cast new doubt on the utility of one of the most widely used tests for one of the most common cancers.
How are these two diametrically opposed accounts of the same basic story to be reconciled? It looks like the difference arises from the choice of "experts" the respective journalists interviewed to interpret the findings. In the Telegraph, the emphasis was on the number of lives that could be saved with universal screening. In the Post, the experts emphasized the supposedly low utility of lives saved versus the costs in reduced quality of life for those being treated when the cancer is discovered.

Let's consider this: The same data was used by two different newspaper reporters to promote two opposite conclusions for readers to reach from the stories. Or to put it in the vernaculr, each report spun the same story in a different directon.

Will Rodgers once famously said: "All I know is what I read in the newspapers, and that's an alibi for my ignorance." He didn't know the half of it.

Desire to Detect Prostate Cancer Early Disdained as “Religious” Pursuit by American Cancer Society Spokesman


I never cease to be amazed at the sense of superiority that drips from the pores of some people who work in the sciences. I find this quite irritating, which was brought to a head for me this morning when I read a story about prostate cancer screening.

For years, we have been told repeatedly and often to get screening tests for cancer because, logically enough, the earlier you catch the disease the greater the likelihood of surviving. That remains true of cancers such as of the breast--get those mammograms--and the colon--get those colonoscopies. But apparently, research increasingly indicates that this general rule may not necessarily apply to the early detection of prostate cancer.

Whether this is true or not is worthy of reasoned discussion. But catch this looking-down-his-nose comment by a representative of the American Cancer Society about men and doctors who seek to detect prostate cancer early through PSA blood testing. From the story:
"Americans have been getting screened for prostate cancer because there is this religious faith that finding it early and cutting it out saves lives," said Otis W. Brawley of the American Cancer Society. "We've been doing faith-based screening instead of evidence-based screening. These findings should make people realize that it's a legitimate question about whether we should be screening for prostate cancer."
Yes it is a legitimate question, but deciding to screen is hardly irrational, which is what Brawley was saying by calling prostate screening a "religious faith." Indeed, the question has been--and remains--unsettled. For example, last year the Annals of Internal Medicine published this recommendation from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force about prostate screening:
Current evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harms of screening for prostate cancer in men younger than age 75 years (I statement). Do not screen for prostate cancer in men age 75 years or older. [Me: This is because prostate cancer grows so slowly in elderly men that the patient is likely to die from other causes long before the disease becomes life-threatening.]
Whether or not to conduct PSA tests for prostate cancer is a questions men and their doctors should carefully explore. But just because a few studies now show that it may not extend lives doesn't mean that anyone who elects to get a PSA screening is engaging in an irrational medical practice.

NHS Meltdown: Paying Weight Watchers but Rationing Care


The NHS disarray continues. In the scheme of things--with people in the UK unable to get good pain control and hospitals having receptionists examine patients--this is small. But it is symbolic of what happens in socialized systems. From the story:

The Health Service has paid out more than £3 million to the two biggest slimming firms in the country, Weight Watchers and Slimming World, for providing classes to overweight people referred to them by GPs. Since 2006, primary care trusts have bought vouchers entitling more than 70,000 people to free slimming classes.

New NHS fat camp for obese families in Rotherham. While the companies were paid upfront, less than 60 per cent of those who were referred by their GP stuck with the 12-week course, which cost £65 for classmates paying from their own pockets.

Critics lambasted the state-funded schemes as an "appalling" use of taxpayers money by a health service which rations treatment and life-extending drugs for patients with cancer. Meanwhile, obesity experts warned that diet classes were less likely to work if people did not attend them of their own volition, and commit their own money to their efforts.

In 2006, the NHS's rationing body, the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence, recommended that GPs send people to free slimming classes, because it was cheaper than weight loss pills or stomach stapling. Since then, Slimming World has sold more than 53,000 vouchers costing £45 to the NHS at a total cost to the taxpayer of more than £2.3 million.

I know weight control is important to good health, but Weight Watchers is not medical treatment. Moreover, if these people were morbidly obese, they should have received real medical help, not small prepackaged meals or aerobics classes.

Oversight boards like NICE are disastrous on more levels than can be counted. We have to make sure that no equivalent central control is ever imposed on Americans.

“Stem Cell Debate is Over Ethics, Not Science”


I have a piece in today's Sacramento Bee rounding out my critique of the Obama ESCR policy and his rescission of the Bush executive order requiring the Feds to fund alternative sources for funding of pluripotent stem cells. Some of this will be familiar to SHSers, but I think the points I make in the column are too little heard in the world beyond this blog. From my piece:
From the moment President George W. Bush imposed federal funding restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, Big Biotech, patient advocacy groups, celebrities and the media have been obsessed with eviscerating the policy. Indeed, although the Bush administration funded about $175 million in grants for human embryonic stem cell research, and despite the literally billions poured into the field from public and private sources such as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, or CIRM, and philanthropists, the public was continually warned that embryonic stem cell research in the United States was in danger of withering on the vine due to Bush.

With such abundant funding, that wasn't true. Nor was the charge that Bush's policy was "anti-science" because it funded only research on stem cell lines in existence as of Aug. 9, 2001. But the controversy was never a science debate. It was--and remains--an ethics debate that impacts directly on the importance and meaning of human life. Indeed, the question raised by embryonic stem cell research is whether it is morally right to treat and exploit human life--even at the nascent stage--as a mere natural resource.
I discuss the point that President Obama's new policy--he says--will also involve ethical controls:
Last week, the new president kept a campaign promise to free up federal funding for all embryonic stem cell lines whenever derived. But he also told the country that ethics still matter, stating: "We will support it (embryonic stem cell research) only if it is both scientifically worthy and responsibly conducted. We will develop strict guidelines, which we will rigorously enforce, because we cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse."

How is that different in kind from what Bush did? Are ethical constraints "anti-science" only if one disagrees with where the lines are drawn
And I get into the Obama and CIRM hypocrisy over resisting legal requirements for the funding of "alternative" sources of pluripotent cells, such as IPSCs, and suggest that there is a reason for pushing embryonic methods:
If pursuing the best and most ethical science were truly the goals, why deflect increased support for this promising research to which no one objects? Perhaps it is because this debate involves more than stem cells taken from embryos "left over" from in-vitro fertilization--as the argument is usually couched--which brings us back to ethics. In the wake of the Obama changes in federal policy, the New York Times editorially threw down a gauntlet, calling for both the rescission of the Dickey Amendment and federal funding of human therapeutic cloning research. Now that the Bush restrictions are history, look for these battles--which again are not science debates--to flare in the years to come. In this sense, embryonic stem cell research threatens to become a launching pad to an ever-deepening erosion of the unique moral status of human life.
That's my story, anyhow. And I'm sticking to it.

SHS as Source for Anti Human Exceptionalism Column Ideas? Fetal Farming Pushed in Huffington Post


I wasn't going to run with this because bioethicist Jacob M. Appel seems to be following the same business model to career success as Julian Savulescu and others: stake out the most wild and radical positions conceivable and you are sure to get attention--and perhaps big speaking fees--as Peter "Professor Infanticide" Singer's $20,000 per pop illustrates. (As I have previously noted here, Appel has supported assisted suicide for the mentally ill, genetic engineering of progeny, and the acceptability of bestiality.)

But this fetal farming boost appeared in the Huffington Post, perhaps the most influential blog on the Left, with millions of readers. And it is pernicious in the extreme. From Appel's column:
Opponents of reproductive choice will object to such a market on the grounds that it will increase the number of abortions -- which will indeed be the logical result. However, such a market might also bring solace to women who have already decided upon abortion, but desire that some additional social good come from the procedure. Like the families of accident victims who donate the organs of their loved ones, these women could well find their decisions fortified by the public benefit that they generate. An additional economic incentive would further assuage any doubts, and might even make the procedure more palatable to otherwise equivocal spouses or partners.
Hmm. That sounds familiar. One week before Appel posted his column, I sarcastically wrote much the same thing here reacting to calls by UK scientists for using abortions as source of organs. From my post of March 11, "Fetal Farming, Here We Come: UK Scientists Say to Use Aborted Fetuses as Sources of Organs":
Hey, I know: When a woman wants an early term abortion, we can pay her to gestate a couple of extra months so her fetus can be of societal use! And imagine the possibilities when artificial wombs are created: We can gestate fetuses to order. The road to fetal farming is already being paved.
I am beginning to think Appel uses SHS as a source of ideas and then restates what I criticize as a positive. Let's look at Appel's conclusion, which reinforces the last point:
Someday, if we are fortunate, scientific research may make possible farms of artificial "wombs" breeding fetuses for their organs -- or even the "miracle" of men raising fetuses in their abdomens. That day remains far off. However, the prospect of fetal-adult organ transplantation is a much more realistic near-term possibility. A market in such organs might benefit both society and the women who choose to take advantage of it.
Again, I don't intend to react to every Appel column because that would support his business model. But that the Huffington Post considers this a legitimate and acceptable argument to run on its site--it would never countenance a racist utilitarian rant--shows, in my mind precisely the dark place where the utilitarian Left is more than happy to go. And it reminds me of the wisdom of the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, who once wrote:
Thousands of medical thicists and bioethicists, as they are called, professionally guide the unthinkable on its passage through the debatable on its way to becoming the justifiable, until it is finally established as the unexceptionable.
That was true when he wrote those words for Commentary in 1988. It was more true when I used this quote in Culture of Death in 2001. And it is true in spades and exclamation points today.

Irresponsibility in Reporting of Natasha Richardson Tragedy


I have been very unhappy about the lurid headlines in the New York Post and elsewhere about the gravely injured Natasha Richardson being "brain dead." That is not only insensitive to her devastated family, but the term is thrown around all too loosely.

Brain death is a popular term for "death by neurological criteria," in which various tests and patient history show that the brain and each of its constituent parts have ceased all functions as a brain. (It does not mean that every brain cell is nonfunctional.) It often gets conflated with a diagnoses of permanent unconsciousness--but is not the same as having a catastrophic brain injury. It is dead.

More responsible press reports have described Richardson as being in very critical condition or having suffered a devastating brain injury. No doubt that is true. And it is clear that irresponsible sources have used the term to reporters, as vulture like, they worm their way into a major celebrity story. But to call someone dead when it isn't clear that her demise has actually taken place, is not only wrong, it is cruel.

And Yet Still More Bad Management at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine


The CIRM, which doles out $300 million of borrowed money on Californians' credit card each year, has been a disaster from the start. We have seen mismanagement, conflicts of interest, hundreds of millions paid to buy the most expensive buildings designed by the most costly architects, etc., and other follies. And it seems to have become a personal power center for Robert Klein, who authored and penned the deceptive Proposition 71 and has run it ever since as a personal fiefdom.

Among the biggest boosters of the CIRM has been the editorial page of the Sacramento Bee. Now even the Bee seems to have had it up to its figurative neck with Klein and the CIRM's methods. From a Bee editorial:

A 29-member panel called the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee supervises California's $3 billion stem cell research institute. The committee's name was misleading from the start. It's even more so now. Last week, this supposedly "independent" committee met to decide on a new vice chair. The contenders were Art Torres, a former state senator, and Duane Roth, a San Diego Republican with ties to the biotech industry...

So what did the institute's overseers do? They split the difference. In an 11th-hour move on Thursday, the committee decided to create co-vice chairs and appoint Torres and Roth to the positions. They also voted to grant a $75,000 yearly salary to Torres, even though the previous vice chair, Ed Penhoet, had declined one.

Then the editorial gets around to Klein, whose leadership is so reminiscent of the entire financial mess at the federal level in a microcosm--remember Klein wanted $500,000 a year to run CIRM when the state was drowning in a $42 billion deficit--but selflessly settled for $150 K to work part time:

If the stem cell institute had a normal structure, with a strong president handling administrative duties, the selection of the institute vice chair would be less consequential. But because Chairman Robert Klein has such broad authority (Klein wrote the ballot initiative that created the stem cell institute), the vice chair can serve as an essential check on the chair's power.

With its decision Thursday, the oversight board has effectively agreed to subdivide the vice chairs' authority, giving Klein more power than ever. It's a further demonstration that the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee is neither independent, nor a group of citizens, nor much of an overseer of $3 billion in public monies.

The CIRM soap opera reminds me so much of the AIG mess and the broader financial debacle through which we are struggling in a microcosm--pigs feeding at the public trough without a modicum of common sense or understanding of public responsibility.

Klein said during the campaign that he pushed Proposition 71 to find a cure for his son's diabetes. But the way he has run the agency points toward egoism as having subsumed altruism. If Klein is really only about finding cures, he will resign and let a competent manager take the reins of the CIRM.

Come to The Second International Symposium on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide


The Second International Symposium on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide will be held near Dulles Airport on May 29-30. I'll be there (although I don't like the photo in the ad), also Alex Schadenberg of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, Rita Marker, head of the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, Attorney Margaret Dore from Washington State, who has jumped into the fray big time in the last year, Diane Coleman of Not Dead Yet, Bobby Schindler, Terri Schiavo's brother, William Toffler from Physicians for Compassionate Care, Peter Saunders from the UK's Care Not Killing, and many more. Here's a link for more information.

Be there or be square.


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