Saturday, April 25, 2009

Finally, Some Good Pro-Life News!

Unfortunately, most of the discussion I've offered here has to be categorized as negative responses to the way things are headed in our culture on the value of human life. Not so this week! This past Thursday, Japanese researchers announced that a "Study of IPS Cells Draws Nearer To Finding Cures."

What are IPS cells? IPS is an acronym for Induced Pluripotent Stem cells. The diagram above gives a visual summary of the process involved, but the exciting thing about this technology is that it seems to offer the creation of pluripotent cells without the destruction of human embryos!

If you need a reminder of the definition of pluripotent, I discussed it earlier (here), but the gist of it is this:
  • Totipotent are very early stem cells that are only available extremely early in the embryo's development (1-3 days) -- so early that they are the kind of cells that create complete human beings -- like twins. Though they have the ability to produce every kind of cell, these stem cells are nearly impossible to obtain or control.

  • Pluripotent stem cells are the cells of a blastocyst that develop at 5-14 days and are capable of producing more than 200 different kinds of different cell/tissue types. Because of this wide range of possibility, these are highly sought after but require embryo destruction to obtain. They are hard to control.

  • Multipotent stem cells have already differentiated into specific tissue types as fetal, cord blood, adult cells. Because they are already differentiaed they are easier to control and can be obtained without embryo destruction.
It is interesting to note that multipotent stem cells have produced the only successful therapies (more than 73 at last count) while embryo-destroying therapies, even as they have been promised as literal "cure-alls," have produced exactly ZERO successes.

But now comes IPS. They beauty of IPS is that it has promise for producing a wide array of cell-types without destroying an embryo. This process uses regular skin cells that are "induced" to produce pluripotent stem cells!

The promise of this research is great news for those of us who would love to have success at treating a wide variety of disease while also honoring the moral imperative to not destroy some living persons in order to help others.

Let's hope the news we've heard so far turns out to be as good, and promising, as it sounds.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Final Word

Though there are many more issues to consider, and much more in-depth material with which to do so, I have tried to offer a broad overview of the pro-life position as I understand it. If you want more information or food for thought, please see my list of resources (here), or Scott Klusendorf's recent suggestions (here) at the Life Training Institute blogsite.

My point has not been to repeat empty slogans like the one you've seen a thousand times on signs like this one. My point is to show that signs like these do not contain empty slogans. My point is simply to make those who do not necessarily share my worldview see where I am coming from -- that the actual pro-life position is not just emotionally based, and need not even be Biblically based (though it is intrinsically consistent with what the Bible says). It is a common sense view of the value of human life from beginning to end. When I began this, I also hoped to challenge those who already claim to agree with the pro-life position to consider why they do. Too many of us can say that we are pro-life but not why we are. That's not good enough anymore, and here's why ...

We live in a culture that has this kind of thing going on:
"In the Miami area, a woman named Sycloria Williams went to get an abortion. She was 23 weeks pregnant, and she paid $1,200. As she sat in the chair, waiting for her abortion, an accident happened: She gave birth to a girl. The doctor had not yet arrived. And here we quote the Associated Press:
What Williams and the [Florida] Health Department say happened next has shocked people on both sides of the abortion debate: One of the clinic's owners, who has no medical license, cut the infant's umbilical cord. Williams says the woman placed the baby in a plastic biohazard bag and threw it out. Police recovered the decomposing remains in a cardboard box a week later after getting anonymous tips." (National Review, 3/9/09, p. 12)
For a similar, more graphically shocking video of a similar incident, buy the DVD, 22 Weeks. I won't belabor it here, but Charles Colson's commentary on this video is shocking enough in itself. I can't imagine how the movie would affect someone who saw it -- talk about "opening up the casket" -- this movie shows the stark brutality of a woman's abortion at 22 weeks (and is also available in a less graphic form).

We live in a culture where one of the most powerful politicians on earth, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, can, without any sense of shame, offer the following as an explanation for why America needed more "family planning" funds in congress's recently passed stimulus package:
Well, family-planning services reduce cost. They reduce cost. The states are in terrible fiscal budget crises now an part of what we do for children's health, education, and some of those elements are to help the states meet their financial needs. One of those -- one of the initiatives you mentioned, the contraception, will reduce costs to the states and to the federal government. (National Review, 2/23/09, p. 8)
You have to realize that, to politicians like Pelosi, "family planning" entails using every means to reduce the number of children that are born -- from contraception to infanticide. To Pelosi, children have only instrumental value and as such they amount to a fiscal drag on the economy. In Pelosi's world, the existence of fewer kids is better for us all.

I disagree. I believe that killing a fetus -- or an embryo -- for any reason, is no different, and requires no more explanation, than removing a bothersome cyst from your elbow ... IF ... that fetus or embryo is not a living human person. But if it is, there is no defense adequate to justify it. And if you're not sure what it is, you err on the side of protecting the preciousness of that life.

We live in a culture that, as William Luse put it in the March 2005 issue of Touchstone, "If you don't know what it is, you can kill it. We pretend not to see what is before our eyes. We live in an age when the denial of the obvious has become a virtue."

For all these reasons, we owe it to our Creator to: educate ourselves on the issues; be able to articulate and defend them; and take a stand against the cheapening of human life. This does not mean that we can participate in the cheapening of human life by violent or harmful action toward those with whom we disagree. But it does mean that we should, by any non-violent means necessary, defend life.

Recently I heard that the attempt by our president to force even those in the medical profession who have conscientious objections to the taking of innocent human life, will be forced to do participate in it or risk losing their jobs. In response, the Catholic church has said that it will either:
  1. Openly defy the decree or ...
  2. Close every Catholic hospital in the U.S. (this apparently amounts to more than a third of all hospitals in this country)
This is exactly the kind of stand we need to take! Kudos to the Catholics -- may we all muster the same kind of courage in our own little spheres of influence -- and may we all be prepared to stand strong for life.

The character of our culture and our country depend on it.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Not Dead Yet

Another issue that directly impacts the end-of-life discussion is one that has been brought to the forefront by both the advancement of medical technology and a pragmatic approach to the value and "dignity" of human life -- organ donation.

Both Anita Kuhn (Touchstone, October 2008, p. 46) and (Salvo, Spring 2009, p. 33) provide similar, complementary reflections on this topic and the moral questions that it brings to bear on the value of human life.

If you are anything like me, you may have considered it an altruistic act to check the little box on your driver's license form that designated you as an "organ donor." It could well be -- but you need to understand a few things before you do so ... like what being an organ donor entails. The catch is that dead organs are useless for transplantation. The few minutes that you wait to determine that someone (or you) is indisputably dead may be hugely meaningful in defining the difference between waiting on a person's death -- and killing him.

Here's what I mean.

Traditionally, organ donation has assumed that the donor in question be dead. Now, this may seem like an obvious prerequisite to you as a potential donor but it is not so clear-cut to the physician who is looking to harvest an organ. The key word here is "dead." What does it mean to be dead?

It used to be that the criteria for determining death, cold, blue and stiff, was pretty simple. But, as medical technology advanced to the point that organ donation became more viable, transplant medicine demanded that vital organs not be degraded beyond a useful state -- a state that "cold, blue and stiff" often violates. So, in 1968, a Harvard committee proposed a more updated definition of death based on the brain dead criteria that has become a part of the national lexicon.

Though we may cavalierly refer to those who annoy us as having already met this criterion while still seeming to be completely alive, the humor in that comparison vanishes when the actual definition of a patient with "devastating neurological injury" comes into play. The reason being that those who meet the brain dead criteria with entirely ...
intracranial [injuries may] look very much alive: they are warm and pink; they digest and metabolize food, excrete waste, undergo sexual maturation, and can even reproduce ... the arguments about why these patients should be considered dead have never been fully convincing.

So, more recently, yet another definition of death has been put forward for organ donor candidates -- the notion of cardiac death that is defined as an "irreversible cessation of cardiac function." But, once again, what does that mean? Is a patient whose heart has stopped really in an irreversible state if that same heart can be transplanted into another person who goes on to live with it beating in his/her chest? As Kuhn points out, "the word 'irreversible' has [come] to be interpreted to mean 'we won't try' to resuscitate rather than 'we can't.'"

Consider this:
In March, 2008, 21-year-old factory worker Zach Dunlap of Frederick, Oklahoma, was declared dead after horrific head injuries following an ATV accident. Doctors had confirmed there was no blood flow to his brain, but just before they connected the life support to begin the [organ] retrieval process, his cousin, a nurse, got a reflex response when he scraped a knife across Zach’s foot. Dunlap later told the Toronto Star that he heard the doctors declare him dead! It was obviously a simple misdiagnosis -- but how often does that happen? Of course, if the patient has vital organs cut out of him first, who would know?

The upshot of this discussion is that you must understand what organ donation entails before you or someone you love makes the decision to be an organ donor. You must understand what criteria the attending physician is applying to your case before they decide whether or not the donor is "dead enough" for their taste. Remember, the removal of vital organs kills the patient and doctors today are doing just that simply because they have the patient's permission. Those of us who value human life from beginning to end must be very careful before we grant anyone that permission. In today's world, if a doctor is taking one patient's organs to use on another patient, he/she is doing so precisely because the first patient is not really dead yet.

The ethical tradeoff is always given as a balance between saving one life and the higher moral objective of making multiple organs available to allow that many other lives can be saved. But the removal of vital organs is a completely different question than the more common debate about withdrawal of life support. The former is a "surgical invasion of the patient and a directly lethal action" while the latter involves only the "removal of something exterior to the patient."

Offering another the vital organs that may prolong their life is an admirable goal. But ending another valuable human life to do so must be done with full awareness of the issues in question.

Think before you check the box.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Live And Let Live

Though abortion and stem cell research monopolize a lot of the pro-life energy, the principles and moral questions they raise do not stop after the child is born. The same moral issues, and the same questions, come into play at the end of life also. What is a person? How and why do we value life? Will we protect the most vulnerable among us?

There are scientific questions about when life ends, philosophical questions about what constitutes personhood, and political questions about how our society chooses to codify where we will take a stand. We can't do much about Presidential political appointees, but when it comes to policies and voting on issues, we most certainly can -- and we must. Consider what happens when we don't ...
Imagine that you have lung cancer. It has been in remission, but tests show the cancer has returned and is likely to be terminal. Still, there is some hope. Chemotherapy could extend your life, if not save it. You ask to begin treatment. But you soon receive more devastating news. A letter from the government informs you that the cost of chemotherapy is deemed an unjustified expense for the limited extra time it would provide. However, the government is not without compassion. You are informed that whenever you are ready, it will gladly pay for your assisted suicide. Think that's an alarmist scenario to scare you away from supporting "death with dignity"? Wrong. That is exactly what happened last year to two cancer patients in Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal.
This is the kind of scenario we end up with when we let the emotion of the "death with dignity" argument overwhelm the intellectual arguments for life and humanity and personhood. Combine that with the push for a government run health care system that needs to be "cost efficient" and you have a moral recipe for disaster.

Charles Colson reports that legalizing so-called "assisted suicide" has led to instances like the "... man who had to wake his father, who was groggy from pain pills given to him by a hospice worker, in order to take the extra pills that would kill him. [The man] admitted that his father might not have finished taking the pills had he, the son, not fed them to him." That man, author John West, also wants to "assist" his mother in the same way, and is busy lobbying in California to legalize the same for everyone else. The fact that his actions are not legal in California (where he did it) does not dissuade him in the least because, as he puts it, "everyone in the medical world knows that it happens all the time."

I certainly happens in Oregon, where "assisted suicide" is legal. Wesley Smith, writing about how "The Right To Die Can Become The Duty To Die," notes that ...
A study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine last year, for example, found that doctors in Oregon write lethal prescriptions for patients who are not experiencing significant symptoms and that assisted suicide practice has had little do with any inability to alleviate pain – the fear of which is a chief selling point for legalization.
Silence equals consent. But not always. In the Netherlands, where euthanasia was legalized years ago, studies show that nearly 20% of patients who die by this method are "assisted" without their knowledge.

Yes, politics matters. And the slippery slope that leads to these kinds of outcomes only gets more slippery when the politicians who control them are pouring grease on top of the ice.

We all need to pay more attention, think about what is really going on, and let our voices be heard.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Politics of Life

Politics Matter

Our President is in the process of appointing nominees to fill the executive branch of our government. This is crucial to watch. The President may offer rhetorical flourishes about his policies but his appointees are the ones who work where the rubber meets the road. Our new President is arguably the most anti-life President in history, and a look at a couple of his nominees is a good indicator of how his views will translate into policy.

For instance, his Justice Department nominees include Thomas Perrelli who, before becoming the President’s nominee for Assistant Attorney General, served on Michael Schiavo’s legal team in the Terri Schiavo case. He helped fight the successful battle to allow Michael to have Terri starved to death, even though she was not suffering from any terminal illness and even though her parents offered to assume the entire burden of her care (Source: Charles Colson). Though the President voted to disallow the starvation of Terri Schiavo, the vote seems to have been for politically expedient purposes. Now he is nominating a lawyer who fought for the opposite cause to a position of immense power that will potentially have far more influence than any long-forgotten vote to the contrary -- not just for end of life issues, but for who-knows-what-else will come up on his watch.

A few offices down the hall at the Justice Department, President Obama has also nominated Indiana University Law professor Dawn Johnsen to head the department's Office of Legal Counsel. Among her qualifications, Johnsen is a Yale educated, ACLU trained veteran of the Clinton administration (nothing surprising so far) who also happened to work as Legal Director of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL -- since been renamed NARAL Pro-Choice America). During her tenure there, Johnsen, argued before the Supreme Court of the United States in, Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, in a case that involved a Missouri law that restricted the use of state funds and resources for abortion (note: the law did not ban abortion).

In that case, Johnsen argued that any restriction that makes abortion less accessible is:
tantamount to "involuntary servitude" because it "requires a woman to provide continuous physical service to the fetus in order to further the state's asserted interest [in the life of the unborn] ... [a woman, therefore] is constantly aware for nine months that her body is not her own: the state has conscripted her body for its own ends ... such forced pregnancy" violates the Thirteenth Amendment. (Source: National Review, 3/9/09 p.17)
If you don't have your Constitution in front of you, you may have forgotten that the Thirteenth Amendment is the one that prohibits slavery.

But that's not all. Along with equating pregnancy with slavery, Ms. Johnsen opposes: 24-hour waiting periods, parental consent requirements for minors, and all laws against partial birth abortion. In fact, Johnsen believes that agreeing with her on these issues should be a litmus test for judicial nominees because "the notion that legal restrictions [are] some kind of 'reasonable compromise' -- perhaps to make abortion 'safe, legal, and rare,' prove nonsensical."

So no, I have no desire to get my apologetics all tangled up with my politics. But when it comes to moral issues, there are some things that we just cannot avoid. If these are the kind of political appointments we can expect out of Mr. Obama, we have no choice but to get involved.

Friday, April 3, 2009

How Bad Do We Want To Win?

:: Cross-posted at the LTI-Blog ::

Though I haven't posted here for quite some time, I enjoy observing the way the Scott, Serge, and Jay respond to the issues that they address both here and in the new LTI Podcast format. For anyone who pays attention, it soon becomes obvious that there are no better advocates for the pro-life position than these three. Maybe the reason I don't post here too often is because I'm afraid I'll make some dunderheaded comment that will in some way detract from their message. Or maybe it's just intimidation -- I know that whatever meager addition I hope to make to the conversation will be underwhelming in comparison to the nuanced thought they each offer every day. I am humbled that they even allow me the option to share their forum.

But sometimes, being a "regular" guy pays off. Sometimes it is beneficial to all the other "regular" folks out there to hear the message that gives them reason to think they can make a difference too. I think this past month solidified that notion for me. I just finished teaching a 5-week course at my local church titled, Defending Life. We covered abortion, stem cell research, death criteria, euthanasia and even talked about the Bodies Exhibit that recently passed through our city. It was an encouraging reminder to me about just how powerful the pro-life message is to those who have lived in blissful ignorance about what is going on in this world and about how we regular folks can prepare ourselves to engage it.

Don't get me wrong -- I didn't come up with a single original idea. I stole stuff from Frank Beckwith and Robert George right and left (always giving credit, of course). I taught them the S-L-E-D Test. I "trotted out the toddler." I analyzed the RH Reality Check video that Scott and Serge ripped in Podcast # 4. I replayed Scott's talk at Gordon College about his encounter with the lady at the swingset. I let them see Bill Clinton yammer on about the moral imperative that we only use "embryos that have not been fertilized" (huh?) when we do ESCR. I opened up the casket on abortion.

In short, I was not too proud or too shy to use anything I could get my hands on from the heavy-hitters ... and I was equally uninhibited about what subjects might be "off limits." The response was astounding.

There were people who admitted never knowing the distinctions between stem cell research and embryonic stem cell research. There were people who had never seen the clear evidence we find in embryology textbooks that life begins at conception; never seen the developmental stages of a human embryo; never heard the morally vacuous and arbitrary attempts to distinguish between human beings and human persons. There were people who left the room in tears. After five short hours, people were able to recognize and counter many of the common, but ludicrous, statements we hear from the abortion-choice crowd and their political apologists. It was one of the most rewarding classes I have ever taught.

Please hear me. The last thing I mean to do is toot my own horn. Far from it. I have no horn to toot (remember, I am admitting to open plagiarism here!). My only hope in daring to post here again is to remind every one of us of two vitally important things:
  1. There would be no hope of promoting the pro-life view without the clear, careful thinking of those who do the heavy intellectual work like what you find here at LTI.

  2. At its core, our message is simple and powerful because it is true -- but too many of our brothers and sisters are unaware of it and untrained to defend it.
On the last day of class, a gentleman stopped me and thanked me for tackling this subject. But along with his compliment came this: "I have never heard most of these arguments anywhere before. And I have never been in a church that would allow this kind of material to be taught." It is sad but true. And I am embarrassed to admit that this was the first time I have ever attempted to broach this subject. But it won't be the last.

Scott and Serge and Jay can't be in all of our little spheres of influence -- but their material can be -- and so can we.

How bad do we want to win this?