Human Exceptionalism

Life and dignity with Wesley J. Smith.

Party of Death


I reviewed Ramesh Ponnuru's book Party of Death in the current issue of the Weekly Standard. I gave it pretty much a rave.

British Medical Association Rejects Assisted Suicide


In preparation for trying to convince the House of Lords to legalize assisted suicide, a small rump group in the BMA pulled a ploy that got the organization on record as neutral to legalizing PAS. But now the membership has weighed in and come out strongly against legalization. With the BMA now firmly opposed to assisted suicide, virtually all medical associations in the world, other then the Dutch and a few other ethical renegades, agree that killing is not a medical treatment. Great news that should put the stake to the heart of the Joffe Bill in the UK.

That's two pieces of great news since I began my holiday. I should go on vacation more often.

Assisted Suicide Goes Down to Deserved Defeat in CA


I was in France when word came through that AB 651 had failed in the California Senate Judiciary Committee. Splendid news. I was so pleased that Senator Joseph Dunn, the Democratic committee chair, came down on the side of true compassion and patient care by voting no to assisted suicide. When I testified at the informational hearing, it seemed to me that he was genuinely struggling with the issue, which gave me great hope. And sure enough, the more he learned, the less he seemed to support the bill. Good for him.

Praise for this important victory goes to the wonderful political strange-bedfellow coalition that joined to oppose the bill, made up of disability rights activists, medical and hospice professionals, pro lifers, advocates for the poor, Catholics, civil rights activists, and others.

Unfortunately, the defeat was not a proverbial stake through the heart of assisted suicide in California. I fully expect the bill to be back again soon. Assisted suicide advocates believe deeply in their cause and are funded by deep pockets. But if they do, the coalition will regroup and hopefully prevail again.

Until then: Onward.

Taking a Breather


Secondhand Smoke is pooped. It's been a very busy winter and spring and after yesterday's informational hearing, I am completely out of gas. So, Secondhand Smokette and I are heading to Europe for three weeks. Chances are, I won't blog, but I will be checking the site and may post something if a major story comes along.

The day after I return, it is off to Albany for a confab on bioethics and politics. If you are in the neighborhood drop by. There could be...respectful...fireworks.

Don't forget to keep tuning in. I really appreciate your readership and contributions. I look forward to renewing our conversation when I return.

“The Catman Cometh”


My piece on the transhumanism conference is in this week's Weekly Standard, but there is no link available other than for subscribers. Here is a brief overview.

In the article, I describe how transhumanism advocates obliterating the belief in intrinsic human value and replacing it with personhood theory to "allow all self aware entities--whether human, post human, machine, chimera, or robot--to qualify for all of the rights, privileges, and protections of citizenship."

Protecting "post human dignity" was one of the primary focues of the conference. Thus, Nick Bostrom, co-founder of the World Transhumanist Association state "that society must understand that discrimination 'based on substrate'--meaning the kind of material from which a being is made, e.g., biological, silicon, etc.--is as odious as racism. Ditto to discrimination based on 'ontogeny,' that is, how a consciousness comes into existence, which I guess means whether they are born, assembled, or hatched."

"Other presentations revealed transhumanism to be obsessively solipsistic. The 'Catman' was touted as a template, an example of early transhumanized recreationism. Catman--whose real name is Dennis Avne--has tattooed his face, sharpened his teeth, undergone cosmetic surgeries, had 'whisker' implants, and reportedly wants a tail implant—all to look like a cat. Catman is weird, but of no real concern other than about the harm he has done to himself. His transhumanizing, after all, is only skin deep. If he sired a son, the child wouldn't be 'Kitten Boy.' But transhumanists ultimately want to do more than create Halloween costumes with their own bodies. Post human enhancements are to flow down the generations, including through the genetic designing of offspring, resulting eventually in the yearned for, radically individualized post human species."...

"For all of its emphasis on enhancement, the true emotional core of transhumanism is a yearning for immortality. This desperate desire to defeat death made the eccentric and somewhat famous transhumanist anti-aging researcher, Cambridge professor Aubrey de Grey, the clear star of the conference. De Gray's presentation was titled, 'Our Right to Life.' But his use of the phrase did not mean a right not to be aborted, euthanized, or executed. Rather, he claims we have a putative right not to die at all.

"Toward this end, de Gray, whose long beard and pony tail makes him look like a cross between ZZ Top and Rasputin, is working on a 'cure' for human aging that will erase the 'physiological differences between older and younger adults.'...De Gray is obsessed with his work and believes we all should be too. He told the conferees that inaction is really a form of action. Accordingly, society's unwillingness to make anti-aging its top scientific funding priority is akin to actively killing the people who would have been saved if the research had been bounteously supported. He even claimed that supporting anti-aging research is more important than increasing access to health care for the poor in Africa, likening the diversion of funds away from anti-aging research to 'killing with a time bomb in a car.'"...

"Transhumanists like to say that their movement cannot be stopped," I write in conclusion. "That we are already on the slippery slope to the post human future so we might as well enjoy the ride...But as Rosanne Rosannadana used to say, 'If it's not one thing, it's another.' Even if cancer is eradicated and the aging process slowed, new afflictions will soon arise to take their places. Just read the current headlines: After 25 years, we still can't cure AIDS. Antibiotics are beginning to fail. And now the new worry is about a possible bird flu pandemic. All of the fantasizing about living forever and morphing into 'post biological units' won't change the hard fact that we are born to die. Far better then, to embrace our fully human lives rather than seek in vain for a post human future that will never come."

My California Senate Testimony


It was a very intense but fair hearing in Sacramento today. I was expecting a low key affair but the press was out in force and the hearing room full of both supporters and opponents of AB 651, the assisted suicide legalization bill. Here is my written testimony, an abridged version of which I read to the Committee. Questions were mainly by Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, a co-author of the bill, Senator Sheila Kuehl, a supporter of the bill, and Chairman Joseph Dunn, who has not, as far as I know, declared his position.

The outcome remains uncertain...

Your New Genetically Engineered Pet is Here!


This is a hoot: Say hello to the all new "Genpets." They are "allergen free, child safe," and "life perfected." These "mass produced" bio-engineered pets come in plastic packages where your "new buddy" rests in suspended animation" until awakened. They come in seven different "personality types," and two models, a one-year and a three-year lifespan."

Pets today, pre-selected personalities for children tomorrow! Just think, no more teenage rebellions.

Don't know if the Genpets are really sold, but if they are, they could become the new pet rock.

AB 651: Language Perversion by Promoters of Assisted Suicide


Advocates for assisted suicide know that when their agenda is described accurately and descriptively--they lose. So, they are ever about the task of trying to come up with new gooey euphemisms to describe assisted suicide--to be, if you will, the sugar that helps the hemlock go down.

Latest case in point: AB 651 in CA. The assisted suicide legalization bill has been amended to use even more perfumed language than before to describe assisted suicide. The bill used to authorize terminally ill adults to "make a request for medication for the purpose of ending his or her life in a humane and dignified manner."

But, apparently even that boilerplate of assisted suicide bills is too graphic. The bill now reads,"...make a request for medication prescribed pursuant to this bill to provide comfort with an assurance of peaceful dying if suffering becomes unbearable." Of course, unbearable suffering isn't defined so the term is rendered meaningless and becomes whatever the suicidal patient deemed it to be.

Why the change? Probably, the sponsors of this horrible bill are either trying to fool some harried legislators into believing they are just voting for improved comfort care, or they are providing cover for lawmakers who want to vote for the bill but don't want to admit they are supporting assisted suicide. Either way, it is pathetic and a classic example of why the American people have such a low regard for the legislative process.

In any event, I am testifying in front of the California Senate Judiciary Committee tomorrow at an "informational" hearing on the bill. I can't discuss the particulars of AB 651, but am supposed to get into how assisted suicide might impact our perception of the value of human life. I'll post my testimony when a link becomes available.

Beware of Stem Cell Quackery


Another mass fraud in the making in biotechnology--this time out of China. It appears that Dr. Hongyun Huang has been claiming that his aborted fetal stem cell treatments have had amazing restorative powers. But now, a study soon to be published reveals it may all be a fraud--worse than a fraud, dangerous quackery--with many patients seriously harmed.

If true, we can draw at least two conclusions. The first is the crucial importance of proper medical research ethics. Stem cell treatments of all type need to be tested carefully, first on animals, and then in properly regimented human trials. This is frustrating because the process can be agonizingly slow. But the alternative is a laissez-faire approach, in which patients pay tens of thousands of dollars for treatments that are still highly experimental, such as seems to be happening in parts of Asia. Rushing off to China or Thailand for an unproven cure could well leave you worse off--or dead.

Second, the irresponsible hype spread by biotech boosters about the potential for ESCR, has created such a super-heated atmosphere that desperate people are driven into doing irresponsible things. Many scientists are properly cautious in their journal writing and when communications with other scientists, but some have not shown the same reticence when testifying in front of politicians or speaking to the press. The increasingly tabloid media then further downplays the caveats in trumpeting their CURES! CURES! CURES! story line (often to try and make Bush look bad) to the point that some folk apparently think the treatments have been already proven. Finally, some truly irresponsible politicians--such as Senator John Edwards who infamously said that a vote for Kerry would mean that people would be able to get out of their wheelchairs and walk--have raised the hopes of some people to a level of near hysteria.

All of us who communicate in these areas have to be careful. We can and should communicate the "state of play" but we should always remind people that many of these treatments remain highly experimental and that it takes time to verify their efficacy and safety.

Scientists Continuing to Put Human Cells into Animals


There is a place in science for putting human cells in animals as a method of examining disease precesses and biological development, which according to this report is growing in frequency and potency. But what is the limit? Or to put it another way, how much human in an animal is too much human in an animal? Scientists won't pause long enough to allow us have this important discussion.

Moreover, why should we trust these researchers? Many have shown no willingness whatsoever to accommodate the hesitancy of society in these areas, nor respect the moral sensibilities of society. Only scientists have the right to decide what is moral in science, some in the Scientific Establishment tell us. But open your pocketbooks and let us in.

Science is in danger of becoming little more than a special interest. If that happens, the people's faith in the enterprise will collapse and the anything goes crowd will only have themselves to blame.

Beginning to Receive Comments on the Starbuck’s Cup


I am beginning to receive comments on my cup. Some of the reactions read much more into my quote than I intended, and seem to miss the point I was trying to make. But that's fine. The point of the "As I See It" program, as it was described to me, is to generate thought and discussions about matters of substance. Human equality would certainly seem to fit the bill. So, here is one note I received--not the only along this vein--and my response. (I will continue to keep to my practice of keeping correspondents anonymous unless I am specifically asked to identify them.)

"Dear Mr. Smith:

Does every human life have equal moral value? This is certainly the position of liberal thinkers like Rawls and Dworkin. It eliminates the idea of desert (as in just deserts), without which society cannot operate a system of justice to protect its members. Is a mugger who lies about idle except when he goes out to raise money by assaulting someone the moral equal of a woman, abandoned by her husband, who struggles to support her children? Should she have resources taken away by the state to afford them to the mugger, because he is of equal moral value and otherwise would not have enough, because he chooses not to work?

Before you decide that assuming the equal moral worth of every person is a good idea, you need think through some of the implications."

My response:

"I think you mistake my point. I am writing of intrinsic value, e.g., as humans. This does not prevent us from punishing behaviors, etc. Nor does it imply any particular social welfare policy, particularly equality of results. For me it means that as human beings per se, we each matter equally, e.g., none of us should be used as a natural resource, for example, as some wish to do with those diagnosed in PVS. [To which point, I now add, or using condemned prisoners as organ farms, as seems to be happening in China.]

Of course, the reason I wrote the "cup" was so that people could ponder the matter for themselves, as you have. Thanks for writing. WJS"

Let Great Apes be Apes


The world of animal liberation continues to buzz with the potential that Spain will soon grant human-type rights to great apes. I weigh in on this issue in today's San Francisco Chronicle, by pointing out that not only do animal not understand the concept of rights, but that granting rights to animals would cause tremendous harm to humans, both by preventing crucial medical research and undermining our self-concept as the world's most important species--from which flows the drive to enact universal human rights and our distinctly human duty to treat other animals humanely. Check it out.

Huntington’s Disease Cured in Mice


Wow. Researchers have been able to stop mice from developing Huntington's disease symptoms by inhibiting an enzyme that works on a protein, that is responsible for destroying brain function. This is fantastic news and was published in the peer-reviewed journal Cell.

This breakthrough illustrates a too often forgotten point: Most of biotechnology is uncontroversial, as in this case, in which there is not an embryonic stem cell in sight.

Post Script: Animals were needed in this medical researchers. If it were up to the animal liberationists, this wonderful potential breakthrough would never have been discovered.

My “Starbuck’s Cup” is Out


Starbuck's has an interesting program called, "The way I see it," in which people who are somewhat in the public eye submit pithy bits of wisdom that are then printed on the cups (usually seen beneath the hot cup holders). I submitted one last year that was accepted. I just heard from a friend whose daughter received one of "my" cups this morning at her local outlet.

Here is the comment: "The morality of the 21st century will depend on how we respond to this simple but profound question: Does every human life have equal moral value simply and merely because it is human? Answer yes, and we have a chance of achieving universal human rights. Answer no, and it means that we are merely another animal in the forest."

I have to admit I am pretty jazzed by this. Thank you Starbucks!

New Jersey May Weaken “Brain Death” Standards


New Jersey is pondering weakening the medical standards for declaring death by neurological criteria, known popularly as "brain death." The New Jersey State Board of Medical Examiners wants to permit one doctor, instead of the current two, to declare brain death. And, the doctor wouldn't even have to be a neuro-specialist.

This would be a terrible move. People are already antzy about brain death, and many worry that people are being decared dead before their actual demise. (I receive desperate e-mails from such people regularly.) Having a second doctor involved in the process--particularly one who is a neurological specialist--makes sense, both as a fail safe to prevent mistakes and just to promote trust in the system. We saw that recently in Kansas when doubt about a proper declaration of death was settled by obtaining a second opinion by a neurologist.

Organ transplant professionals are desperate to gain access to more organs in order to save lives. But the New Jersey proposal would undermine faith in the system, and thus would have the exact opposite result.

We Need Mass Pandemic to Save the Planet!


I give too little attention here at Secondhand Smoke to the anti-human minions of the Deep Ecology movement. Deep ecologists view human beings as vermin that afflict the earth, which many believe is a living entity called Gaia. This story illustrates the twisted mindset by describing the anti-human advocacy among several notable intellectuals. We read again about the Texas academic that called humans "bacteria" and hoped for mass extinction, which I did blog. But it also reports this little bit of misanthropy, which I had not heard of before even though I know Jay Richards:

"William Burger decried 'the devastation humans are currently imposing upon our planet.' The curator emeritus for botany at Chicago's Field Museum of Science last Nov. 9 wrote then-Discovery Institute scholar Jay Richards regarding his book, The Privileged Planet. Burger continued, 'Still, adding over 70 million new humans to the planet each year, the future looks pretty bleak to me. Surely, the Black Death was one of the best things that ever happened to Europe: elevating the worth of human labor, reducing environmental degradation, and, rather promptly, producing the Renaissance. From where I sit, Planet Earth could use another major human pandemic, and pronto!'" I guess this flowers-over-people advocate is rooting for Bird Flu.

Of course, non of these deep ecologists volunteer offer up themselves or their children for the yearned-for mass human extinction.

Europeans Having Same Arguments as US over Biotechnology


The Financial Times has a story (sorry, no link for non subscribers) that describes the intense fight that the European Parliament is apparently having over whether to fund human cloning and embryonic stem cell research. Consensus will apparently not be reached.

The quote of the article by far is this, from a Dutch MEP named Toine Manders, who complained: "If you look at all the discussions surrounding biotechnology, I feel that we are clearly focusing too much on ethics..." Of course. We musn't let morality interfere with the business of science.

HT, David Prentice

Progress on Regressing Adult Cells into ES Cells


Nature is reporting that scientists may be close to creating a protein "elixer" that would regress adult cells to an embryonic pluripotent state. According to the report, "Doctors might be able to take a simple biopsy of cells from a patient and reprogramme them, using one set of proteins to first transform them into embryonic stem cells, and then another to coax them into growing new blood, pancreas or other tissue."

If these proteins can applied as scientists hope, it would do away with the need to clone human life for use in ESC treatments. For all the hoopla by politicians and media, we may actually find a scientific way out of our moral dilemma. As one scientist put it, "Obviously that's where the field is really headed. It's a terribly exciting time."

Skin Cells May Treat MS/Parkionson’s


Scientists have used adult human skin stem cells to treat rats with neurological disease. From an article published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Neuroscience. Hope!

Pamela Winnick’s Father is Doing Better


Pamela Winnick sent me the following e-mail with permission to post here. You may recall, that she worried that "death doctors" were seeking to force the family to "pull the plug" on her seriously ill father.

"Wes, a mere week after the death-loving doctors tried to get us to pull the plug on my father, miracles have begun. He's out of ICU. He's off the ventilator. He's talking. He's cracking jokes. He's reading the NY Times and the New Yorker. No longer confined to bed, he's sitting in a chair, soon to receive physical therapy so he can walk. Most importantly, over the last week, he has cherished the love of his family, his wife, daughters, grandchildren. And he laughs. This is still the father I have always had. And the man they wanted to murder just seven days ago.

It's a classic illustration of the 'culture of death,' as you so aptly call it. I will complain to the hospital, after he's out of their care. And when it's time for him to die, he will die naturally."

I am happy for Pamela and her family. If her father's doctors had been able to force the family to cease treatment, he would probably be buried by now. Her father's case illustrates the increasing danger promoted by mainstream bioethics that in cases of serious illness and injury or advanced age, the benefit of the doubt should be given to death rather than life.


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