Browsing the blog archivesfor the day Saturday, July 22nd, 2006.

People With One Watch, Part III

abortion, big picture stuff, Bush Administration, One Watch, science, stem cells
    I celebrate myself;
    And what I assume you shall assume;
    For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you. (Walt Whitman, Song of Myself)

(Note: This is a continuation of the previous two posts; if you haven’t read those, much of this won’t make sense.)

Embryonic stem cell research, from two perspectives. Elizabeth C. writes,

Regarding stem cell research, destroying human life at any time prior to its ability to sustain itself is murder. To the thinking mind, the term “harvesting” is descriptive enough to prevent legalization. We are messing with life itself, believing ourselves so scientifically advanced that we can get away with it. It’s just a matter of time before the legalized slaughter of the lambs via abortion finds us unprepared for the ultimate results: A world deprived of what would have been, had life been allowed. …

… My beloved grandchildren are proof enough for me that lives lost via abortion and stem cell research would have been lives loved, had their biological parents not made the easiest choice in today’s McDonald’s society, here today, gone tomorrow, whatever the reason.

The other perspective: Laurie Strongin writes in the Washington Post about the death of her son, Henry, who was born with Fanconi’s anemia. “Our only hope lay on the frontiers of science, in human embryo and stem cell research,” she writes. She found a doctor named Mark Hughes, then chief of reproductive and prenatal genetics at the National Institutes of Health, who had pioneered a stem cell procedure he thought could save Henry.

But on Jan. 9, 1997, an article in The Washington Post reported that Hughes was violating a two-year-old federal ban on human embryo research with his work on PGD.

Under the ban, Hughes was barred from performing that work as part of his position at NIH. Refusing to abandon his research or the families who were depending on it, he set up a lab as part of an in vitro fertility program at a private hospital across the street in Bethesda. But he was considered in violation of the federal law because his work at the hospital employed NIH research fellows and used NIH equipment — a refrigerator.

Over the following weeks, the daily headlines all read the same to me: Henry is going to die. As our doctor was forced to resign from his job and faced congressional hearings, Henry’s blood counts declined. We searched for alternatives to PGD, but none existed. The politically triggered delay had stolen precious time in our race to save Henry’s life. On Dec. 11, 2002, he died in my arms.

The procedure that Henry was denied because of a refrigerator was the same one used to save the life of Molly Nash, who also was born with Fanconi’s anemia. Today Molly is eleven years old and free from disease.

The odds that any particular blastocyst, once frozen, will ever become a baby are, well, long. It’s likely most will never be thawed. A large part of those that are thawed will not survive thawing. And of the select few that survive thawing and are implanted in a uterus, only some will result in a pregnancy. Yet by some twisted moral algebra, these blastocysts are considered more precious (to some people, like Elizabeth C.) than a child like Henry.

Recent news stories say that about 400,000 surplus frozen embryos are in storage in America. But according to this article in the current issue of Mother Jones, the number 400,000 represents the embryos stored in 2002. Four years later, there is every reason to believe the actual number is higher — close to half a million — and growing rapidly.

In other words, during the time it took for about 110 “snowflake children” to be born, another 200,000 blastocysts went into storage.

The Fetus People have persuaded themselves that since only a small percentage of stored embryos have been designated by their “parents” to be made available for research, the remainder are just sitting around waiting for Mommy and Daddy to thaw them out and pop them in the oven. This is, of course, nonsense. As the Mother Jones article linked above makes clear, the in vitro process requires creating a surplus of blastocysts to achieve one pregnancy. But once treatment is over many parents struggle with the choice of storing, donating, or destroying the leftovers. Many couples choose to store the blastocysts even though they have no intention of using them —

[A] woman described her embryos as a psychic insurance policy, providing “intangible solace” against the fundamental parental terror that an existing child might die. “What if [my daughter] got leukemia?” said yet another, who considered her frozen embryos a potential source of treatment. A patient put the same notion more bluntly: “You have the idea that in a warehouse somewhere there’s a replacement part should yours get lost, or there is something wrong with them.”

For others, embryos carried a price tag that made them seem like a consumer good; a few parents considered destroying them to be a “waste” of all the money spent on treatment.

Michael Kinsley, who supports stem cell research, writes that “if embryos are human beings with full human rights, fertility clinics are death camps.”

In any particular case, fertility clinics try to produce more embryos than they intend to implant. Then — like the Yale admissions office (only more accurately) — they pick and choose among the candidates, looking for qualities that make for a better human being. If you don’t get into Yale, you have the choice of attending a different college. If the fertility clinic rejects you, you get flushed away — or maybe frozen until the day you can be discarded without controversy.

And fate isn’t much kinder to the embryos that make this first cut. Usually several of them are implanted in the hope that one will survive. Or, to put it another way, in the hope that all but one will not survive. And fertility doctors do their ruthless best to make these hopes come true.

Kinsley argues that if one genuinely believes that destroying a blastocyst to extract stem cells is murder, then logically one must also be opposed to in vitro fertilization. The routine practices of fertility clinics destroy far more blastocysts than would ever likely be destroyed for stem cell research. “And yet, no one objects, or objects very loudly,” Kinsley says. “President Bush actually praised the work of fertility clinics in his first speech announcing restrictions on stem cells.”

The fact is, opponents of stem cell research routinely lie — to themselves, to each other, to anyone who will listen — in order to defend their belief that embryonic stem cell research is immoral. This suggests to me that the real reasons people object to stem cell research have less to do with moral principle than with some deeply submerged but potent fear. And this takes us back to elective ignorance. Something about flushing all those blastocysts makes the Fetus People uncomfortable in a way that condemning Henry Strongin to death does not. The arguments they make against stem cell research, which are mostly a pile of lies and distortions, are not the reasons they are opposed to stem cell research. They are the rationalizations created to justify their opposition.

Exactly what it is that frightens the Fetus People so is beyond the scope of a blog post. I hope the social psychologists will get out their chi squares and p values and get to work on finding the answer. But I hypothesize that many of them have years of ego investment in anti-abortion propaganda, to the point that they’re chanting “life begins at conception” in their sleep. If they give so much as a millimeter of ground on the “conception” issue their entire worldview, which includes their self-identity, will crumble apart. Hence, they are less concerned with saving Henry Strongin than with saving blastocysts. Hence, elective ignorance.

I’ve explained my views on “when life begins” before. Many on the Right are absolutely certain that “conception” is the only possible answer, but in fact there are a multitude of different answers that can be arrived at both scientifically and philosophically. As this essay explains nicely, across time and cultures there have been many different opinions as to when life “begins.” Even the Catholic Church has changed its papal mind several times in its history.

The Fetus People argue that since a human blastocyst is human, and alive, it must be human life and therefore entitled to all the rights and privileges and protections the law allows. Others of us think claiming a blastocyst is equal in value to, say, Nelson Mandela is self-evidently absurd; DNA does not equal personhood. And “human life” doesn’t explain why blastocysts are protected with more ferocity than Henry Strongin. We might giggle at Senator Brownback’s Amazing Talking Embryos, but in truth we’re allowing medical and scientific policies to be set by people with simplistic, childish, even primitive ideas about medicine and science. Not funny.

As I explained in Part I of this little trilogy, we’re all conditioned from birth to understand ourselves and the world around us in a certain way. Ultimately our understanding of blastocysts and Henrys and their relative value is based on how we understand some pretty basic stuff, like selfness and beingness, life and death, us and other. Those who insist that life “begins” at conception have a very rigid and narrow understanding of these matters.

I’m going to attempt to explain my understanding as best I can, just as an example. I don’t expect anyone to agree with me, which is not a problem as far as I’m concerned.

As I’ve explained elsewhere, it seems to me that life doesn’t “begin” at all. However it got to this planet four billion years ago, it hasn’t been observed to “begin” since. Instead, life expresses itself in myriad forms. And whatever it is you are is a result of a process stretching back those four billion years. Calling any point a “beginning” seems arbitrary to me.

What is the self? If you’ve ever done time in a Zen monastery, that’s the question the Roshi brings up, over and over again. Kensho might be defined as a paradigm shift of self-ness; a realization that you are not what you thought you were. The realized self is not something that can be explained, but a basic (if crude) analogy is that an individual “self” is a phenomenon of life, as a wave is a phenomenon of ocean. When a wave begins nothing is added to the ocean, and when a wave ceases nothing is taken away from the ocean. Although a wave is a distinct phenomenon, it is also ocean. A person is a distinct being, yet at the same time a person is the great ocean of Being. At birth, nothing is gained; at death, nothing is lost.

So, while I am I and you are you, at the same time I am you and you are me, whether we like it or not.

As I said, this is very crude, and if you ever get interested in Buddhism don’t attach to it. Concepts are always short of reality. But if you understand yourself this way, then you understand all individuals and organisms throughout space and time as a great interconnected process. And you and me and all the blastocysts in the IVF clinics and all the suffering people waiting for the cures that stem cell research promises are all One. In a sense, every atom belonging to one of us as good belongs to everybody.

The “life begins at conception” model, on the other hand, assumes that at conception the individual is broken off from all the rest of Creation and hence is alone in the universe. Seems cold, I say. The Buddha taught that understanding yourself this way leads to grasping and greed, which is the source of all suffering. (See The Four Noble Truths.) Thus the Fetus People are making us all miserable with their campaigns to Save Every Blastocyst while keeping people who have already dissipated back into the Ocean of Being hooked up to life support. At the base of this is (I postulate) their own existential fear.

That’s my take, which you are free to dismiss; I don’t insist everyone share my worldview. But I argue that there is nothing moral about saving surplus blastocysts from being used in medical research, just as there is nothing principled about lying to yourself and others to justify your opinions. Indeed, from a Buddhist perspective it is deeply immoral to keep hundreds of thousands of blastocysts in cold storage — where they are not expressing life — when they could be used to alleviate suffering and express life through other individuals.

If you respect life, you don’t waste it.

    What do you think has become of the young and old men?
    And what do you think has become of the women and children?
    They are alive and well somewhere;
    The smallest sprout shows there is really no death;
    And if ever there was, it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
    And ceas’d the moment life appear’d. (Walt Whitman)
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