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March 30, 2007

Protect “The Dignified Cycle of Natural Life and Death”

L.A. Daily News columnist Bridget Johnson has written a splendid column pointing out some of the many flaws with legalizing assisted suicide. Here is a sampling:

Invariably, when society decides that some life is less valuable, less worth caring for, than other life, the results can be disastrous. Some “merciful” laws have descended into involuntary euthanasia as well, resting on the argument of keeping those humans around who would have an acceptable “quality of life.” After the Netherlands legalized euthanasia in 2000 for 12-year-olds and up, the Groningen Protocol was established to ensure doctors wouldn’t be prosecuted for killing infants they deemed not fit to live.

“My observations in the Netherlands persuade me that legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia are not the answer to the problems of the seriously or terminally ill,” wrote Dr. Herbert Hendin, executive director of the American Suicide Foundation, in Psychiatric Times.

“The Netherlands has moved from assisted suicide to euthanasia, from euthanasia for the terminally ill to euthanasia for the chronically ill, from euthanasia for physical illness to euthanasia for psychological distress and from voluntary euthanasia to involuntary euthanasia (called `termination of the patient without explicit request’).”

“Assisted suicide” is just semantics for a doctor prescribing the means to die versus the doctor administering the means to die. Regardless of the name, regardless of the method, the profession designated to care for the weakest crosses the line into doing harm.

As we remember friends who passed with grace, courage and unshakable dignity, let’s also remember this week to remind our legislators of their duty to protect the inherently dignified cycle of natural life and death

Johnson nails it: Being overdosed is so often called “death with dignity” by advocates and their media parrots, you would think that dying naturally is undignified. The only indignity is acting as if anyone has a life not worth living or protecting.

NYT: “Aged, Frail and Denied Care by Insurers”

This New York Times story about the poor treatment received by the elderly at the hands of long term health care insurers is important. From the story:

Tens of thousands of elderly Americans have received life-prolonging care as a result of their long-term-care policies. With more than eight million customers, such insurance is one of the many products that companies are pitching to older Americans reaching retirement.

Yet thousands of policyholders say they have received only excuses about why insurers will not pay. Interviews by The New York Times and confidential depositions indicate that some long-term-care insurers have developed procedures that make it difficult, if not impossible, for policyholders to get paid.

Such stories vividly demonstrates two things: First the context in which assisted suicide would be practiced is dysfunctional and would lead to people being pushed out of the lifeboat. Second, despite running many stories of this kind, the editorial writers of most mainstream newspapers ignore these very matters when they tout “choice” in support of assisted suicide.

This is what I call “euthanasia land.” Media will rail against HMOs and the number of uninsured. Then when the topic turns to assisted suicide, suddenly every doctor is Marcus Welby, MD (for the young among you or those from outside the country, Welby was a television doctor who never charged his patients and who made house calls during which he solved all of their medical problems). And every family is the Waltons (for the young and those from outside the country, the Waltons was an idealized family first made famous in a book and then in a television series. Everyone took care of and loved each other selflessly during the Depression.)

EU to register human embryonic stem cell lines

The European Commission agreed yesterday on funding for the creation of a European registry for human embryonic stem cell lines, said the commission. (

Medical Advances Highlight New Ethical Issues

Growing numbers of Muslims in the West are seeking guidance on ethical issues arising from advances in medical science and the demands by hospitals for advance information on treatment, organ donation and therapy in the case of incapacity, according to Islamic bioethics expert Professor Abdulaziz Sachedina. (AKI)

Wisconsin lawmakers aim to legalize euthanasia

State Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, and state Rep. Frank Boyle, D-Superior, want to give Wisconsin’s terminally ill patients the right to “die with dignity” in a proposed bill. The two legislators are circulating a bill that would allow a doctor to prescribe a dying patient life-ending medicines. (Daily Vidette)

Op-Ed: Choosing Babies

A growing number of genetic tests can be performed during in vitro fertilization, before pregnancy even begins. Is that a good thing? (Technology Review)

Op-Ed: Weighing nanotechnology’s risks

Imagine building materials that are as strong as steel at a fraction of the weight, and inexpensive solar cells that can be printed onto almost any surface. Or consider smart medical treatments that target cancerous tumors with minimal side effects, and you begin to scratch the surface of what a new technology – nanotechnology – can achieve. (International Herald Tribune)

Op-Ed: The Egg Trade — Making Sense of the Market for Human Oocytes

Anna Behrens is 24 years old. Tall and slim, she is working toward her Ph.D. in art history at an Ivy League school. During her undergraduate years, Anna accumulated $27,000 in credit-card debt. In the fall of 2005, frustrated by her economic straits, Anna answered an advertisement in her university’s magazine promising $25,000 to a “tall, athletic woman” willing to “give a gift of life and love.” (NEJM)

March 29, 2007

Ian Wilmut Predicts Ethical Stem Cells Achieved Before Cloning

Ian Wilmut, who supervised the team that cloned Dolly the sheep, is sad that human cloning hasn’t worked so far. But something else he said was unexpected and is interesting news: He believes that cell reprogramming–that is, reverting a cell from a differentiated state (e.g, blood, skin, bone, etc.) to an embryonic stem cell state will occur before it cloning can be accomplished in humans. Leaving aside for the moment whether embryonic stem cells actually offer the “best hope,” about which the jury is still out, if Wilmut is prophetic and a way is found to obtain pluripotent stem cells ethically and without treating human life like a crop–President Bush should receive the credit. His funding restrictions kept the moral value of nascent human life on the table. It caused scientists to search diligently for “alternative” methods,” such as reprogramming and ANT. Had Bush gone along with the tide, I believe the federal government would be funding SCNT cloning by now and the importance of nascent human life would have long been swept away.

Seeing Past The Odds To Medical Discoveries

University of Connecticut researcher Xiangzhong “Jerry” Yang has continued to enlist famous backers to join his proposed international stem cell consortium to clone a human embryo and study the mysteries of the embryonic stem cells they produce. (Hartford Courant)

Transplanting Organs From Animals To Humans: What Are The Barriers?

Given the huge shortage of donor organs, researchers have been trying to find ways to transplant animal organs across different species (known as “xenotransplantation”), with the eventual aim of transplanting animal organs into humans. The major stumbling block, says Dr Muhammad Mohiuddin (US National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute) in a paper in PLoS Medicine, is that the immune system in the animal receiving the organ tends to reject the transplant. (ScienceDaily)

Australia: New cloning laws ‘stem the brain drain’

Australia’s new therapeutic cloning laws will help stem the brain drain of top scientists heading overseas, one of the nation’s top legal ethicists says. (ninemsn)

For Athletes, the Next Fountain of Youth?

The latest curative leap to heal professional athletes and weekend warriors alike may sound like science fiction, but it could transform sports medicine. Some doctors and researchers say that in a few years the use of primitive stem cells from infants’ umbilical cord blood could grow new knee ligaments or elbow tendons creating a therapy that becomes the vanguard of sports injury repair. (New York Times)

Cloner Offers Sad Tale

A decade ago, Ian Wilmut and a team of researchers in Scotland stunned the world when they announced they had cloned “Dolly” from the udder of a 6-year-old sheep, proving it was possible to make even old cells young again. (Hartford Courant)

Op-Ed:Quality of Life: Who Should Decide for Disabled People?

The parents of a severely disabled 9-year-old girl subjected her to a series of nonessential surgeries. Though their decision was made out of love, this case raises too many troubling questions about medical ethics and public policy to withhold judgment. (AlterNet)

Op-Ed: UK: The body shops

Patients are crying out for vital organs that hospitals can’t deliver. Now the black market in body parts is booming – and pushing medical ethics to the limit. (TimesOnline)

March 28, 2007

On Risk

News of the new online risk-focused journal launched by Rice University’s NSF-funded Center on Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology and associated International Council on Nanotechnology (CBEN and ICON to their friends) is welcome, though I am puzzled why it should be called a “virtual journal.” Isn’t it an actual journal? We are so used to online publications that this seems curious; the kind of decision that must have been made by a committee, perhaps with an old-timer on board who believes real journals need paper and print . . . . Unless, of course, it will be published in Second Life.

The real significance of this news lies in the fact that it is news. The effort to play down the significance of risk – risk of all kinds – in the nanoworld has (with delightful irony; delightful, that is, to those of us who enjoy irony) added more to its risk than anything so far published. The failure of the various relevant U.S. federal government agencies to take serious responsibility for nano risk has left the foes of nano publicly angry but, at least in some cases, privately pleased – for this very reason. It has left the more naive friends of nano pleased too; who wants to have their boat rocked?

Those who would aspire to be non-naive nano friends remain perplexed, since they have a firmer grasp of the deep necessity of violent boat-rocking upstream in the development of the technology if it is going to be found both safe and socially credible. If this is really the ultimately transformative technology, as book after book from the NSF has been telling us with federal authority, one would have thought that a commensurate effort would be put out to ensure not simply that we know all there is to be known about nanotoxicity (and know it fast) but that wider risk issues – arising from the NELSI questions (nano ethical, legal and societal issues, which weighed heavily with Congress when it passed the 2003 nano act) would be funded to the hilt.

There are other initiatives in the risk pipeline, including one from Environmental Defense and DuPont. But back of these particulars, the ultimate risk remains that emerging nanotechnologies will be employed to demean humankind by advancing the “transhumanist” agenda – and/or that the prospect of this future will lead to a neo-Luddism that repudiates benefit and disbenefit alike.

The nanotechnology coalition that launched the first online database
of scientific findings related to the benefits and risks of
nanomaterials has taken the concept one step further with the launch
today of The Virtual Journal of Nanotechnology Environment, Health &
Safety (VJ-Nano EHS). The journal may be accessed at

A monthly online journal that contains citations and links to articles
on the environment and health impacts of nanotechnology, VJ-Nano EHS
is a product of The International Council on Nanotechnology (ICON) and
Rice University’s Center for Biological and Environmental
Nanotechnology (CBEN), which launched the first EHS database in August

Human Cloning: Have Your Say

The Scientist is having an on-line discussion about human cloning. Below are the questions The Scientist poses:

Is the nuclear transfer challenge one of understanding or technique? It would seem that the scientific community presumes successful stem cell cloning is a matter of resources and technical skill. Put enough technicians on a problem and eventually it will be overcome. This isn’t the way we normally perceive scientific challenges and there seem to be too many gaps in our understanding to proceed this way. How might we approach the situation as a scientific, rather than a technical, challenge and who has ideas for new approaches?

Is it time to reevaluate the ethics of stem cell cloning? The ethical quandaries about reproductive cloning have evolved from discussions that took groups like the Raelians seriously. Nevertheless, the idea that cloning for reproductive purposes might at some point be possible warrants discussion, and the debate about the status of an embryo is not something to take lightly. Moreover, the rights of egg donors need to be considered. What are the most pressing ethical concerns about proceeding with a nuclear transfer research program and who has novel ideas on how to address them?

Does stem cell cloning need new terminology? The terminology for stem cell cloning has become so obtuse that it strains public understanding and may also obscure the best scientific approaches. The avoidance or attenuation of the word cloning has left us with names that describe a technique, not the study of a phenomena that includes such fascinating biological puzzles as nuclear programming, development, and pluripotency. Is there a better name for this type of research program?

It seems to me that the people who hang out here at Secondhand Smoke would have much to contribute to such a discussion. If you want to participate, just click here and weigh in. And please, be sure to stay polite.

UK experts demand more research on nanotech risks

More research is needed on the potential health and environmental hazards of nanotechnology to ensure public confidence in the fast-growing industry, British experts said on Wednesday. (ABC News)

Nanocosmetics: Buyer Beware

There’s a lovely jar of night cream that’s been sitting on my dresser for a month. According to the salesperson who spent a half-hour on the phone with me extolling its virtues, the cream will dig up the gunk that’s clogging my pores, soak up excess oil, and “teach” my cells to make less of it. (Technology Review)

Osiris’s Adult Stem Cells Help Heart Attack Patients in Study

Osiris Therapeutics Inc.’s easy-to- administer stem cell treatment helped patients recover after a heart attack and eased their symptoms in a study. (Bloomberg)


The Bioethics Poll
Should individuals and/or institutions be allowed to patent human genes?
Yes, with some qualifications

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Which area of research should more money be invested in:
Animal-Human Hybrids
Gene Therapy
Reproductive Technology
Stem Cell Research
"Therapeutic" Cloning
None of the above

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