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Posts Tagged ‘ethics’

True happiness and the real meaning of the moral life: see the post here at Jericho Tree by Sr Margaret Atkins.

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I heard Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna give a talk in London recently. It was part of a promotional event for the International Theological Institute, an English-speaking centre of theology in Austria. See their website here.

360px-Schoenborn-Altoetting1

He was speaking about the role of the Church in a Western culture that is increasingly secularised. He was somehow pessimistic and optimistic at the same time. I didn’t take detailed notes, so some of this might have my gloss on it.

The pessimism went like this, and he acknowledged that he was simply repeating themes elaborated by Pope-Emeritus Benedict over many years: There is no doubt that the cultural landscape in the West has become more secularised over the past fifty years or so. The Church seems to have less influence as a cultural and political force; and it has lost or is in the process of losing the big moral battles of the last two generations (abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, euthanasia, traditional marriage, etc).

On top of this, the Church itself has in many ways become more secularised. The ethos of many Christians (their attitudes and behaviour) is often not dissimilar from the ethos of the secular world around them. So the Church is both marginalised for being at odds with the culture, and ignored for having nothing significant to offer to the culture; it is both counter-cultural (in a way that is incomprehensible to most people), and yet too influenced by the culture to give a distinctive voice.

The optimism came as a result of the pessimism. Because the Church, in this analysis, has more or less failed in the mighty cultural struggles of the last fifty years, this failure gives it a new freedom to stop worrying about how influential it is on society and concentrate on just being itself and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. Instead of trying to win a political argument, and putting all its energy and anxiety into resisting political and cultural change, it can choose to witness to the truth of Christian values on their own terms.

It’s as if we have been gripping the wheel too tightly, judging our worth by the measure of how effective our campaigns have been in particular ethical issues, of how many people we have managed to convince to change their views. Perhaps this is all misguided. Perhaps we should concentrate on purifying ourselves, and the witness we are giving, and leave the results to God. If the Church becomes less concerned about convincing the secular world, and at the same time less worldly herself, she will actually have more to offer the world in an authentic way.

Cardinal Schönborn quoted St Bernadette of Lourdes, when she was interrogated by the clergy and police after her visions, and one of them said to her, ‘You are not convincing us’. And she replied, ‘My job is not to convince you, but just to tell you’. It’s like Peter and John speaking to the elders of Jerusalem in Acts 4: ‘Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard’.

I’m not 100% sure about all this! Yes, Christians need to have the confidence to witness to their faith, without over-worrying about how this witness is being received. Yes, the Church needs to be purified, converted, and each individual Christian needs to become less worldly and more focussed on Christ and his teaching. Yes, if we fail to convince or even challenge the culture, we shouldn’t give up. This is all true, and makes sense to Catholics who are confident in their faith, and have the support of a strong Christian community.

But there are other concerns too. When the Church loses its influence in society, this effects in a negative way especially the many ordinary Catholics whose faith is perhaps less strong, who don’t yet have the inner spiritual resources to self-identify as a confident and creative minority: those on the edges; the lapsed; those without the energy or time to engage in questions about Catholic identity. When the Church is no longer a strong cultural presence, and when Christian institutions are not nurturing the faith of ordinary people in quiet but significant ways, then the moral and spiritual lives of many people suffer.

And I’m also concerned about this apparent failure to engage constructively with the culture. If we do have something to say, shouldn’t it make sense to at least some people? And if it isn’t making sense, shouldn’t we find better ways of saying what needs saying? It’s about the continuing importance of dialogue and cultural engagement.

To be fair to Cardinal Schönborn, he was not suggesting that we should give up on dialogue and retreat into a self-justifying mode of ‘witness’. Quite the opposite. He explicitly said that the Church should step out more freely to engage with the world, with a new confidence. That was his point. If we worry less about results and influence, if we are less afraid of being a misunderstood minority, we can be more truly ourselves, more faithful to the gospel, more creative, more engaged, and more interesting to those who are genuinely searching for an alternative to the worldliness around then.

I agree. Catholics sometimes need to be counter-cultural, in a joyful and confident way; as long as we remember that we are part of the culture as well, and we need to use as effectively as possible all the opportunities that we have to influence that culture, opportunities that come to us precisely because we do still belong to it in so many ways. Let’s not use the category of ‘witness’ as an excuse to opt-out or as a defence if our appeal to reason seems incomprehensible. We need to continue in the struggle to make the Christian message comprehensible – which it is.

It was interesting that the very last comment from the floor was about the fall of communism. It wasn’t really a question, just a statement that we should really be more optimistic, because the greatest threat to faith in God and Christian freedom of the last century has actually been overcome: communism. We forget, said the member of the audience, what a terrifying foe this was in Europe and throughout the world, how much harm it did to the Church and to Christian culture, and how much worse things could have become. And yet it did not prevail, in part because of the struggles of Christian men and women.

Cardinal Schönborn agreed, and thanked this person for ending on a note of hope. As if to say: yes, let’s be a creative minority on the ‘outside’ of the secular culture, but let’s not give up on using the influence we still have through our historical Christian presence and trying to transform the culture from within. Which is exactly what Pope-Emeritus Benedict said in his speech at Westminster Hall.

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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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I had a vague idea of what/who a troll was on the internet, but Sam Leith gives some definitions:

Two pieces of wisdom today preoccupy me. One, whose originator is unknown, is: “Don’t feed the trolls.” The other—which I’ve heard plausibly attributed to the Guardian columnist Grace Dent—is: “Never read the bottom half of the internet.” The latter—a warning, essentially, against plunging into the foaming cauldron of madness in online comment threads—is a sort of preventative measure. If you don’t read the bottom half of the internet—the bit under the bridge—you stand that much less chance of finding yourself looking down on a hungry troll, with a billy-goat in your arms, and being overcome by temptation.

A troll, in internet terms, is someone who sails into a discussion just to mess things up. He is the poker of sticks into ants’ nests: the commenter who gatecrashes a rape survivor’s messageboard with a collection of Frankie Boyle jokes, or posts fake news stories about stock in forums for investors. The idea is not to contribute to the discussion, but to derail it. Online trolls thrive on rage, hurt and confusion. What they are after is a rise. Hence: don’t feed the trolls. It only encourages them.

Leith goes on to use trolling/trolliness as a key to interpreting contemporary culture.

You can see trolliness in the Twitter feeds of drunken students. But you can also see it in entertainment: the “new nastiness” in stand-up comedy – using offensive material to generate buzz – is troll-work. And you can see it in national newspapers… Provocation has always been a function of journalism, but it’s becoming an ever more central one.

There is a decipherable reason for this. Eyes on a page are eyes on a page. Retweets, whether in outrage or endorsement, are retweets. The currency of the internet is not agreement but attention. So trolling – whose only raison d’être is the gaining of attention – is a central dynamic of modern media. It could, arguably, be seen as the characteristic communicative gesture of the internet era. We live in the age of the troll.

But the currency of all entertainment and journalism has always been, to some extent, not agreement but attention. I don’t think there was some kind of pre-internet purity about ‘communicative gestures’ – editors have always wanted to sell papers; journalists have always wanted their stories to be popular. The only difference now is that Joe-punter can get his oar in to stir things up and grab everyone’s attention, whereas before if was just the professionals who had the tools and the power to enter the fray.

But maybe a fundamental difference between editors seeking attention and sales, and commentators trying to provoke a deluge of re-tweets, is that the editors were at some level accountable. You can’t call a troll to account – they just slip off into cyberspace and create another login name, another avatar. Perhaps trolling has more in common with graffiti that anything else – be it the day-glo tags on the side of a train, or the scrawl on the toilet door. It’s there to be seen and to provoke you – and you’ll never know the face of the person who put it there.

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Are you, at least in relation to most of the human population, WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic)? Then it’s likely that culturally and politically you are a left-leaning liberal whose highest values are autonomy, self-realisation, social justice and fairness. And you are probably suspicious when people appeal to religion, human nature or the well-being of any non-inclusive group to justify their values and political agenda.

David Goodhart reviews The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt.

Haidt is a liberal who wants his political tribe to understand humans better. His main insight is simple but powerful: liberals understand only two main moral dimensions, whereas conservatives understand all five. (Over the course of the book he decides to add a sixth, liberty/oppression, but for simplicity’s sake I am sticking to his original five.)

Liberals care about harm and suffering (appealing to our capacities for sympathy and nurturing) and fairness and injustice. All human cultures care about these two things but they also care about three other things: loyalty to the in-group, authority and the sacred.

As Haidt puts it: “It’s as though conservatives can hear five octaves of music, but liberals respond to just two, within which they have become particularly discerning.” This does not mean that liberals are necessarily wrong but it does mean that they have more trouble understanding conservatives than vice versa.

The sacred is especially difficult for liberals to understand. This isn’t necessarily about religion but about the idea that humans have a nobler, more spiritual side and that life has a higher purpose than pleasure or profit. If your only moral concepts are suffering and injustice then it is hard to understand reservations about everything from swearing in public to gay marriage—after all, who is harmed?

Haidt and his colleagues have not just plucked these moral senses from the air. He explains the evolutionary roots of the different senses from a close reading of the literature but has also then tested them in internet surveys and face to face interviews in many different places around the world.

Morality “binds and blinds,” which is why it has made it possible for human beings, alone in the animal kingdom, to produce large co-operative groups, tribes and nations beyond the glue of kinship. Haidt’s central metaphor is that we are 90 per cent chimp and 10 per cent bee—we are driven by the “selfish gene” but, under special circumstances, we also have the ability to become like cells in a larger body, or like bees in a hive, working for the good of the group. These experiences are often among the most cherished of our lives.

One of my most politically liberal friends read this book and declared his world view to be transformed. Not that he was no longer a liberal but now “he couldn’t be so rude about the other side, because I understand where they’re coming from.” This will be music to Haidt’s ears as the book was written partly as an antidote to the more polarised American politics of the past 20 years, marked by the arrival of Bill Clinton and the liberal baby boomers onto the political stage.

The American culture wars began earlier, back in the 1960s, with young liberals angry at the suffering in Vietnam and the injustice still experienced by African-Americans. But when some of them adopted a style that was anti-American, anti-authority and anti-puritanical, conservatives saw their most sacred values desecrated and they counter-attacked.

Some conflicts are unavoidable and Haidt is not suggesting that liberals should stop being liberal—rather, that they will be more successful if instead of telling conservatives that their moral intuitions are wrong, they seek to shift them in a liberal direction by accommodating, as far as possible, their anxieties.

I’m not sure about this. It suggests that those on the right – politically and culturally – have a bigger, better, clearer and richer view of the complexity of human life and motivation, and that those with a liberal mentality focus on too narrow a range of social values. But if a more naturally conservative thinker fails, say, to be troubled by income disparity or the possession of first-strike nuclear weapons, doesn’t this reveal a moral blind-spot or a failure to recognise certain fundamental social values? Or at least, wouldn’t someone on the left think that?

It also suggests that those on the left are less likely to be religious – and we disproved this in a recent post.

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Quite by chance I got chatting to someone who works in a business that deals with stem cells. As soon as he said this I got nervous, thinking the conversation was going to go in an ethically difficult direction. But it turns out that his line is umbilical cords and not embryos.

 

It was a fascinating conversation. The idea is very simple. The stem cells from the umbilical cord have the potential to be used in all sorts of therapies, and they match the child and not the mother. His company collects the cord at birth and stores it, for a fee – so that it can be used to harvest stem cells if they are needed for the child at any time in the future.

What is so interesting, medically and philosophically, is that even though some therapies are already developed, the primary purpose of keeping these stem cells is for them to be used in therapies that are as yet undiscovered. So five, ten, fifteen years in the future the child may need them for a therapy that doesn’t yet exist.

Please don’t think I am promoting this company – this is a blog about ideas, and I have no idea what this or any other stem cell company is actually like. But if you are interested in seeing how one such company promotes itself, and how an ethical scientific idea can be translated into a practical proposition for parents, then take a look here at the Smart Cells website. This is their sales pitch:

Why store your child’s stem cells? The umbilical cord and umbilical cord blood are discarded as medical waste after the hospital draws samples for their testing…unless the mother chooses to bank the cord blood. In 1988 a stem cell transplant took place that received little attention, yet heralded the start of an exciting new era in medicine.

The transplant used stem cells found in the umbilical cord blood remaining in the placenta and umbilical cord after the birth of a baby. The patient was a little boy suffering from a serious blood disorder called Fanconi’s Anaemia, and the stem cells were taken from the cord blood of his new-born sister.

Your child’s stem cells have a one in four chance of matching a sibling. Using genetically related stem cells which are free from the disease being treated, often results in successful transplants with fewer complications.

The thought of your baby or any other member of your family becoming seriously ill is probably the last thing on your mind during your pregnancy. By storing your new-born baby’s umbilical cord stem cells, you can give your family a gift that can last a lifetime.

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I promise this will be my last Royal Wedding reflection. But here’s the question: Is it ethically acceptable to lipread when two people are having a private conversation? Of course lipreading, in itself, is not wrong – any more than reading a text or listening to someone’s voice. But for the Royal Wedding last weekend, every newspaper and TV station seemed to employ a professional lipreader to ‘listen in’ to the private conversations of the protagonists; but no-one seemed to question the ethics of this.

If someone has a private conversation, even in a public place, do they still have a right to privacy? What’s the difference between lipreading a private conversation and listening in on a phone call? Why, in other words, are we outraged when a national newspaper admits that it has been tapping the phones of famous people, but not when the world’s media decides to ‘listen in’ on these intimate private conversations?

Is it because they take place on the public stage, so the rules of privacy don’t apply? Is it because these people know about the possibility of being ‘heard’, so they are implicitly recognising that their actions are available for public consumption? Is it because the distinction between public and private does not exist anymore? Is it because ordinary life has become a Big Brother studio, and we all accept as part of the ‘social contract’ that every word we speak might be picked up by a hidden microphone?

Don’t worry – I’m not pretending to be outraged myself. I’m just curious about where the ethical line is: What’s public? What’s private? And why is it that we are quite happy for some private truths to be exposed to public scrutiny but not others?

Holly Watt reports on some of the great lines (and here I am, happy to repeat them…):

“You look beautiful,” he told Kate Middleton, as she walked towards him in her Alexander McQueen dress.

“Yes, it looks fantastic, it’s beautiful,” he added, according to Ruth Press, who has been deaf since birth and works as a forensic lipreader.

Prince William also cracked a joke to his father-in-law at the altar before the royal wedding ceremony, saying: “We’re supposed to have just a small family affair”.

The joke by William to Michael Middleton in Westminster Abbey was spotted by Tina Lannin, lipreader for O’Malley Communications.

She also spotted Prince Harry nervously comment ”Right, she is here now”, as Miss Middleton arrived at the abbey.

And Charlie Swinbourne writes about his experience as a lip-reader, and the fallibility of the process:

Reading lip patterns is vital in helping deaf people fill in the words they can’t hear. I’m partially deaf, and I’ve been lipreading ever since I learned to speak. As well as being a vital part of communication, it’s also fun. I’ve lipread couples bickering in restaurants, footballers telling referees exactly what they think of them, and on Friday, the royal wedding.

During a national event at which the protagonists were visible but crucially not audible, hundreds of deaf people, including my partner and I, added our translations to Twitter in real time. We soon found out that several deaf friends of ours had thought ahead and were actually getting paid for it; working for national news outlets, one working for a series of tabloids and another, for a 24-hour news channel and a magazine.

What was funny was just how often the translations differed from each other. For instance, did William tell Kate at the altar “You look – er, you are beautiful“, or did he say: “You look lovely?”Or, as we thought, did he say: “You look stunning, by the way. Very beautiful.” Then there was the Telegraph, which initially reported William as saying: “You look stunning babe!’

The differences in translation proved that lipreading, far from being some kind of super-power deaf people have (and a great gimmick in movies featuring deaf characters), depends heavily – it’s said 70%-90% – on guesswork. I recently visited a lipreading class to test out my skills, and found that even with a lifetime’s worth of experience, there were still words I struggled to make out.

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Forgive the crude title, but this is the question I was discussing with a group of healthcare professionals recently. The specific topic was ‘brain death’, which is a phrase so widely used today that it hardly ever gets questioned. If someone’s brain is ‘dead’ then surely the person is dead as well? If the human brain has ceased to function then surely the human being has ceased to be alive? Not necessarily.

Much of the controversy is about organ transplantation. If you are going to take someone’s heart and give it to another person, you have to be sure that they are dead before you remove the heart, otherwise the act of removing the heart will be the very cause of their death. At least, that’s what most ethicists would say. The surgeon wants to know that he or she is taking a heart from a corpse and not killing a person. For many years, it has been assumed that if someone is certified ‘brain dead’ then they are definitely dead, and the transplant can go ahead. But this is being questioned more and more.

E. Christian Brugger, Senior Fellow of Ethics at the Culture of Life Foundation, gives some background:

For purposes of organ removal, there are two commonly accepted sets of criteria for determining that death has occurred: the “cardio-respiratory” standard and the “neurological” standard (sometime referred to as the “whole brain death” criterion). The Uniform Determination of Death Act formulated in 1981 by the President’s Commission and widely adopted throughout the U.S. defines the first as the “irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions”, and the second as “the irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem.” Although each criterion focuses upon a limited set of critical functions, the state of death of the entire human organism is thought to be able to be inferred by focusing on any one of them.

In his 2000 address, John Paul II says that when “rigorously applied” the neurological criterion “does not seem to conflict with the essential elements of a sound anthropology.” He goes on to say “therefore a health-worker professionally responsible for ascertaining death can use these criteria [i.e., cardio-respiratory and neurological] in each individual case as the basis for arriving at that degree of assurance in ethical judgment which moral teaching describes as ‘moral certainty'” (No. 5).

In other words, the pope states that the neurological criterion seems to be a reliable basis for arriving at moral certitude that a person has died, which is required before harvesting vital organs can be legitimate.

But new questions have come up in the last few years.

Research has emerged in the past decade, especially by D. Alan Shewmon, professor of pediatric neurology at UCLA Medical Center and Consultant for the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, challenging the reliability of the widely accepted neurological standard.

Recall the pope says that death consists in the “disintegration of that unity and integrated whole that is the personal self” (no. 4), and that we can identify biological signs that follow upon the disintegration. It seems to follow that an apparent absence of certain biological signs of somatic (bodily) disintegration can raise reasonable doubts as to whether death has occurred.

Shewmon’s research demonstrates conclusively that the bodies of some who are rightly diagnosed as suffering whole brain death express integrative bodily unity to a fairly high degree.

Brain dead bodies cannot breathe on their own since the involuntary breathing response is mediated by the brain stem, which has suffered complete destruction. So the bodies need to be sustained on a mechanical ventilator, which supports the body’s inspiration and expiration functions (breathing in and out). But with ventilator support, the bodies of brain dead patients have been shown to undergo respiration at the cellular level (involving the exchange of O2 and C02); assimilate nutrients (involving the coordinated activity of the digestive and circulatory systems); fight infection and foreign bodies (involving the coordinated interaction of the immune system, lymphatic system, bone marrow and microvasculature); maintain homeostasis (involving a countless number of chemicals, enzymes and macromolecules); eliminate, detoxify and recycle cell waste throughout the body; maintain body temperature; grow proportionately; heal wounds (i.e., the immunological defense of self against non-self); exhibit cardiovascular and hormonal stress responses to noxious stimuli such as incisions; gestate a fetus (including the gaining of weight, redistribution of blood flow favoring the uterus, and immunologic tolerance toward the fetus); and even undergo puberty.

The data is indisputable. Yet there is considerable disagreement on how to interpret the data with respect to the question of human death. Some scholars such as James M. DuBois, writing in the 2009 “Catholic Health Care Ethics” manual published by the National Catholic Bioethics Center, refer to this long list of functions of brain dead bodies as “residual biological activities” no more expressive of life than the twitching of a lizard’s amputated tail. Others, including scientists and several philosophers and theologians who, with me, accept magisterial teaching, are less comfortable setting them aside as possible signs of true somatic integration.

Although Shewmon’s evidence certainly does not establish that brain dead bodies are the bodies of living (albeit highly disabled) persons, in my judgment, and in that of other competent scholars and scientists, it raises a reasonable doubt that excludes “moral certitude” that ventilator-sustained brain dead bodies are corpses.

It’s not an argument to say that a brain dead person is necessarily still alive – it simply suggests that there are serious doubts and questions about the meaning of brain death. And as long as such questions remain, we shouldn’t pretend that we have absolute confidence that a brain dead person is definitely dead. And if that’s the case, then there are implications for how we continue to care for such persons, and whether or not we transplant their organs.

If you want to follow this up, see this article on the Signs of Life conference on brain death in 2009; Pope Benedict’s 2008 address to a conference about organ transplantation; a Linacre Centre paper that touches on brain death, and another about the definition of death; and the NHS page about brain death, which includes the following uncritical remarks:

Brain death occurs when a person in an intensive care unit no longer has any activity in their brain stem, even though a ventilator is keeping their heart beating and oxygen circulating through their blood.

Once a brain stem death has occurred, the person is confirmed dead.

Unfortunately, there is no chance of a person recovering once their brain stem has died. This is because all of the core functions of the body have stopped working and can never be restarted. Although a ventilator can keep the heart beating, the person is effectively dead.

If permission has been given, organs can be removed for transplant and ventilation is withdrawn. Once ventilation is withdrawn, the heart stops beating within a few minutes.

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If you are looking for online resources in bioethics, here are a couple of useful sites (following on from my recent post about the distortion of language in bioethical reporting).

Dolly the Cloned Sheep

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has a bioethics page with links to various articles and downloadable pamphlets. The topics include: stem cell research, cloning, genetic enhancement, IVF, eugenics, human dignity, reproductive technology, etc.

The Anscombe Bioethics Centre is the main Christian bioethics institute in Britain. The resources are here (articles, publications, newsletters, etc); and there is a big list of articles and links here at their old Linacre Centre site (I’m not sure if all these articles have been moved over yet).

I also happened to come across this very informative blog last week called Mary Meets Dolly, “A Catholic’s Guide to Genetics, Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology”. The author, Rebecca Taylor, has her own page of links (I can’t recommend them all as I haven’t looked at them all yet…). And this is from her ‘About’ page:

My name is Rebecca Taylor.  I am a clinical laboratory specialist in molecular biology, and more importantly, a practicing Catholic. I have been writing and speaking about Catholicism and biotechnology for five years. I have been interviewed on EWTN radio on topics from stem cell research and cloning to voting pro-life.

All of this began several years ago when I was discussing stem cells and cloning with an older gentleman at a family party.  He was very knowledgeable about biotechnology, but was surprised about many little-known and quite misleading facts.  He asked where I had gathered those facts, and I told him I was reading every pertinent scientific reference I could get my hands on. He looked me in the eye and said, “Young lady, it is not good enough to read, you must do something!”  I found out later he was a former U.S. congressman from California.

Indeed, I began to notice a general lack of understanding about contemporary issues in genetics, genetic engineering, and reproductive technology, issues that have shaped, and will continue to shape, the future of humanity, for good or ill.  I work with professionals whose business is medical genetics, and even they are confused about the pragmatics, not to mention the ethics, surrounding cloning, stem cells, and recent advances in genetic engineering.  If professionals could be confused, I feared that the average Catholic would feel lost amidst the scientific jargon and, unfortunately, the hype.

I decided to start marymeetsdolly.com to try and provide Catholics with solid, pertinent resources and clear, plain commentary so they could be more conversant with the issues proffered by the newest of the “brave new world” movements.

With this website, I hope to take what I have learned (through months of studying the technologies and ethical stances involved) and explain the advances and the issues in terms the person-on-the-street can understand.  With the help of my father, a theologian, I hope to juxtapose and illuminate today’s genetic research and engineering with the Church’s teachings on the sanctity of human life.

At this site, Catholics can find information to better understand stem cell research, therapeutic and reproductive cloning, genetic testing, and much more.  The Topics section has articles covering various technologies; what is moral, what is immoral.  It also has articles on pertinent topics by other authors.  The Books section has a reading list for those who want to do their own research.  The Links page has a list of websites through which one can keep up to date in this rapidly changing field.  The Glossary page lists important terms and their definitions.  The Church Teaching page has official Catholic Church teaching on reproductive issues and the sanctity of human life.  The Blog has my daily thoughts on new developments and a chance for you to respond.  And my favorite, the Quotes section, has all the verbal gems I have found that say it all.  

On the question of language, see her post about whether our understanding of when human life begins is a matter of belief or of knowledge.

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An article about bioethics in the Times gives a frightening example of the way language can be distorted to misrepresent the truth and skew an ethical argument (last Friday, 11 March, page 3). It makes you wonder whether it’s just lazy journalism, or whether the Times has some particular interest in slanting the ethical debate in these areas.

 

Painting by David S. Goodsell - mitochondria at top right

The article is about a new ‘therapy’ designed to cure mitochondrial failure, which can cause fatal conditions that affect about 100 children in Britain each year. These are the facts, reported in a ‘How it works’ box at the side, and sifted from the body of the article: two embryos are created, both from the father’s sperm, but one from the mother’s egg, and one from a donor’s egg. Two pronuclei are taken from the ‘mother/father’ embryo, which is then discarded. These are then placed in the ‘donor/father’ embryo (from which the pronuclei have been removed), which has healthy mitochondria. This newly ‘created’ embryo is implanted in the mother’s womb and allowed to gestate.

So let’s be clear: an embryo is harvested (I can’t find a better work) of its pronuclei, then discarded, and another embryo is given new pronuclei and allowed to grow. It’s embryos we are talking about. Leave aside for the moment what you think about the personhood of embryos, or their dignity or worth, or whether they have a soul, etc. The scientific point that no biologist would deny is that an embryo is a human life in its very earliest states; a new creature, at the beginning of its life, biologically/genetically distinct from the life of its parents.

Mark Henderson, Science Editor in the Times, does explain all this. But he peppers the article with ambiguous phrases about what is actually happening. First, in the main article, he writes that ‘the treatment involves merging DNA from two fertilised eggs, one from the mother, the other from a donor’ [my italics here and below]. This is strictly true, but it’s a strange way of referring to embryos. It would be much more natural to talk about two embryos rather than two fertilised eggs, and the suspicion is that this is a way of drawing attention away from the reality that embryos are being harvested and discarded.

Second, in a Commentary box also written by Henderson, he writes, ‘The notion of creating a baby with a small genetic contribution from a third parent is bound to strike some people as controversial’. This is a misleading. The mitochondrial DNA in the new embryo will have been indirectly inherited from the donor – in this limited sense the donor makes a ‘contribution’; but it is actually taken from the embryo that has been created from the donor’s egg and father’s sperm. The ‘small genetic contribution’ is not taken from a third parent (which sounds like a benign piece of information), it is taken from a newly created human embryo.

Notice how Henderson is comfortable calling the finally created healthy embryo a ‘baby’, but never refers to the discarded embryo that has had its two nuclei removed as a baby.

Henderson goes on to say in his Commentary that the new procedure adds a fresh dimension to issues of surrogacy and egg donation ‘because a third person will also contribute a small amount of DNA to the baby’. I presume he is trying to say that the third person contributing the DNA is the donor. Once again, it’s true that the mitochondrial DNA is indirectly inherited from the donor, but the ‘contribution’ is made directly by the embryo not the donor.

Then, in the caption underneath the photograph of a baby’s foot held in an adult’s hand, we read that ‘The technique replaces faulty mitochondria from the mother with a healthy form from a second egg‘. This is completely untrue. The healthy mitochondria do not come from an egg, they come from a newly created embryo, which has its pronuclei replaced with the pronuclei from another embryo.

The ‘How it works’ box is both honest and dishonest at the same time: the text says ‘These [pronuclei] are injected into a healthy embryo‘; yet the caption right beside it, under the illustration, says ‘Egg with healthy mitochondria‘. Perhaps Henderson was not responsible for these captions and boxes.

You may think I’m being obsessive about language. It just frightens me how language can be manipulated in a reputable newspaper to distort the truth and mask both the scientific and ethical reality of one of the most serious issues facing our culture. It makes you wonder whether the Times is seeking to promote a controversial scientific procedure rather than just report it and let the facts speak for themselves.

Here is the full Commentary [subscription required]:

The notion of creating a baby with a small genetic contribution from a third parent is bound to strike some people as controversial.

Yet Professor Turnbull’s team, which has developed the new IVF technique, is driven by the noblest of ethical motives: the desire to help families affected by a devastating burden of disease.

If the procedure is approved by Andrew Lansley, it stands to help women like Sharon Bernardi, from Sunderland, who has seen six children die in infancy because they inherited mitochondrial disorder.

When Professor Turnbull published promising results a year ago, she posed for photographs with her son Edward, then 20, who had a mitochondrial condition called Leigh’s disease.

Mr Bernardi died last week. As scientists began to consider whether the therapy should be used on patients, his death serves to illustrate the terrible impact these disorders can have — and the need for prevention.

When weighing the advice they will give to Mr Lansley, the expert panel he has convened will consider the safety and effectiveness of Professor Turnbull’s procedure.

They will want to see evidence that human embryos created this way appear to be normal, as well as the results of animal studies.

The medical benefits will need to outweigh the risks that are always involved when techniques like this move from laboratory and animal experiments into human reproduction. There are also ethical issues to be considered.

The principle that more than two parents can contribute biologically to the birth of a child is already recognised in Britain, as egg donation and surrogacy are legal. The new procedure adds a fresh dimension, however, because a third person will also contribute a small amount of DNA to the baby.

Embryo-rights groups will oppose the technique, because it involves merging two embryos, one of which is destroyed. It will also concern some people who object to manipulating DNA in irreversible ways, even if there is a medical benefit, or who feel it is wrong to subject a potential child to a procedure to which it cannot consent.

Mr Lansley could approve the work himself, but given its controversial nature he is more likely to give MPs a free vote. This would provide the first test of this Parliament’s attitude towards bio-ethics. David Cameron, whose disabled son Ivan died in 2009, is understood to be privately supportive.

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I was teaching philosophical ethics yesterday and came across these quotations I’d saved up about the possibility of human freedom.

Isaiah Berlin

The first, from Thomas Nagel, simply describes what a hard-core version of determinism looks like:

Some people have thought that it is never possible for us to do anything different from what we actually do, in the absolute sense. They acknowledge that what we do depends on our choices, decisions, and wants, and that we make different choices in different circumstances: we’re not like the earth rotating on its axis with monotonous regularity. But the claim is that, in each case, the circumstances that exist before we act determine our actions and make them inevitable. The sum total of a person’s experiences, desires and knowledge, his or her hereditary constitution, the social circumstances and the nature of the choice facing them, together with other factors that we may not know about, all combine to make a particular acting in the circumstances inevitable. This view is called determinism… [quoted in Alban McCoy, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Christian Ethics, 34-35]

The second quotation, from Isaiah Berlin, is about how freedom is in fact a presupposition of ordinary personal and social life, whether we like to admit it philosophically or not:

The whole of our common morality, in which we speak of obligation and duty, right and wrong, moral praise and blame – the way in which people are praised or condemned, rewarded or punished, for behaving in a way in which they were not forced to behave, when they could have behaved otherwise – this network of beliefs and practices, on which all current morality seems to me to depend, presupposes the notion of responsibility, and responsibility entails the ability to choose between black and white, right and wrong, pleasure and duty; as well as, in a wider sense, between forms of life, forms of government, and the whole constellations of moral values in terms of which most people, however much they may or may not be aware of it, do in fact live. [Liberty, 324]

If you want to follow all this up, you can read Alban McCoy’s very helpful chapter about determinism here on Google Books.

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It’s obvious that the language we use affects the force of our arguments. And there are many examples of how an uncomfortable truth can be disguised by changing the language used to describe it.

There is a beautiful and unsettling example of this in one of the Times leaders this morning. The topic is the decision to award the Nobel Prize for Medicine to Professor Robert Edwards for his pioneering work in IVF. (The photo is of Alfred Nobel not Edwards!)

Professor Edwards’s work has its critics. The Roman Catholic Church opposes some IVF, on the ground that it can involve the destruction of embryos. And it is beyond argument that this is what happens: fertility clinics generally fertilise many eggs, and often implant two, to maximise the chance that one will survive. The remaining tiny embryos are then frozen or discarded.

But there is nothing anti-life in IVF: the embryos are created to produce babies and allow the chance of parenthood to couples who want a child of their own. Nature itself creates and fertilises many more eggs than become babies.

The embryonic cell can also be taken apart, at an early stage, to yield stem cells. Research using stem cells offers the promise of finding a cure for debilitating conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.

Do you notice how the language of ’embryo’ in the first and second paragraphs is changed, without any fuss, to ’embryonic cell’ in the third paragraph? As if the leader writers are happy to talk about embryos being ‘frozen and discarded’, but uncomfortable with the idea that ‘the embryo can also be taken apart, at an early stage, to yield stem cells’. So the sentence that would have seemed most natural is changed to ‘the embryonic cell can be taken apart…’

I don’t know if this is the art of persuasion, or a subconscious unease with the moral position being taken and the starkness of the language required to describe it (‘taking apart embryos’). Either way, it shows how important it is to monitor the language being used to make ethical arguments, and to question why someone chooses to adapt their language in unexpected ways.

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On 18 April 2005 the then Cardinal Ratzinger preached to the cardinals who were assembled in Rome to elect the new Pope. He provoked a huge amount of discussion by saying that Western culture is creating ‘a dictatorship of relativism’.

Here is the homily in full; and here is the relevant paragraph:

Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine”, seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.

I was involved this week in a programme by Edward Stourton about the significance of this provocative term, and the place of religion more generally in contemporary culture and politics. The Analysis programme was broadcast on Radio 4 on Monday evening; you can listen to it hear on BBC iPlayer.

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