Posts Tagged ‘bioethics’


New Zealand not so good anymore

Monday, 23 March, 2009

It’s a shame too. The Bioethics Council of New Zealand (aka ‘Toi te Taiao’), the same council that last year published such sensible opinions on parents genetically selecting their children,  has apparently been disestablished. A press release states:

It is with regret that Toi te Taiao: the Bioethics Council announces it has been disestablished by the Government.

Such a stupid thing to happen to such a clearly wise group of people. I hope New Zealanders make a big fuss about this.


Significant minority favour designer babies

Wednesday, 28 January, 2009

The results of a recent study into public opinion on reproductive genetics (reprogenetics) have been released. It’s promising, as the percentage of respondents who would consider using genetic testing to select for a child with increased athleticism or intelligence was in the double digits (10 and 12.6% respectively). In addition, the majority of respondents (52.2%) also said that there was no form of genetic testing that should be always off limits, meaning that genetic enhancement may be considered allowable if it was to be voted upon.

That said, the respondents were people who were visiting a genetic counsellor, and therefore the results may contain some bias towards acceptance of genetic testing or genetic enhancement.

For a longer and more in-depth analysis, read what George Dvorsky had to say on it.


Biotech must be some brilliant science

Monday, 25 August, 2008

I quite liked this comic (hat tip to Pharyngula):

While I was reading this, I was reminded of an interview with the chief scientist of Advanced Cell Technologies, Robert Lanza. The interview, titled “Fighting for the Right to Clone” (where clone unfortunately only includes therapeutic cloning), is subtitled:

Stem cell and cloning guru Robert Lanza has battled the Catholic Church, the White House, and violent protesters.

And later speaks of his time at Advanced Cell Technologies, and the dangers he faced:

[Lanza] At the time, ACT was a subsidiary of a poultry genetics company, doing work in agriculture. When I joined they made the move from animal cloning to human therapy, and we knew we would get hit, big-time. I may be the only person who’s had the [Catholic] Church, the pope, and a couple of presidents condemn my work. At one point we had bodyguards here. There was a bombing up the street; then a doctor at a local in vitro fertilization clinic was targeted. I didn’t think I would be alive for more than a few years.

[Discover] And you, alone on your island, were so vulnerable to attacks.
[Lanza] I would go for a walk, listening for sounds. I was one of the most visible people in cloning and yet I was isolated. I figured there was more than a 50 percent chance that I would be knocked off. But I wanted to go out trying. I’ve always followed my heart.

Hmm, condemned by the Pope, various churches, presidents of various nations, and at a good risk of being bombed. If that comic is anything to go by, biotechnology must be some brilliant science.


Nature News on the near future of reproduction

Monday, 28 July, 2008

A couple of weeks ago, Nature News published an article titled ‘Making babies: the next 30 years‘. It interviews a number of specialists in human reproductive technologies and outlines the predictions that they think are likely to arise in the next few decades. I’ve been waiting until I have some spare time to go through it, and now I have. This gives me the opportunity to also comment on other blogs who picked up this story.

The article

First up is Dave Solter, developmental biologist, who predicts that induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) with be cultured into human gametes (sperm and ova). This would mean that anybody who has skin will be able to be a genetic parent, whether they are just an embryo, a corpse or any stage in between. Given that the harvesting of eggs is a major issue in research and reproductive technology, this would be a major boon to the field. No need for women nor men – just grow the eggs and sperm yourself. It would also mean (Dave doesn’t mention this, but I think it is important) you could test that stability of genetic modifications over many generations in vitro within just a few years by ‘breeding’ human embryos. Dave also mentions that an artificial placenta, allowing for the culture of embryos past the blastocyst stage, may be likely.

Next is Alan Trounson, Australian IVF pioneer and now the director of California Institute for Reproductive Medicine. He seconds Dave Solter’s predictions (adding the possibility using embryonic stem cells derived from somatic cell nuclear transfer instead of iPSCs), but raises some cautionary issues. His other predictions include better gene therapy using genetic cassettes and low-cost IVF for the developing nation. Nothing special here.

Following him is Susannah Baruch, director of reproductive genetics at the Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University. Her predictions mostly concern preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), which she sees as not being a tool to make designer babies but just for gaining full genetic information about a child’s future. She also states that “The old-fashioned way [of reproducing] is cheaper and more fun and that won’t change in 30 years.” I agree, but the end result (the child) will be less reliable.

I’m not going to talk about what Alastair Sutcliffe, a paediatrician, said because it is just about long-term health of children conceived by this technology. Not really any predictions.

Scott Gelfand, director of the Ethics Center at Oklahoma State University, makes the sensible (in my view) prediction that medical technology will allow for the viability of foetuses born even up to 12 weeks of age, or even complete ectogenesis (artificial wombs, no human woman needed). Scott is on the ball, because he sees that this could dramatically affect the abortion debate. A conservative government could require all unwanted pregnancies be transfered into an artificial womb. This would essentially become the dividing line between pro-choice (woman’s control over her body) reasoning and “pro-abortion” (lack of rights for the foetus) reasoning. As I fall into the latter category, I should hope that these artificial wombs are not a tool for outlawing abortion.

Miodrag Stojkovic, stem-cell biologist, predicts that clones will become much easier to make if Dave’s predictions come true. With the requirements for cloning being up to hundreds of eggs, an excess derived from stem cells could allowing reproductive cloning to go ahead. Of course, she points out that reproductive cloning will not be very popular, as (almost) all incentives to clone could be satisfied by artificial gametes. And we won’t make clones for organs either, because we can probably just skip the clone and go straight to the organ (i.e. grow the whole organ from stem cells).

A cure for infertility is the core prediction of Zev Rosenwaks, director of the Center for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility in New York, who also seconds Dave’s predictions about making sperm and ova. This is good, because it puts choice as the core component of reproduction. No more God or Mother Nature choosing whether some people can have children or not.

Finally, Régine Sitruk-Ware, reproductive endocrinologist, looks at the flip side of the previous prediction – contraceptives. She points out that more reproductive research is on people’s choice to have a child and not people’s choice not to have children. She hopes for more effective contraceptives and non-hormonal versions (such as one that prevents sperm from entering the ovum), allowing yet more choice into the realm of reproduction.

The comments

“If a few power crazy experts decide to monopolize the special skills and determine to create thousands of children on their own terms and conditions, the world could be in trouble. I would not want to imagine the consequences. Would you?” -Tan Boon Tee

Given the cost (in time and money) of this idea, it would be easier for said crazy experts to just recruit young people to do whatever they wanted. Which is already what happens.

” It is scary. And i do not want to have a mother who is a hundred years old. Or a father. This is not the earth i want to live in.” – Michael Hoffmann

Get over it. These centenarians only be genetic parents, not gestational or social parents. And if they are healthy enough to be social parents, that will be thanks to life-extension research that will keep these centenarians as healthy as sexagenarians. And already grandparents raise children, but maybe Michael doesn’t like that either.

“I think this has gone too far. We are so keen on improving science investigation that we have lost sense of reality: we can improve nature but not oppose it. Nature is wise and it knows 60-year-old person shouldn’t have baby children, it knows that a mother is important for a baby during pregnacy and it knows is better for evolution genetic variability. I think most of these experiments make people less free because, why do not young partners have children? becase if a woman gets pregnant she’ll probably loose her job. Why do they want to experiment with embrios stem cells? becase they want some profit for all the frozen embrios of IVF. I would recommend to read “Brave New World” from Aldous Huxley so that you would understand my opinion.” – Marina Garci­a

Total bovine excrement here. Nature is not wise (how can it be? it has no brain). Women don’t lose their job for being pregnant (I think that’s illegal). And Brave New World, well that’s a new one? Go read Huxley’s Island – it has reproductive technology done right.

“However there must be some limit for this which I couldn’t found in some of the articles. Who will decide if someone can or can’t be born without mother? Who will claim such wrigth [sic]? Next, think about desingning a persons genome, as Susannah pointed in her article. While pointing there are no data to support the idea, the “genome designer” idea itself is capable to be understood by someone reading the article. Again, this is scary. Some ideas on the articles are beyond the scary, bordering de-humanization. To mention are human clonning and tissue donation. As if the human parts market in some places in this world didn’t required our attentions. Finally, what are we looking for when presenting this idea? Perfection? I can use Susannahs’ comments again: there are no perfection on us. And exactly this is what makes the human existence perfect giving us a path to follow. Why do we not search perfection in eliminating hungher on Earth, or counteracting the global warming?” – Nelson Jacomel Junior

There is nothing scary about designer genomes, and cloning is no more dehumanizing than IVF. The end result will be a human person, no different – no less human (not that this is important) – than any of us. Nelson’s only good point was his first part about whether governments will interfere with reproductive rights by mandating who can be born. They should never be allowed to. Undoubtedly some parent will need to request a child, and that parent could be male or female (we already allow single females to have children by sperm donation in most sensible parts of the world, so why not single males?).

“When we learn to correct and reprogram our DNA then we will have conquered ageing and disease and the problem of infertility would also disappear and all these proposed technologies would become obsolete.” – Richard Dawson

A sensible view, as anti-ageing research may indeed make some reproductive technologies less popular. But in the next few decades, it is still likely that these technologies will be developed and will be utilised.

“While I admit it is in the best interest of the patients involved to have a kid, plainly speaking aren’t we acting against “survival of the fittest”? Further, if nature (mother nature) wanted us to reproduce at the age of 100, it would have made it so. That nature imposed a reproductive age limit of ~45 for women should ring a bell.” – K Sivaraman

Holy FSM, another person who thinks that an inanimate process of evolution is more intelligent than the scientific community. Nature has a poor record of doing good (are there not natural disasters as well as man-made ones?), so I don’t see why we should be respecting what is natural. I think this is just a disguise for fear of change.

The blogosphere

A sensible view given here, at Genetic Future. Here are two key points:

“The point is not that we will never understand the genetic basis of complex traits – we will, at least to a pretty good approximation, given advanced tools and sufficiently large cohorts. The point is that even once we understand the genetics of complex traits perfectly, that won’t be enough to generate a “perfect baby” through embryo screening alone.”

“So it’s safe to say that there will be no perfect baby. Instead, the prospective parents will face a tough choice between embryo A, who will likely be tall, slim, smart and cancer-free but have a higher-than-average chance of bipolar, early-onset dementia, and infertility; embryo B, who will be a little shorter, dark-haired, probably fairly gregarious, resistant to coronary artery disease, susceptible to bowel cancer, hypertension and early deafness; embryo C, who will be of average intelligence, unlikely to suffer premature baldness, prone to mild obesity and diabetes, but not at a high risk of any of the other major common diseases; and embryos D-N, who present a similar panel of competing probabilities”

On the other hand, many blogs have perpetrated the distorted view started by the ignoramuses at FOXNews, that this will lead to pregnancy at 100:

Solter, writing in the journal Nature, claims that advancements over the next 30 years should make it possible for women at any age to give birth.”

No he didn’t! He claimed that “newborn children could have children and 100-year olds could have children” but he never said they would become pregnant and give birth. He was obviously implying that they would use a surrogate womb or an artificial womb. Having a child is not the same as bearing and birthing a child, but I guess I expect much for the traditionalist readers of FOXNews to realise that.


I’m a little dismayed that nobody predicted that gene therapy will become advanced and reliable enough to be used on embryos, ushering in the era of the designer baby. That would be my prediction.

Anyway, the issues brought up are good to consider, especially the idea of artificial wombs and artificial gametes. More choice, more reproductive freedom – can’t go wrong.


Even if an embryo is a full person, can embryo destruction still be ok?

Saturday, 26 July, 2008

The title of this work asks a difficult question for anyone to answer in a way that reflects their full view. It is easy to respond flippantly, saying “No, killing is always wrong, no matter the good that could come of it” or “The ends justify the means”. But from experience, I know these answers do not always reflect the view taken outside of the ‘status of the embryo’ debate. So, if we do accept that an embryo deserves all human rights, does that mean that no treatment or cures to come of it are justifiable? I wish to take you through an embryonic stem cell research scenario, and then a few other scenarios which I will argue are ethically similar to judge responses. Finally, I will look at one scenario – that of normal human procreation – to see if it is similar.

In a future embryonic stem cell therapy, a human embryo – around four or five days after it was just a single cell – is harvested for stem cells. The inner cell mass (also known as an embryoblast) is a group of a few dozen cells that could give rise to any human body cell, except perhaps the placenta. Therefore, these cells could be taken out of the embryo and, instead of growing into a human child, could be multiplied endlessly in the lab, and then eventually turned into many human kidneys, human hearts and even human brain cells. But to get these replacement organs, which could be used to save lives of people who may never otherwise receive an organ, and replacement cells, which could prevent the need for organ replacement altogether by repairing the organ while it remains in the body, a human embryo must be sacrificed. So, that entails destroying a life in order to save many other lives.

Thought experiments A – Transplants and Terrorists

To examine the ethical problems that this may create, let us consider a thought experiment. This is Thomson’s transplant case:

A brilliant transplant surgeon has five patients, each in need of a different organ, each of whom will die without that organ. Unfortunately, there are no organs available to perform any of these five transplant operations. A healthy young traveler, just passing through the city the doctor works in, comes in for a routine checkup. In the course of doing the checkup, the doctor discovers that his organs are compatible with all five of his dying patients. Suppose further that if the young man were to disappear, no one would suspect the doctor.

Now, I’m fairly sure that most people would say it is not acceptable for the doctor to kill the man. And it is because the pro-life camp see each human embryo as a little person, not morally different to the traveler in the above example, that they object to embryo-destructive yet life-saving research.

Let’s look at another, this time real, incident. This one is used by John Harris, in his recent work Enhancing Evolution, in the chapter titled ‘The Irredeemable Paradox of the Embryo’ (p117-8)

On September 11, 2001, passengers on flight “United 93” are reliably believed to have overcome hijackers and forced a hijacked plane to crash into a field in Pennsylvania, so forestalling the attempt to target a highly populated and high profile building, but killing everyone on board. Such an act, while defending the victims in the “target of choice” did involve killing the innocent passengers and crew.

Harris then goes on to consider the moral implications of this, and concluded that there is an inconsistency present for those who are pro-life in the embryo debate but also approve of the actions undertaken on United 93. While it is true that the innocent would have died anyway, so too does everyone at one stage; murder is no less wrong because of the inevitability of death. The unwilling transplant donor will also have died anyway, though it may have taken several decades. So why is it that we can’t kill a person in order to save lives, but the actions of a few passengers on United 93 are rewarded for killing to save lives?

Thought experiments B – Trolleys and more Trolleys

I suspect that to find the answer, one must look at a few thought experiments known to ethicists as ‘trolley problems’. The classic trolley problem is the ‘Bystander problem’, which goes like this:

A trolley (i.e. tram/train) is running out of control down a track. In its path are 5 people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you can flip a switch which will lead the trolley down a side track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single bystander on that side track. Should you flip the switch?

Generally, most people say that they would flip the switch – saving the five but killing the bystander (although some would say that this would make you responsible for the bystander’s death, but I say if you ‘d done nothing you would be responsible for five deaths). But a very interesting twist to this problem is the ‘Fat man’ scenario:

As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?

People who say they would flip the switch often say they would not push the man. It appears that there is some sort of distinction between, as Harris puts it, “throwing trolleys at people and throwing people at trolleys”. The distinction lies in the fact that the Bystander is killed because saving five lives results in his death, and the Fat man is killed in order to save five lives. The embryo researchers are seemingly doing the former – destroying a human embryo in order to save lives – whereas the passengers of United 93 did the latter – saving lives but resulting in the death of innocents.

Don’t worry if you have a hard time working out the difference between these two points. I do too, and so does John Harris (Harris J, 2000). It appears we have evolved to think inactions that cause harm are more acceptable than actions that cause an identical harm. That is, killing is impermissible but letting die is not. But it’s just obvious, if we think about the problem with more than our gut, that choosing to do nothing (i.e. let somebody die) is still an action that results in the death of somebody – you have still killed them.

Therefore, unless there really is a significant difference between doing something because it has good consequences and doing something in order to bring about those good consequences, we are left with absolutely no distinction between embryo research and the United 93 passengers – no distinction between the two train scenarios. It is always permissible to act in a way that brings about the best results for everyone – because you are responsible for your actions, regardless of what you do.


Which brings us back to the original thought experiment, Thomson’s transplant. This would seem to be a case where the doctor kills in order to save lives, but as we have seen this is no different to the doctor killing a person because his death would allow many to survive. But this may still seem a bit extreme for other reasons, such as consent, extrinsic value, pain and so on.

But embryo research is very different from Thomson’s Transplant thought experiment. The donor is not unwilling, nor willing, because embryos do not have a will of their own – adult stem cells can’t consent to their use either, but their therapeutic use is accepted by most. The donor’s mother and father have presumably consented to the use of the embryo in research/therapy (as is current protocol for embryonic research). And embryos cannot feel pain, so this is not an issue.

So I am led to the conclusion that even if human embryos are little people, with a life as valuable as everyone else, embryonic stem cell research and therapy are still the right thing to do. The use of embryos in therapy and research is the action that has the most desirable consequences overall. Unless we believe that killing an embryo is far worse than letting dozens of patients die, then the good ends are sufficiently good to justify the means required to bring about those results. Pro-life groups will need to do more than show embryos are ‘one of us’ if they want to stop embryo destructive life-saving actions.


Inconsistancy in the “life begins at conception” argument

Wednesday, 25 June, 2008

The view that human life begins at conception is a favoured view of most of the pro-life camp. By it, they do not mean that the sperm and ova were not alive and only became so at conception, but rather that ‘human life’ – in the special sense of a person who deserves protection under the law – begins at conception. Unfortunately for them, this view is logically inconsistent with that pesky thing called reality. There is absolutely no sense in which life, whatever is meant by the term, could be said to commence during the process of conception.

Conception is a process, not a distinct point in time

The process of conception, also known as fertilisation, involves many chemical reactions and processes. It is not an instantaneous occurrence. Look at the diagram I made:

So somewhere along that set of chemical reactions, which finally result in two cells with a unique human genetic combination (the zygote immediately after the fusion of sperm has two pronuclei – one from the sperm and one from the ovum), are we to say that a single human life has started? If so, at what point does that happen?

The fact of the matter is that conception is no less of an arbitrary ‘line in the sand’ than any other point that one picks, such as the development of the brain, birth or development of self-awareness. But there is nothing wrong per se with something being arbitrary (after all, the time when people are old enough to vote is arbitrary), so we should now look at whether there is a good reason for not using conception as the start of a human being’s life.

Twins, chimeras and clones

The idea that a “human life begins at conception” also has problems with the existence of identical twins and tetrazygotic chimeras and the possibility human clones. Again, I have diagrams to explain these.

Consider the case of monozygotic twins, as explained by the above diagram. Here we have one fertilisation event, but two individuals result. Do those twins have to share the ‘human life’ they had from conception? Surely not, for we treat twins as separate persons. So, when did both lives start, if not at conception? During the twinning process? Or sometime after? And if lives start during the process of twinning, perhaps it is morally wrong not to twin an embryo, as it prevents the cells from realising their potential as multiple human beings.

Also consider the above diagram of the formation of a tetragametic (four gametes, two sperm + two eggs) chimera. Such an individual results when fraternal twins, derived from separate conceptions, merge very early in development to form a single individual with some cells with one genome and some cells with another (if the two zygotes were different, such as one female and one male or one dark-skinned and the other pale-skinned, this can be noticeable on the person). So, do chimeric people get twice as much human life, seeing as they resulted from two conceptions? Or was a life destroyed when the two embryos merged, despite not a single cell being destroyed? If the intentional formation of chimera is morally wrong, why isn’t the failure to twin an embryo?

Consider finally the case of a human clone (see diagram above), which hasn’t yet occurred but is surely possible. In this case, there is no conception event to be found (unless you go back to the one that created the somatic cell), but yet an individual results. Do clones not have any human life? Surely not, for they would be persons like you or I. So if life begins at conception, how can there be life without conception? Does life begin at conception OR nuclear transfer?

As can be seen, the idea of human life beginning at conception has some serious issues with the processes that can, and sometimes do, occur in human reproduction.


It is often claimed that conception should be the marker for a human life because it marks the formation of something that can grow into a thinking, feeling, reasoning human being. Apart from the fact that conception is not a distinct point, but a process, this potentiality argument has two key problems.

First, if a zygote should be protected because it can from a human being, why not also protect the sperm and eggs, for they can form a zygote which in turn can form a human being. And seeing as males can form billions of sperm but females only form thousands of ova, it follows that males are a million times more worthy of protection than females. But seeing as this conclusion is ludicrous, there must be something wrong with the potentiality argument.

The second, a major flaw, is that being potentially something isn’t the same as being something already. To see this, consider extrapolating the potential argument in the other direction: all human beings will die. And, seeing as a zygote will form a human being who will later form a corpse, it follows that we should treat both people and zygotes as if they were corpses. If we can give the right to life for an unborn baby, maybe we should give the right to a decent burial for a pre-dead corpse (i.e. a live baby). Not to mention that skin cells can replace sperm in forming a human being (see the cloning diagram above), so it follows that each skin cell destroyed is akin to destroying a human being. Unless, of course, having the potential to do something or be something isn’t equal to actually doing or being it.

Member of the human species

Perhaps it could be argued that an embryo should be protected because it is human. We don’t morally protect our own skin cells, despite the fact they are living human skin cells. So, what does the embryo have that skin cells don’t? If the answer is potential to develop into a human being, then this is just the potentiality argument again (and by cloning, perhaps a skin cell does have the potential to develop into a human being).

However, if the answer is that an embryo is a human being (and we accept that as truth, even though it is arguably false) then we need to then ask whether being a human being is enough to give the moral weight – the intrinsic value – conveyed by the term ‘human life’. Perhaps being a human being is only special because it usually correlates with having some other property, such as consciousness or self-awareness, that is special. In that case, then we should be using that other property to value the embryo instead of whether or not the embryo is a human being.

Consider whether it would be acceptable to kill a member of a non-human species that was capable of thinking human-like thoughts, was conscious and felt their lives were valuable, such as the intelligent aliens (think E.T. or Jar Jar Binks) or robots of science-fiction. If such a species (biological or not) is also worthy of protection, due to the fact they have certain psychological characteristics, then isn’t it safe to say that is those characteristics that are truly being valued here?

In addition, applying rights based on what group you belong to, rather than what you are able to do, seems a lot like bigotry or prejudice. History shows us many applications of rights based on being of a certain economic class, race, gender or religious group. Why should doing the same for being part of a species be any different?

Unique genetic combination

It is often said that because the zygote is a new human being because it has a unique human genome. This is a relatively weak argument, because a unique genome is not required to form a human being (e.g. identical twins, or clones, or human parthenotes) and unique genomes often do not form human beings (e.g. mutated genomes of cancers or the modified genome of induced pluripotent stem cells). Unless we are willing to admit that melanomas are actually human beings because they have a different genome, and that a woman who is pregnant with her clone (or identical twin) is not actually pregnant with a human being, then this argument should be abandoned.

Failure of an embryo to implant

The fact that only a fraction of zygotes go on to form a human being also hits hard the “life begins at conception” dogma. Firstly, the results of most conceptions are not viable embryos, and these abnormal embryos are usually passed out during a menstrual cycle. If such embryos are human beings, should we hold a funeral? Should we feel bad for not even realising they existed in the first place? Also, assisted reproductive technologies are much like natural reproduction in that far more embryos are conceived than result in pregnancy, and therefore shouldn’t IVF and sex be just as much of a problem as abortion? Or is the death of dozens of lives justified if it creates a life in the process (if that is the case, shouldn’t doctors and nurses be making babies instead of saving lives)?

Further, the oral contraceptive pill is known to make the uterine environment more hostile to any embryos that would implant there. The hormone progesterone released during breastfeeding acts in the same was as the oral contraceptive pill (in fact, progesterone analogues are the key ingredient of the pill), which is why breast-feeding is a ‘natural contraceptive’. Therefore, shouldn’t both the contraceptive pill and sex while breast-feeding be complained about just as much as abortion and embryonic stem cell research?


It is evident that the idea that life begins at conception is at odds with reality. Many human beings can result from a single conception, many conceptions can result in just one human being and theoretically human beings could develop without any conception event occurring at all. The idea that conception is a key point in the process of development is unfounded, as the potential to develop into a human being is not only possessed by sperm and eggs, but is completely logically fallacious in the first place. In addition, it doesn’t even appear that being a human being qualifies as having the intrinsic value required to convey moral status, as it is possible that non-human beings should have same intrinsic value attributed to ‘human life’. Neither can genetics rescue this argument, for a unique genetic composition is possessed by some non-human beings, and some human beings don’t have a unique genetic composition. Finally, the way most people act normally, and the way nature is, is very wasteful of zygotes, making the conclusions of this argument very difficult in practice.

It is not a scientific fact that human life begins at conception. The truth is that human life, in the sense of a person like you or I, emerges slowly from the genetic information and molecules that made up the sperm and eggs in your parents body, from the processes of controlled growth of the resulting embryo and foetus, using nutrients that nourished you in the womb. Science informs us that it is a continuous process. Those looking for a nice distinct point in time that can be used as the starting point of each person’s existence will be sorely disappointed if they look at the science. Philosophically, I’d argue that no intrinsic value of human beings exists, except for the value applied by a being to itself. Although this may be criticised for being overly restrictive (not attributing any intrinsic value to neonates), this criticism only works if we have a another significant reason to think neonates should have such value – I do not believe such a reason exists (see also the latter part of this post).


I think I want to move to New Zealand

Saturday, 21 June, 2008

Bioethicists must be sensible across the Ditch, because a New Zealand bioethics commission has released a report titled “Who Gets Born?” in which their first and foremost recommendation is:

Decisions about whether to have pre-birth testing, and what to do in light of the results, should be made by the parent(s) within the existing framework of the Code of Rights.

It’s just so sensible! Maybe not sensible enough for my own government (Australia) or the motherland (Great Britain), but sensible enough for the Kiwis (New Zealand) and Yankees (USA).

Also sensible is recommendation 8, which states:

The present distinction between using preimplantation genetic diagnosis to create embryos that are tissue-matched to sick siblings suffering from inherited conditions and using it to help siblings suffering non-inherited conditions should be removed. The only requirement should be that the sick sibling is suffering from a serious condition for which no other treatment is reasonably available.

Although I think that requirement is still too much, that is actually far more sensible than I’m used to hearing.

Finally, just because the public contributors weren’t enough like myself, we have recommendation 10, which reads:

The current provisions allowing the use of preimplantation genetic diagnosis (without the Ethics Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology’s oversight) for late-onset or low-penetrance conditions be retained.

As anyone who reads this blog often will know, I am in favour of the use of PGD for any condition, be it gender, intelligence or albinism (with the sole exception of a condition causing so much pain as to make life not worth living, in which such a choice would be cruel).

Despite this last failing, I find myself in the unusual position of actually envying New Zealand.


UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill withstands all challenges

Wednesday, 21 May, 2008

Good news from the motherland – the British House of Commons has rejected all amendments to the bill, including:

  • reducing the abortion limit to 22 (rejected 304-233) or 20 weeks (rejected 322-190) from the current 24 week limit
  • removing the permission to create human-animal hybrid embryos (rejected 336-176)
  • changing the language to affirm a child’s “need for a father” (rejected 292-217) or “need for a male role model” (rejected 290-222) instead of the current “need for supportive parenting”
  • prohibition on the creation of ‘saviour siblings’, which would be children selected as embryos for tissue that matches an existing child with a severe illness (rejected 342-163) or only for life-threatening illnesses (rejected 318-149)

So, no changes. The only change that was approved occurred a few months ago, when deafness was removed from the list of serious illnesses, which would have required parents to choose an embryo free of deafness (and some deaf parents didn’t like that).

So far, so good. Brilliant in fact. I would have liked to see those numbers a little less tight, and a little more in favour of science, but I guess an inch is as good as a mile when you win.

Now, all that remains is for the whole bill to be passed. And from the looks of it, it will be. Hurrah!


Steven Pinker says ‘dignity’ is a stupid concept!

Saturday, 10 May, 2008

The evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker has a wondrous piece in The New Republic titled “The Stupidity of Dignity“. I think this is a must read for anyone who is interested in bioethics. It’s right up there with Leon Kass and his ‘Wisdom of Repugnance’ (which was also published in The New Republic in 2001).

Here is an excerpt, although I could have chosen many more paragraphs to use because they are all good.

“The sickness in theocon bioethics goes beyond imposing a Catholic agenda on a secular democracy and using “dignity” to condemn anything that gives someone the creeps. Ever since the cloning of Dolly the sheep a decade ago, the panic sown by conservative bioethicists, amplified by a sensationalist press, has turned the public discussion of bioethics into a miasma of scientific illiteracy. Brave New World, a work of fiction, is treated as inerrant prophesy. Cloning is confused with resurrecting the dead or mass-producing babies. Longevity becomes “immortality,” improvement becomes “perfection,” the screening for disease genes becomes “designer babies” or even “reshaping the species.” The reality is that biomedical research is a Sisyphean struggle to eke small increments in health from a staggeringly complex, entropy-beset human body. It is not, and probably never will be, a runaway train.”

Read the full article here. Better yet, print it out and read it every night before bed.


What pro-lifers don’t realise about induced pluripotent stem cells

Sunday, 4 May, 2008

It is often claimed by the pro-lifer crowd that induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) are a great way to sidestep the nasty ethical issues of embryo-derived stem cells. Because, as you all surely are aware, an embryo is a unique human being. But clearly they either don’t understand the science behind iPSCs or don’t think about their pro-life arguments for the protection of the human embryo.

iPSCs are human life

It is often claimed that conception marks the beginning of a new life. But all human cells are alive, just as bacteria are alive. You can kill your own cells, such as killing brain cells by drinking alcohol. These are human cells, as they contain human DNA and would be classified as such. To be strictly true, life began four billion years ago, and hasn’t stopped since. Sperm are alive, and so are ova. There is a continuum of life stretching back to a single point for all creatures (just as all your siblings could be traced back to the zygotes that formed your mother and father, all creatures can be traced back to few cells billions of years ago)

Therefore, as induced pluripotent stem cells are created with the same DNA as would be found in living human skin cells, they are also human life – both human and life. Therefore, if we are supposed to be protecting human life, then we can’t use iPSCs.

iPSCs have a unique human genome

It is often claimed that because the embryo has cells which are distinct from the cells of the mother, they represent a new human being. But if a woman was to receive treatment with iPSCs, they would also be cells that are genetically distinct from the mother, and indeed anyone else on the planet. iPSCs are genetically engineered cells: genetically-modified into becoming pluripotent. A retrovirus is used to insert genes essential for pluripotency, and these can insert in random locations on the genome. Therefore, they contain a unique human genome that would not be found in any other organism. So, if cells with unique human genomes represent humans worthy of protection, then iPSCs are in the same category as embryos.

iPSCs are potentially human beings

I’ve often heard it argued that we should treat embryos as full persons because they have the potential to become full persons (or, because they have ‘inherent capacity’ to become persons). Even if we ignore the the most obvious failure of this argument (young children are potential adults, but it doesn’t follow that we should give them the right to vote. Adults are potential seniors, but they won’t get a senior’s discount. Seniors have the inherent capacity to be dead, but we should not treat them like they are corpses), and assume that something with potential to become a fully functional human being should be treated as such, we are still left with the inability to use iPSCs.

A zygote has the potential to become a human child, but is it not also true that sperm and ova have the potential to become a zygote? And, embryonic cells, and embryonic-like iPSCs, have the potential to form sperm and ova (even though nobody has done that yet). So it clearly follows that if potential is just as good as the real thing, then iPSCs are just as good as you and I. And because any (diploid) adult cell has the potential to become an iPSC, then all human cells are equal to human beings. Unless, of course, potentiality is irrelevant.

In addition, though slightly outside the scope of this blog entry, it may soon prove possible to created induced totipotent cells (iTCs)- that is, to insert genes that would turn a stem cell into a cell identical to a cell found in a zygote. An iTC would have the capacity not only to form sperm which could form a zygote which could form a full human being, but it would also already be a zygote: a clone of person who gave the cells from which the iTCs were derived. So, clearly conception cannot be a significant event, because it is possible to bypass it and end up with a person like you or I.


I don’t actually think iPSCs are worthy of protection. I do, however, think all of these pro-life arguments I’ve heard are useless, as I hope I’ve shown by the reductio ad absurdum above. I think that the right to life is only applicable to a lifeform that is ultimately valuable – that is, valuable to that lifeform itself. To quote British ethicist John Harris

I suggest there is only one thing wrong with dying and that is doing it when you don’t want to. (Harris J, 2003)

A necessary requirement for some organism to value its own life is self-awareness, which is a feature found only in a few brainy creatures (chimps, gorillas, elephants, dolphins etc), and only appears in humans at around 18 months of age. So I tend to agree with those people who say consciousness is a requirement for a right to life, although I would argue that technically it requires at a minimum only one characteristic of higher consciousness – the capacity for self-awareness.

This seems to me to help clear up a common argument put forth against the consciousness view – the protection of humans in subconscious states, such as sleep. Consider an analogous situation. The answer to the question “Does he speak English?” remains the same even though the boy/man may not be English at the time, or may not be speaking at all if he is asleep. If the answer is yes, then this person does have the ability to speak English but isn’t currently doing so. This is not relying on a potential ability to speak English – he is able to speak English. On the other hand, if he has never learned English, it could only be said that he has the potential to acquire the ability to speak English – he is not yet able to speak English, but potentially could be able in the future.

Likewise, you could ask ‘Does he value his life?’ and the answer should not change whether the person is asleep or not currently thinking about their death. On the other hand, an embryo or brain-dead person is not able to value their life, because they have lost that ability or not yet acquired it, but could potentially acquire(or re-acquire) that ability. Consciousness is a state of being, whereas to value oneself is an ability. This is why ultimate value is better than consciousness as an indicator of how much you should respect a person’s life – you can be said to a person even if you are not conscious and therefore not presently doing valuing your life, just as you can be said to be an ‘English-speaker’ even if you are not presently speaking English.

Anyway, the key point here is that iPSCs, and embryos, are not ultimately valuable – they do not yet have a capacity for valuing their own lives, and there is no way to assume they think such an unconscious state as valuable because they have as yet never been able to even have such a thought. And yes, I know that later in life when those cells have turned into you or I they will value their embryonic state in retrospect because it led to their existence, but such people would also value the state when they were comprised of an ovum and sperm, or when they were comprised of iPSCs that were stimulated into making that ovum and sperm – all necessary for their existence (you could even go back 4 billion years). But the important thing is that they have not as yet had the ability to make such value judgements, and as such do not need to be respected. After all, we don’t respect bacteria just because they have the potential to evolve into sentient beings that could, in billions of years, value their prior existence as bacteria.