Archive for March, 2008


Gordon Brown caves to Catholic scaremongering

Sunday, 30 March, 2008

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has yielded to the public pressure (most of it by religious nuts like Cardinal O’Brien) and is now going to let his ministers and MPs vote freely on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. Well, at least on three of the controversial clauses:

  • Cybrid embryos – the HF&E Bill would allow for the creation of embryos containing both human and animal DNA, but only for research and they must be destroyed at a certain date
  • Fatherless IVF – under the HF&E Bill, fathers would no longer be required for an IVF pregnancy, allowing single-women and lesbians to have IVF children
  • Saviour siblings – the HF&E Bill would permit the use of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis for ensuring that an embryo is a potential donor for a sick brother or sister

This decreases the chance of the Bill passing, but with any luck it should still be able to get through. I hope.

PS: Sorry for being late on this. I went away for four days, and didn’t have time to blog on anything.


Wednesday’s Words of Worry

Wednesday, 26 March, 2008

The Words this Wednesday come from Friday’s sermon by Catholic cardinal Keith O’Brien, given at St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Our Prime Minister, Gordon Brown has given the Government’s support to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. It is difficult to imagine a single piece of legislation which, more comprehensively, attacks the sanctity and dignity of human life than this particular Bill.

Really, Keith? It the HF&E Bill worse than the Nuremburg Laws of Nazi Germany? Worse than the Apartheid legislation in South Africa? This legislation could save lives! Surely being forced to stay afflicted with a disease because people feel uneasy about curing you is a far worse afront to human dignity than the death of some embryos or the creation of cybrids.

It scares me that some people do actually think that this legislation is that wrong. After all, Cardinal O’Brien states the estimate that 2.2 million embryos have been destroyed or experimented upon. The Holocaust saw the death of an estimated 3.8 million Jews. If one is irrational enough to believe that embryos have a right to life, it isn’t that hard to believe that this legislation is on par with Nazi policies.

Also, I wish to draw attention to this:

Further, I recently signed a letter with other Church Leaders which concluded: “This Bill goes against what most people, Christian or not, reckon is common sense. The idea of mixing human and animal genes is not just evil. It’s crazy!”.

Denying my freedom, when I am not harming anyone at all, is oppressive tyranny – evil and crazy too. I, for one, would like to have the mouse gene for L-gulonolactone oxidase inserted into my genome. This would make me immune to scurvy, and could possibly allow me to live a longer and healthier life even if I don’t go for a long sea voyage. Denying me that freedom is not only bad in itself, but it also harms my health, so to do so is far more evil than any violation of ‘human dignity’.

The Catholics have a lot of sway in Britain, so I fear that Cardinal O’Brien just killed the HF&E Bill for good. I still hold hope though. That’s all I can do from here down-under.


Nebraska bans government funding of therapeutic cloning

Wednesday, 26 March, 2008

The bill in Nebraska, the LB606, that prohibits state funding for therapeutic cloning, was passed a few hours ago with a unanimous vote (you may remember that they changed the wording on that bill to make it more agreeable).

Absolutely nobody in the Nebraska Senate must have heard the news that therapeutic cloning can help Parkinson’s, or else they are all crazy and ignoring it for the hope that future treatments won’t be so contrary to their crazy ethical position. I suppose I should be thankful that this bill allows private work on cloned embryos, but I’m not because there isn’t anyone in Nebraska doing that. But I am thankful that embryonic stem cell research wasn’t banned (but it can only be government funded if it works on existing cell lines).

Another state going backwards instead of forwards…


Therapeutic cloning can also cure!

Monday, 24 March, 2008

Researchers have used therapeutic cloning to cure Parkinson’s disease in mice. This is a landmark study, published in Nature Medicine, because the embryonic stem cells were cloned from the patients that they later cured.

The researchers, led by a team at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, USA, used the classic cloning technique – somatic-cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). The nuclei from skin cells from the tail of the mice were inserted into anucleated ova, to create the cloned mouse embyros from which the stem cells were derived. The stem cells were differentiated into the dopaminergic neurons of the basal ganglia that are damaged in Parkinson’s.

Test animals were artificially given Parkinson’s disease, whereby the above-mentioned dopaminergic neurons were lesioned by chemicals. The neurons derived above were transplanted into the basal ganglia of the mice. Those mice that were treated with neurons derived from embryos cloned from their own tail recovered well within eleven weeks, but those receiving neurons from other stem cells lines were not significantly better eleven weeks later. This confirmed the advantage that therapeutic cloning has – the stem cells will be genetically matched to the individual, overcoming the problems with immunological compatibility.

But, just to satisfy those opposed to cloning and embryonic stem cell research, the researchers said that they are now going to see if they can use the embryonic-like cells that have been shown to be able to be derived from skin cells.



Nick Bostrom writes about human dignity for President’s Council on Bioethics

Thursday, 20 March, 2008

The President’s Council on Bioethics has released their latest volume of reports, titled “Human Dignity and Bioethics“. One notable essay published in this volume is that of Nick Bostrom, the Oxford philosopher who is also the co-founder of the World Transhumanist Association and Chair of both the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies and the Oxford Future of Humanity Institute.

Bostrom’s essay forms chapter 8 of the report, and is titled “Dignity and Enhancement“,  and the opening paragraph concludes with this beautifully well-put sentence:

Like some successful politicians, the idea of dignity has hit upon a winning formula by combining into one package gravitas, a general feel-good quality, and a profound vagueness that enables all constituencies to declare their allegiance without thereby endorsing any particular course of action.

Bostrom goes on to discuss some sensible definitions of human dignity, whether enhancements could possibly increase human dignity under such definitions, and whether the human species or human civilization can have dignity. Have a read.

Also worth a brief look are the essays “Human Dignity and the Future of Man” by Charles Rubin, “The Nature and Basis of Human Dignity” by George Lee and “The Irreducibly Religious Character of Human Dignity”  by David Gelernter.


Wednesday’s Words of Wisdom

Wednesday, 19 March, 2008

Today is a sad day, as Sir Arthur C. Clarke has just passed away at the unfortunately young age of 90. Therefore, in remembrance for such an influential science fiction author and scientist (published theoretical work on the premise of satellite communication twelve years before the launch of Sputnik 1, and therefore widely credited as the inventor, though it is probable that is was invented independently thereafter) , I have decided to make this week’s quote one of his. Unusually though, I have selected a work of futurism, rather than science fiction, in quoting from Sir Arthur’s Profiles of the Future, first published in 1962 and revised in 1973. I quote a few select sentences from the closing words of Chapter Eighteen (titled ‘The Obsolescence of Man’), which seem much more complete without the truncation I have given them, but in the interests of conciseness, I wish to give a broader picture with fewer words:

“[T]his is, perhaps, the moment to deal with a conception which many people find even more horrifying than the idea that machines will replace or supersede us. It is the idea […] that they may combine with us. ”

“But how long will this partnership last? Can the synthesis of Man and Machine ever be stable, or will the purely organic component become such a hindrance that it has to be discarded? If this eventually happens – and I have given good reasons for thinking that it must – we have nothing to regret, and certainly nothing to fear.”

“No individual exists for ever; why should we expect our species to be immortal? Man, said Nietzsche, is a rope stretched between the animal and the superman – a rope across the abyss. That will be a noble purpose to have served.”

In broaching these subjects so early, with works such as Childhood’s End (1953), The City and the Stars (1956), the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey (and both the preceding work – The Sentinel – and the sequels), plus many others, all dealing with the subject of human enhancement (albeit usually mediated by an alien intelligence rather than our own), it is surely true that Sir Arthur C. Clarke served such a noble purpose. He will be missed.


Eastern and Western views on Human Enhancement

Tuesday, 18 March, 2008

The spring volume of the Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics is now available (you will need a subscription access to read more than the abstract). For the Fourteenth Annual Thomas A. Pitts Lectureship in Medical Ethics, articles by scholars of many different cultures where asked to submit essays regarding the ethical issues of human enhancement. The articles selected for publication are:

If you’ve ever wanted to look at where in the world this sort of technology would be accepted, these articles would be a good read.