Are embryos persons? Colorado voters to decide

Colorado voters could decide next year that an embryo is a human person from the moment of conception, after the state's Supreme Court approved a ballot measure. If they did, embryos would be entitled to the same constitutional protections of inalienable rights, equality of justice and due process as children and adults.

Abortion and fertility medicine are obviously the targets of the ballot measure, so progressive bioethicists are assessing the dire consequences of its success. A number of grim scenarios have been painted:

"You could have people policing women's behaviour during pregnancy to be sure they don't smoke or drink or do anything that could possibly harm the foetus," says Lori Andrews, director of the Institute for Science, Law and Technology at Chicago-Kent College of Law. Doctors might also refuse to treat women for depression or diabetes because of the possible impact on the foetus.

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East German doctors spied for regime

German doctors have had two encounters with totalitarianism in the 20th century -- and emerged with a blotted copybook from both of them. The role of Nazi doctors is well documented, and now the files on doctors who collaborated with the Communist government in East Germany are being opened. A recent study shows that one in 20 doctors there spied upon colleagues or patients for the Stasi, the security police. Apparently doctors were targeted by the Stasi because they belonged to a reactionary class and were easily tempted by the prospect of escaping to the West.

The doctors -- and medical students -- had a range of reasons for spying. Some were trying to advance their career; some were committed Communists; and others were in it for the money. Psychiatrists and sports medicine doctors were the most common recruits. About a quarter of these unofficial spies passed on information about their patients' private life and health, not… click here to read whole article and make comments

Israel to have new organ trafficking law

Israeli legislators think that they have struck a balance between encouraging organ donation and discouraging organ trafficking with a new bill which has been under study for a decade. Israel has long been a centre for organ trafficking, and the bill will ban selling organs or acting as a broker. The penalties are stiff: up to three years in prison and fines of up to US$50,000.

The new law will give priority to people who have signed a donor card and to those who have consented to allow the harvesting of deceased relatives' organs. Live organ donation will also be permitted, with compensation of about US$4,500 for loss of work time. Other forms of reward, such as tax breaks and special insurance, as well as gifts from private organisation may also be available. Left-wingers oppose the bill because they felt that poor people might be tempted to sell their organs. They allege that this would be tantamount… click here to read whole article and make comments

Teen Jehovah’s Witness refuses transfusion and dies

A 14-year-old Jehovah's Witness in Seattle has died after refusing a blood transfusion. Dennis Lindberg was receiving chemotherapy for leukaemia, which normally means that a patient will need a blood transfusion. However, Judge John Meyer ruled that Lindberg, who was only in Year 8, was old enough to know that his decision was effectively a "death sentence" and that he had a right to do so.

Jehovah's Witnesses believe that blood is sacred and should not be reused. Dennis's case was complicated by a difficult family situation. His aunt, also a Jehovah's Witness, was his legal guardian. His parents disagreed, but apparently had no say in the matter.

However, the interest of bioethicists in the case revolved around the age of the youth, not his religion. Was a 14-year-old mature enough? In recent years, judges have respected decisions made by teenagers, although in the 1980s and 1990s they tended to order treatment. Dr Benjamin Wilfond,… click here to read whole article and make comments

Young chimps beat college students

Young chimpanzees are smarter in some respects than university students, according to a Japanese study in the journal Current Biology. They can remember numbers flashed on a computer screen after a single glance -- photographic memory. However their capacity declines with age, as with humans. "We were very surprised to find this," Tetsuro Matsuzawa of the Primate Research Institute at Kyoto University, said. "But it’s a very concrete, simple fact. Young chimps are superior to human adults in a memory task." ~ New York Times, Dec 4

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Warnock offers advice in Nature

With the British Parliament deliberating the further liberalisation of its fertility laws to allow hybrid human-animal embryos, the leading journal Nature has sought guidance from the Grand Old Lady of British bioethics, Dame Mary Warnock. Back in 1984 Dame Mary supervised the drafting of the original law regulating fertility treatment and embryo experimentation.

In a special essay she argues that decisions about matters which some members of the public may find repugnant must be guided by public morality, whose principles differ from those of private morality. Religious considerations must be overlooked as Britain is not "intrinsically religious". The appropriate standard is "weighing up possible goods against possible harms" (which do not include offending particular interest groups). The final decision should be made by expert committees whose members are not guided by "ignorance and prejudice". ~ Nature, Nov 29

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Sperm donor’s surprise at child support

A London man has been forced to pay child support for two children he fathered for a lesbian couple, even though he has had no involvement in the toddlers' lives. Andy Bathie says that he was approached by the two women five years ago when they were in a civil partnership. He agreed to become a sperm donor because his then-partner had been sterilised and was not planning to have children.

Now the lesbian couple have split up and he has found a new partner. Unhappily he cannot afford to have children now because he has to pay thousands of pounds in child support. Mr Bathie's plight is due to the fact that men who donate through licensed clinics are shield from being recognised as legal fathers in the UK, but men who donate privately are not. Pending fertility reforms will recognise lesbian couples as the legal parents. But the change has come too late for Mr… click here to read whole article and make comments

The stem cell gusher

from the New York Times

Stem cell scientists have hit a gusher, says the New York Times, with proof by two groups in Japan and the US that skin cells can be reprogrammed to function like embryonic stem cells. And now that the ethical and political logjam has broken up, money should start flowing in. But finding an ethical, abundant raw material is not enough. Scientists also have to find how to turn these new cells into useful material for therapies and disease research.

Initially these cells, called induced pluripotent stem cells (IPS cells) will be used to study “diseases in a dish” and then develop drugs not just to treat them but to prevent them in patients. “This is a whole new way of thinking about how we might investigate human disease,” says Kenneth S. Zaret, of the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. But this will still take years.… click here to read whole article and make comments

Kass calls for ban on cloning after reprogramming advance

Dr Leon Kass The former head of the President's Council on Bioethics, Dr Leon Kass, says that the validation of reprogramming is an opportunity to pass long-delayed legislation in the US. 

“Reprogramming of human somatic cells to pluripotency is an enormously significant achievement, one that boosters of medical progress and defenders of human dignity can celebrate without qualification... The ethical and political benefits may be equally great. The alleged need for so-called therapeutic cloning — cloning embryos for research — is now passé. We can therefore disentangle the “life issue” of embryo-destruction from the “dignity issue” of baby manufacture, and enact a legislative ban on cloning and other degrading forms of baby-making, as recommended unanimously by the President’s Council on Bioethics: Prohibit all attempts to conceive a child by any means other the union of egg and sperm, both obtained from adults.” ~ NRO, Nov 21


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More problems in governance of California’s stem cell institute

California's stem cell institute, the best-funded in the world, has not had an easy birth. Since taxpayers voted to create it with a US$3 billion bond issue in 2004, a string of lawsuits, staff churn, and internal wrangling has slowed its progress in promoting research. A fresh embarrassment has now entangled its chairman, Robert Klein. The Sacramento Bee has called for his resignation over allegations of conflict of interest.

The latest kerfuffle involves a scientist on the oversight board, John Reed, who urged the institute to reverse a decision after it had denied a US$638,000 grant to a researcher associated with his institution. This was clearly a violation of the institute's conflict of interest rules. To make matters worse, his lobbying was approved by Mr Klein, who is a lawyer and should have been more sensitive to the issue. Klein, says the Bee, should step down: ” His divided loyalties, his disregard for public processes and his… click here to read whole article and make comments

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