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I just received this information from Comment on Reproductive Ethics about the One of Us campaign, an online petition in defence of the human embryo.

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Here is the explanation – it seems well worth supporting.

1.  The campaign idea and name was developed by the Italian Pro-Life Movement under the leadership of MEP Carlo Casini, and specifically as fruit of his lifetime commitment to working towards full protection for the human embryo.

The ‘One of Us’ campaign underlines the moment of conception as the beginning of human life, and aims to prevent any funding of activities which result in the destruction of human embryos, particularly focusing on areas of research, development aid and public health.

The initiative follows a recent European Court of Justice judgment (Brustle vs. Greenpeace (Germany)), which upheld the special nature of the human embryo.

2.  The campaign will be taken forward using the vehicle of a European Citizens’ Initiative which is a newly established legal instrument which allows citizens across the EU to propose legislation if it falls within the scope of EU competency.

Such an initiative must have the support of at least 7 of the 27 member states and each individual state involved must collect a minimum number of signatures based on its overall population.

An overall number of at least one million European citizens must adhere to the proposal.

3.  54,000 signatures are required from the UK to fulfil our quota.

To take part in this campaign you must be resident in a EU State, be 18 or over and eligible to vote in the European Elections.

4.  How to sign on:

We are focusing exclusively on online collection and this can be done easily at: http://www.oneofus.eu

Just click on ‘SIGN’ at the top of the page and follow the instructions, including clicking on the ‘support’  button, and ‘United Kingdom’ of course when asked for your country identification.

It takes 2 minutes from start to finish to register a vote in support of the humanity of the human embryo.

5.  The petition deadline is November 2013 but we need to move very quickly to reach our quota.

See their website here. And especially the FAQs here.

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Remember all the fuss about embryonic stem cells? About how the only way to offer hope to millions of people suffering from a plethora of diseases and medical conditions was to harvest stem cells from embryonic human life? About how the destruction of the human embryo was a sad but necessary price to pay for the incalculable advances that could be achieved? Remember the accusations that were hurled against those who opposed this utilitarian reasoning on ethical grounds, and dared to suggest that there might be an alternative and ethically acceptable route to medical progress?

It has just been announced that Sir John Gurdon of Cambridge University shares this year’s Nobel prize for physiology or medicine with Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka. Why? Because they have been at the forefront of research proving that adult cells can be reprogrammed and grown into different bodily tissues.

Sir John Gurdon on the right

Ian Sample reports. This is the ethical perspective from the end of the article:

For Julian Savulescu, Uehiro professor of practical ethics at Oxford University, the researchers’ work deserved particular praise because reprogrammed cells overcome the moral concerns that surrounded research on embryonic stem cells.

“This is not only a giant leap for science, it is a giant leap for mankind. Yamanaka and Gurdon have shown how science can be done ethically. Yamanaka has taken people’s ethical concerns seriously about embryo research and modified the trajectory of research into a path that is acceptable for all. He deserves not only a Nobel prize for medicine, but a Nobel prize for ethics.”

And here is some of the scientific background:

The groundbreaking work has given scientists fresh insights into how cells and organisms develop, and may pave the way for radical advances in medicine that allow damaged or diseased tissues to be regenerated in the lab, or even inside patients’ bodies…

Prior to the duo’s research, many scientists believed adult cells were committed irreversibly to their specialist role, for example, as skin, brain or beating heart cells. Gurdon showed that essentially all cells contained the same genes, and so held all the information needed to make any tissue.

Building on Gurdon’s work, Yamanaka developed a chemical cocktail to reprogram adult cells into more youthful states, from which they could grow into many other tissue types.

In a statement, the Nobel Assembly at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute in Sweden, said the scientists had “revolutionised our understanding of how cells and organisms develop”…

Gurdon’s breakthrough came in 1962 at Oxford University, when he plucked the nucleus from an adult intestine cell and placed it in a frog’s egg that had had its own nucleus removed. The modified egg grew into a healthy tadpole, suggesting the mature cell had all the genetic information needed to make every cell in a frog. Previously, scientists had wondered whether different cells held different gene sets.

Yamanaka, who was born in the year of Gurdon’s discovery, reported in 2006 how mature cells from mice could be reprogrammed into immature stem cells, which can develop into many different types of cell in the body. The cells are known as iPS cells, or induced pluripotent stem cells

Some researchers in the field hope to turn patients’ skin cells into healthy replacement tissues for diseased or aged organs…

Interesting that one of the scientists who missed out this year was James Thompson. He was a pioneer in human embryonic stem cells, being the first to isolate them in the lab in 1998. And more recently, Thompson has shown that mature human body cells could be reprogrammed into stem cells.

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Is medicine only about healing and restoration? Or is it also about restructuring human nature so that it is capable of doing far more than it could left to itself?

This debate about the relationship between therapy and enhancement is going to become more and more important. “Transhumanism” is the label given to the work of clinicians and bioethicists who believe that science should be used to transform the human condition and not just to heal it. Remember Lee Majors and the Six Million Dollar Man?

The 2002 version of the Transhumanist Declaration states:

Humanity will be radically changed by technology in the future. We foresee the feasibility of redesigning the human condition, including such parameters as the inevitability of aging, limitations on human and artificial intellects, unchosen psychology, suffering, and our confinement to the planet earth.

This is from an article by E. Christian Brugger:

Transhumanism is really a set of ideas that has developed in response to the rapid advance of biotechnology in the past 20 years (that is, technology capable of and aimed at manipulating the physical, mental and emotional condition of human beings). Conventional medicine has traditionally aimed at overcoming disorders that afflict the human condition; it has prescribed leeching, cauterizing, amputating, medicating, operating and relocating to dryer climates, all in order to facilitate health and militate against disease and degeneration; in other words, the purpose has been to heal (i.e., has been broadly therapeutic).

Technology is now making possible interventions that in addition to a therapeutic aim are intended to augment healthy human capacities. There is a gradual but steady enlargement taking place in medical ideals from simply healing to healing and enhancement. We are all too familiar with “performance enhancing drugs” in professional sports. But biotechnology promises to make possible forms of enhancement that go far beyond muscle augmentation.

Germ-line gene therapy, for example, still in its infancy, aims to genetically modify human “germ cells” (i.e., sperm and eggs) in order to introduce desirable intellectual, physical and emotional characteristics and exclude undesirable ones. Since the modifications are made to cells in the “germ line,” the traits would be heritable and passed on to subsequent generations. Drugs to improve mental function such as Ritalin and Adderall are increasingly being used by the healthy in order to enhance cognitive abilities. One study has shown that close to 7% of students at U.S. universities have used prescription stimulants for enhancement purposes. That number appears only to be increasing.

Research is rapidly progressing on advanced technologies such as direct brain-computer interfacing (BCI), micromechanical implants, nanotechnologies, retinal, neuromuscular and cortical prostheses, and so-called “telepathy chips.” While it is true that each of these technologies may play a role in transforming the lives of disabled patients to enable them better to communicate, manipulate computers, see, walk, move their limbs and recover from degenerative diseases; transhumanism sees them as potential instruments for transforming human nature.

Their most radical proposal is to overcome death. Although the aim sounds fanciful, there are influential scientists and philosophers committed to it. The prominent transhumanist scientist and inventor, Dr. Ray Kurzweil, argues that for most of human history death was tolerated because there was nothing we could do about it. But a time is rapidly approaching where we will be able to isolate the genes and proteins that cause our cells to degenerate and reprogram them. The assumption of death’s inevitability is no longer credible and ought to be retired.

Brugger is uneasy about these developments:

I fear that the only thing presently preventing wide-scale affirmation of the transhumanist imperative is an emotional “yuck” factor, which we can be sure will gradually subside under the gentle and inexorable prodding of secular opinion. When it does, our rationality insulated by this extreme notion of autonomy will find itself helpless against the technological imperative which says: if we can design our perfect child, if we can be smarter, stronger, and more beautiful, if we can extend human life indefinitely, then we should do it. If embryos are sacrificed through the experimental process required to perfect this technology, or if inequalities are introduced to the advantage of some and disadvantage of others; these are the costs of progress!

I’m certainly against the exploitation of human embryos in any form, and the creation of designed children. But I’m not convinced that you can argue against transhumanism by referring to the inequalities it will create, as these already arise through ordinary medicine. Is it wrong to improve the physical and mental functioning of someone who already exists through medical interventions? In itself, I don’t think so. But there are deeper issues floating around, and I don’t think I’ve puzzled out what they are yet.

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I’ve been reading about the theme of solidarity in Pope Benedict’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate. It’s one of those ideas that is hard to disagree with: yes, we are all brothers and sisters who belong to one human family, etc. But he raises the uncomfortable question: who gets to belong?

Solidarity Mural by Atelier Teee.

Pope Benedict notes that a society can decide that a human life under certain circumstances is no longer worthy of respect. He’s writing about abortion, the eugenic selection of embryos, and euthanasia. But it’s important to see that he’s not just making a pro-life point. His argument is much bigger. It’s that as soon as you exclude a certain category of human beings from the class of those who are allowed to participate in human solidarity, then you undermine the foundations of all solidarity.

If you exclude the unborn, the terminally ill, or the disabled, you don’t just exclude the unborn, the terminally ill, or the disabled — you make all true human solidarity impossible, because what you have left is a form of belonging that is based upon power and exclusion. So even those who think they belong (the lucky ones who are still on the inside) — their belonging is no longer an opening out to others, releasing them from solitude and isolation, it is a closing in on themselves, a corruption.

This is how Pope Benedict puts it:

[In the pro-euthanasia mindset there is a] damaging assertion of control over life that under certain circumstances is deemed no longer worth living. Underlying these scenarios are cultural viewpoints that deny human dignity. These practices in turn foster a materialistic and mechanistic understanding of human life. Who could measure the negative effects of this kind of mentality for development? How can we be surprised by the indifference shown towards situations of human degradation, when such indifference extends even to our attitude towards what is and is not human? What is astonishing is the arbitrary and selective determination of what to put forward today as worthy of respect. Insignificant matters are considered shocking, yet unprecedented injustices seem to be widely tolerated. While the poor of the world continue knocking on the doors of the rich, the world of affluence runs the risk of no longer hearing those knocks, on account of a conscience that can no longer distinguish what is human. [#75]

There is a particular challenge for socially and politically engaged Catholics here: It’s not possible to separate pro-life issues from questions of social justice and development. They are both, at heart, the single issue of human solidarity. If you introduce an arbitrary definition of what allows you to be included in the category of ‘human being’, in effect you make it impossible for anyone to hold onto their inherent human dignity, because everyone is conscious or half conscious that they too may one day be excluded.

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