Update on Life Issues – February 2006

Cloning – The Story of the Great Fraud
So far the world has been presented with a variety of cloned animals – sheep, mice, cattle, goats, rabbits, cats, pigs, mules and dogs.  But never have we seen a cloned human baby. Indeed, such reproductive cloning is banned in most parts of the world.  Even so, this ‘grand prize’ has been claimed several times by an array of crackpots, such as the Raelians, and medical mavericks, like Severino Antinori and Panos Zavos.  But they have never produced the goods – they have turned out to be no more than publicity-hungry fools, and now we rightly disregard them.

But in February 2004, the world believed Woo Suk Hwang when he claimed not only to have cloned human embryos, but also to have extracted stem cells from them.  After all, the work was reported in that most prestigious of journals, Science.

OK, so Hwang’s cloning method was inefficient – it took 242 ova to produce just one line of stem cells.  But in May 2005, Hwang reported, again in Science, that his team had succeeded in cloning as many as 11 stem cell lines and that they had increased the efficiency of their process ten-fold.  The media circus put on a glitzy show – patients with diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s would soon be cured, the lame would walk, and the deaf would hear.

Hwang was fêted as a genius and a national hero – the South Korean government even created a postage stamp in his honour.  Moreover, we were told that Hwang’s ‘breakthrough’ demonstrated that President Bush’s policy of refusing to use federal funds to support such experiments with human embryos was both short-sighted and wrong – it was causing the US to fall behind in the stem cell research race.

Then in mid-November 2005, the truth began to leach out. Hwang, against ethical guidelines, had paid for the human ova used in his experiments.  Furthermore, the photographs of the stem cells in one of the Science articles were not originals. Other minor irregularities were also cited.  Yet, these seemed little more than petty niggles.

Then on December 15, one of Hwang's research team claimed that 9 of the 11 stem cell lines were fakes, and even the remaining 2 were questionable.  The media circus again descended on Hwang, but this time it was decidedly hostile. He maintained his innocence.  The Seoul National University began an investigation.

On Friday 23 December, Hwang came clean – he confessed his fraud and he resigned his university post.  The golden boy of human cloning was both a liar and a cheat.

The whole fiasco has prompted some serious questions – they need to be answered.  For example, is the peer-review system, upon which scientific progress largely depends, sufficiently robust? If so, how could some top academics be so readily fooled?  Has the press, and others, become too enamoured by the hype of the embryonic stem cell lobby? How easily does scientific objectivity become buried by passion and politics? Will the successes of the treatments using adult and umbilical cord stem cells now get a fair hearing?  Time will tell – the whole truth will out, eventually.

Euthanasia and Semantic Confusion
From 23 January 2006, the Voluntary Euthanasia Society became Dignity in Dying – new name, same old firm, same old agenda.  A title change was long overdue, after all, who would want the E-word on its letterhead or nameplate?  Much better to mask it with something majestic like, ‘Dignity’. But what is dignified about euthanasia?  It is proper palliative care that brings dignity to ‘the last days’, not an overdose of pills or a syringeful of drugs.

And there are two more new names in town.  At long last, a Parliamentary group to counter the lobbying and arguments of the euthanasia enthusiasts has been formed.  It is called Dying Well (www.dyingwell.org.uk).  And one of its priorities is to press for money for palliative care provision throughout the UK. We should all be glad of that.  The new group includes Baroness Finlay and Lord McColl, both highly-respected doctors and both fierce defenders of Hippocratic-Christian medicine.  The chairman of Dying Well, Frank Field stated, ‘We believe doctors should kill the pain, not the patient.  Ending or helping to end the lives of patients is morally wrong, ethically repugnant, while being no longer necessary.’

The second group, for all us non-Parliamentarians, is called the Care Not Killing Alliance.  It was launched on 31 January and is composed of 21 organisations including the Association of Palliative Medicine, the British Council of Disabled People and the Medical Ethics Alliance.  Its prime aim is to promote palliative care and oppose euthanasia.  Its excellent website (www.carenotkilling.org.uk) contains news items, DVD clips, links – just about all you need to know about euthanasia and how to combat its intrusion.

Meanwhile, the euthanasiasts are making ground.  For example, the Lausanne University Hospital in Switzerland has become the first hospital in Europe to allow assisted suicide groups, such as Exit and Dignitas, into its premises to help terminally-ill patients die.

Be warned.  It’s coming, men and women.  Euthanasia is coming out of the shadows and into the mainstream.  Lord Joffe is sponsoring yet another version of his Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill.  Its first reading was in the House of Lords on 9 November 2005. It is due for a second reading sometime early in 2006.  Lord Joffe and his supporters claim that this Bill seeks to legalise only assisted suicide rather than voluntary euthanasia per se, which had been the aim of the previous two Joffe Bills.

So what is the difference between the two?  Is there a real distinction, or is it just verbal poppycock?  There has never been a more important time to understand these issues.

In my book, The Edge of Life – Dying, Death and Euthanasia, I tackle this very subject (p. 83), “Voluntary euthanasia comes in two categories.  In ‘straightforward’ voluntary euthanasia, the patient makes the decision, although a doctor, friend, or relative performs the actual deed that ends the patient’s life.  In the other category, known as assisted suicide, the same group of people do no more than help the patient to take his or her own life.  In reality, the latter is usually called medically-assisted suicide, or in the USA, physician-assisted suicide, because it is a medical doctor or physician who is generally doing the assisting.  Some doctors prefer voluntary euthanasia because, they say, that in assisted suicide the patient is abandoned at the ‘supreme moment’.  Other doctors prefer assisted suicide because, they say, the actual act of taking the drug puts patients to the test – do they really want to die?  Of course, ethically there is no difference between these two forms of killing patients, but some dodgy doctors like to defend their involvement by resorting to such specious moral arguments.”

And again (p. 111) I state, “The linkage, both intellectual and practical, between suicide and euthanasia needs to be forged clearly, especially within the context of this book.  This is because the question arises, if suicide is nowadays not generally disapproved of, or, at least, not outlawed, then why is it wrong for that suicidal person to recruit the help of another to assist in bringing it about?  If suicide is tolerated, then surely voluntary euthanasia, in the form of medically-assisted suicide, should be too?”

“Or again, why do we have such pesky misgivings about the different means of committing suicide and assisted suicide?  The physical and mechanical means of suicide, like a length of rope, a kitchen knife, a tall building, or a car exhaust, have always been rather abhorrent.  On the other hand, the alternative chemical means, a lethal dose, or an overdose, of drugs, and the relatively pain-free way of dying, seem to be more appealing for both practices.  Are we in the peculiar business of categorizing these different means of killing, and assessing some methods of achieving them as more acceptable because they offend our sensibilities less?”

“Furthermore, we display a strange ambivalence when the subject of autonomy is raised in association with procuring death – there is a reluctance on our part to enable people to do it themselves.  To that end, the public is normally denied legal access to the sorts of drugs that would terminate life in a rapid and painless way. We disapprove of chemicals being available over-the-counter for people to commit suicide.  As a consequence, assisted euthanasia is resorted to.  Bring in the doctor-turned-euthanasiast. It is the doctor who can assist in supplying, and even administering, the required drugs.  Curiously, the presence of a figure from the medical establishment seems, somehow, to make it all much more acceptable.  Yet the role of medical assistant to the suicidal will always be an odd, as well as an unnatural, one for the doctor.”

“Even if we were to give legislative approval to medically-assisted suicide, it would still be a very ill-defined and poorly-monitored area, and one that would be wide open to abuse.  For example, a question that would frequently crop up is, what could the doctor do? To what extent could he ‘assist’?  Could he prescribe the drugs, purchase the drugs, deliver the drugs, place them on a bedside table, open the bottle, hand them over, put them in the patient’s mouth? Where does ‘passive’ assistance stop, and his ‘active’ assistance begin?  Where does medically-assisted euthanasia begin and suicide end?”

“‘Whenever euthanasia is the topic of discussion on television, at work, or in Parliament, it is invariably under the guise of medically-assisted suicide and the benefits thereof.  But there is never the analogous promotion of a public policy of straightforward, solitary suicide.  Can you explain why that is, because the two acts are so very, very similar?  Is it really to do with medical degrees, professionalism and a sense of tidiness?”

Do Not Confuse Me with the Facts
Thomas Cranmer, architect of the Book of Common Prayer, once wrote, ‘There is no manne so deafe as hee that will not heare, nor so blynd as he will not see, nor dull as he that wyll not understande.’  The three following examples are of modern-day people, who have a particular agenda, which apparently renders them deaf, blind and stupid.

Two recently-published studies address the contentious issue of the effects of abortion on mental health.  One, from New Zealand, concludes that abortion raises the risk of young women developing depression, anxiety, as well as drug and alcohol abuse.  Of women who had abortions, 42% also experienced major depression, nearly double the rate of those who had never been pregnant and 35% higher than those who chose to continue their pregnancies.  According to the leader of the study, Professor David Fergusson, ‘an atheist, a rationalist and pro-choice’, the results were surprising.  Nevertheless, he had to concede that abortion increases psychological distress rather than alleviates it – mental health problems follow abortion, not the other way round.

The second study, from researchers at the University of Oslo, reports that women who undergo abortions suffer more long-term mental distress than women who have miscarriages.  After 10 days, 47.5% of women who had miscarried suffered mental distress, compared with 30% who had had an abortion.  However, after 5 years only 2.6% of women in the miscarriage group were still suffering distress compared with 20% in the abortion group.  Both abortion and miscarriage involve the loss of a baby, but abortion, unlike miscarriage, is the result of a conscious decision.  And it is this latter feature that seems to be the cause of the long-term feelings of guilt and anxiety.

And what did the Family Planning Association (now rebranded by the trendy lower-case logo, fpa) have to say about this new research?  ‘There is no evidence to suggest that abortion directly causes psychological trauma’, said a spokesperson.

The foolishness of the fpa was again in evidence on 8 November when Sue Axon was challenging the Department of Health on its abortion guidelines.  As the mother of two teenage girls she wanted to be informed if either of them goes for an abortion.  Mrs Axon had an abortion 20 years ago and it caused her ‘guilt, shame and depression.’  She hoped that, ‘neither of her daughters will have to undergo such an experience without at least their mother being present to guide and support them.’  The guidelines state that this is not necessary.  She says, they ‘undermine the role of parents.’ That makes sense.

And what did the fpa think of that? With some desperation it commented, ‘The traditional belief that “parents know what is best for a child” was contrary to social changes over the past 20 years.’  Meanwhile, the Government is battling to make parents more responsible for their children, their attendance at school, their behaviour in the street, and so on.

On 23 January, Mrs Axon lost her High Court case.  Again the fpa had a comment.  It was glad that parental notification had not become compulsory otherwise youngsters would be ‘risking unplanned pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases.’  And what has the fpa’s free-for-all policy of pills and condoms encouraged?

And lastly, newspapers and scientific journals continue to demonstrate that the use of adult stem cells is still far more promising than using embryonic stem cells.  A quick trawl during the last couple of months’ media reports shows adult stem cells implicated in treatments for arthritis, spinal cord damage and breast cancer.  The embryonic stem cell camp could report only ‘a hope’ of a cure for sickle cell anaemia.

What could be the reason for this underperformance?  According to The Times science correspondent, Mark Henderson, ‘…the progress of embryonic stem cell research has been hampered by ethical controversy.’  See, it’s you and me who are the flies in the ointment!

Good News from the USA
With the death last year of Chief Justice William Rehnquist and the resignation of Sandra Day O’Connor, President Bush has had to appoint two new judges to the Supreme Court of the United Sates.  The first appointee was John Roberts, who was sworn in on 29 September 2005 and is now Chief Justice.  The second was Samuel Alito, who was sworn in on Tuesday 31 January 2006.  These appointments will bring about some fascinating changes in American life.

The current Supreme Court now consists of John Roberts (Chief Justice) and Associate Justices, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.  The first four are generally regarded as ‘conservatives’ and the last four as ‘liberals’.  Kennedy as a ‘moderate’ has become the new pivotal swing Justice – that is, he is likely to be the fifth vote in future 5-4 decisions.  His past record had certainly been unpredictable, for while he has supported a woman’s right to abortion, he has also voted against the legalisation of partial-birth abortions.

Another novel aspect of this new Supreme Court is that, for the first time ever, it is dominated by Roman Catholics. Roberts, Scalia, Alito, Thomas and Kennedy belong to that church.  As someone has noted, ‘The emergence of the Court’s Catholic bloc reflects the reality of political conservatism: evangelicals supply the political energy, Catholics the intellectual heft’ (but that’s another story).  By definition, these Justices should therefore all be pro-life.  Furthermore, the new boys are (relatively) young – Roberts is a mere 51 and Alito is 55 – and so their influence on American law and life will last for several decades.

All in all, the appointment of Roberts and Alito has changed the face of the Supreme Court – the balance has been tipped.  If, and when, the colossus of Roe v. Wade is challenged, it is now more likely to be partly dismantled by this more conservative Court.  This will have huge implications for abortion practice not only in the US, but because such ripples will shake UK abortion law too.

Mortal Honours
It was disappointing to see that Suzi Leather, the chairwoman of the HFEA (and a member of the Christian Socialist Movement!), was made a Dame in the New Year’s honours list.  For leading one of the most confused and confusing quangos in the UK, for just 3 days each week, for less than 4 years, such an award hardly seems justified.  Then again, it must be a sure sign that the HFEA is to be disbanded in the near future.

Despite that, the honours system cannot be all bad because John R W Stott was awarded a CBE for ‘services to Christian scholarship and the Christian world.’  After some 60 years of gospel labour – he was ordained in 1945 – that honour has hardly come too soon.  Among many other duties, Dr Stott has been a patron of LIFE for the last 20 or so years.  Congratulations!

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