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Man has been trying to improve himself by his own power since the beginning. The results speak for themselves.
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Friday, September 30, 2011

Oh the Irony: "Father" of the Pill

The BBC has a rather strange interview with Carl Djerassi, one of the researchers who developed the first oral contraceptive that quickly became known as the Pill.

The odd reasoning he employes to tout the superiority of IVF aside, I think it's funny that the BBC called him the "father" of the Pill. The Father of Fatherhood Prevention. Man. Gotta love that tongue-in-cheek British cheek.

(The terminology actually appears not in the page with the article and the video of the interview, but on a banner ad elsewhere on their website promoting the interview.)

As to the interview itself, he supports IVF over natural conceptions because every child conceived by IVF is "wanted" compared with only about 75% of those conceived naturally.

He is not thinking about all those children slated for "selective reduction" - which is to say abortion - in the case of twins, triplets, or more developing as a consequence of IVF.

Nor is he thinking about all those surplus embryos stuck in a frozen limbo because no one wants them.

And "IVF" properly refers to the fertilization in the lab, the union of sperm and ovum in the petri dish; we use it to include implantation of embryos and the whole thing soup to nuts. But such in vitro fertilization is also used to create embryos for research. I suppose they're wanted in some way... but still, it is not that they are wanted as children.

And all you pro-choicers out there: Djerassi talks about "children" and not about anything pre-human.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Our Lady of Sorrows and Bioethics

Our Lady of Sorrows, for those who do not know, is the Blessed Virgin Mary considered as experiencing sorrows regarding the events of her Son's life (and death). Now, we like to think that knowing Jesus in that way - being his Mother, watching him grow up, and all that - as being nothing but filled with joy. But Jesus was a "man of sorrows" (Isaiah 53:3 and following), and it is through His sorrows that He saved sinners. Surely a man's mother would share the sorrows her son experiences, and so it is with the Mother of Jesus.

The devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows, also called the Seven Sorrows of Mary, consists in meditating on seven key sorrowful events in the life and death of Jesus at which Mary was present. These are:
  • The prophecy of Simeon, where it is foretold that Jesus - God's great gift of mercy and salvation - would be opposed by the very people he came to save.
  • The flight of the Holy Family into Egypt because of the diabolical hostility of some sinners to God's plan of salvation, even to the extermination of baby boys in the hope of killing Jesus.
  • The loss of the boy Jesus in the temple, the separation from God that we all experience because of sin
  • Meeting Jesus on the way of the Cross - where the effects of sin are most evident in Jesus' sufferings
  • The death of Jesus on the Cross
  • Taking down the body of Jesus, where tradition holds that Mary held his body prior to burial (depicted in many works of art as the Pietá)
  • The burial of Jesus
One would meditate on each event while reciting the Angelic Salutation (better known as the Hail Mary).

The purpose of the meditation and the devotion in general is to form oneself spiritually, as understanding our own individual role in causing, in some sense, each of these sorrows by sinning. We all sin. We should stop. This is not about "oh, how awful I am, I am such a wretch," but rather coming to grips with the fact that we do, by sinning in little and big ways, demonstrate the monstrous ingratitude and even hostility of sinful man that underlie the sorrows. Now, we may not "feel" like we have ingratitude or hostility, but if we sin - and we all do - then in those moments we are acting contrary to genuine gratitude and allegiance to God and His work of mercy and salvation. This is not to downplay the value of meditating on joys and so forth, but we deceive ourselves in contemplating the joys if we do not work to overcome our role in the sorrows because without addressing the latter we will not experience the former in the best way.

So, what does all this have to do with bioethics?

The first principle of ethics is "do good and avoid evil." Bioethics is the subset of ethics that deals with man's life and health, so this principle applies also but must be applied to what constitutes man's true and highest good and its opposite pertaining to health and life.

"What man is" determines "what man ought to do." Secular bioethics is basically atheistic and has a concept of man as merely biological, a sophisticated body with bodily processes. Dislodged from any authority higher than man himself, indeed denying any moral authority higher than the individual who is contemplating what he should and should not do, ethics in general and bioethics in particular degenerates into a free-for-all, an ethical anarchy. Any semblance of respect for law and order comes only from the power of the forces of the law to punish lawbreakers, or from a personal decision that the laws make sense (as opposed to submission to universal principles of justice to which laws ought to conform). The rationales employed by secular bioethics appear to be largely lip service to existing laws. In the end, secular bioethics can justify anything. It indeed justifies the complete destruction of the human race and its replacement by something that some few human beings deem in their idiosyncratic judgment to be a better life form. It's called posthumanism.

In secular bioethics there can be no agreement as to what constitutes man's highest good, because every individual will have his own idea of it. There can be no consensus except regarding the most general of platitudes, like the elimination of disease and aging (which some believe can be dealt with ultimately only by eliminating the human body altogether... but if man is only his body....) And, individuals find it difficult to separate their own personal highest goods (whatever they individually might decide them to be) from their goals for the human race. In the end, it is about the right of some few to impose their concept of the good and of morality on the whole human race, and to eradicate those who oppose them.

It is more complicated than that. I oversimplify. But that's the gist.

In contrast, an authentic bioethics has to consider an authentic anthropology, which is necessarily theological. Man is God's image. If so, then man's highest good is not determined by consensus or opinion dislodged from universal principles and from God but by the nature of man as image of God. And that highest good is God himself. The first principle of an authentic bioethics, then, is "refine and do not damage the image of God." Authentic bioethics must regard man's physical life and health as ordered to his spiritual life and health. People reveal and form themselves by their choices. They need to choose well, particularly in bioethics, if they are to reveal and form themselves as images of God. Otherwise, they reveal and form themselves in other ways, and field of bioethics will go astray in the ways noted above.

As an image of God, man is constituted as a union of body and soul, and not just a body, and not as a soul that happens to be locked in a body. The second principle of authentic bioethics relates to this fact: "perfect and do not damage the union of soul and body." Union of the soul and the body constitutes bodily life, the primary concern of bioethics. Separation of the body and soul constitutes death. Sin disrupts the union between the body and soul and is the cause of some degree of separation. Sin is the beginning of death in man. Because of this, sin is a legitimate concern of bioethics.

The devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows pertains to combating sin. It pertains to our individual battle against sin. It pertains to the general battle of God against sin and His gift of mercy and salvation to sinners. It is about our attitude to suffering and death and how it has spiritual value.

So, Our Lady of Sorrows is a devotion for bioethicists who subscribe to an authentic anthropology and thus to an authentic bioethics. You can find information about this devotion here and here.

IVF and Birth Defects

One of the promises of IVF is that it should avoid birth defects by using sperm washing to identify the "best" ones and pre-implantation screening to hand-pick which embryos will go on to a fully human life. The opposite is the case and it has been known for some time.

This article from nearly three years ago in the NY Times shows an interesting statistic from a study published in November 2008 that IVF increases the risk of birth defects. Specifically, of the nearly 4800 babies in the study born without birth defects, 1.1% were conceived by IVF, whereas of the nearly 9600 babies in the study born with birth defects, 2.4% were conceived by IVF. It's a strange statistic as described by the Times because what we really want to know is the flip side: Of those babies conceived by IVF, what percentage end up with birth defects compared with those conceived naturally? We cannot figure it out from the data because the number of birth defects is hugely disproportionate to the incidence of birth defects in the general populate. Also, we do not know the rate of IVF among the general population from the study.

But the data do suggest that artificial reproductive techniques using IVF in some way increase the risk of birth defects.

This other story relates the travails of a fertility physician in Canada who is being sued because of the birth defects associated with IVF. The problem in this physician's view stems from how IVF practitioners routinely transfer 2 or more embryos into the womb to maximize the chance that at least one thrives--often more than one will, and multiple births are associated with birth defects and other difficulties. He and many other IVF practitioners have taken to transferring only one embryo at a time instead of multiple ones to minimize the risks.

And possibly increase the profits. If singleton transfers do not always take, then multiple singleton transfers will be necessary to achieve one live birth. And that means more procedures. And more money.

Now, if only the number of embryos created by IVF could be reduced precisely to the number that will be implanted at any one time, as is the case in Germany and Italy, there would not be surplus embryos destined for destruction, experimentation, or a ghoulish, indefinite frozen limbo.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Can the Death Penalty Be Pro-Life?

Richard Land in an article at the Washington Post thinks so. I'm not quite as convinced as he is.

I sympathize with his reasoning. People who are undoubtedly guilty of heinous crimes sure do seem to deserve death. I do not know how I would react as the father or husband of a victim of a serious crime. I would certainly be grieved beyond my imagination of grief, and angrier than I have ever been. I do not know what that could feel like, because it exceeds my experience.

Yet the Catholic Church has said more than once that a civilized society ought not resort to the death penalty if the protection of society from that same criminal can be attained in other ways. As a Catholic, I must take what the Church says seriously -- and since the arguments the Church presents do not rely strictly upon Catholic doctrine, everyone else ought to give these arguments serious consideration too. So there are two things to look at: What the criminal deserves, and what society needs.

If justice is tempered by mercy, and the needs of society can be achieved while being merciful, then mercy should prevail. Easy for me to say, considering my loved ones are at the moment safe. Maybe I would see things differently if my circumstances were different.

But ethical principles are universal and apply also to the grieving as much as to the clear-headed. While it may be permissible for civil authorities to use the death penalty, that does not bind civil authorities into actually using it. If a criminal has thrown away his right to live in a free society by his crimes, the penalty can be achieved by removing him from society or by killing him. If a secure way to removing him exists without killing him, then civil authorities should choose that as the means to achieving their goal of protecting society.

Killing someone is always serious business. The Catholic Church recognizes the rights of civil authorities to use lethal force in the protection of the innocent whether it be in a just war or by the death penalty, just as it recognizes the use of lethal force by individuals when it is necessary. But, taking the latter -- what are the ethics that govern the use of lethal force as self defense? First, the use of force should be proportionate to the risk, so there has be a legitimate and real fear of being killed or seriously injured to use potentially lethal force. Second, the use of potentially lethal force should also be the only available means, so if non-lethal force could stop the aggressor, it should be used instead.

I use the word "potentially" by intent. If I am being attacked and I have a gun and the use of that gun is the only way to protect myself in that moment, and disabling the aggressor would accomplish my protection, I should aim for disabling him. If mere disablement would not do it, I should aim for his body, hoping I do not actually kill him. The death of the aggressor is acceptable under the principle of double effect. The secondary effect of his death is foreseen and accepted, but not primarily intended. I should not want to kill him. I should want to stop him. I should accept the possibility of his death only as an unfortunate consequence of the circumstances.

As a Catholic, I must be concerned not only for my own eternal welfare, but also that of the assailant. Yes. Getting the assailant into heaven should be a concern of the victim, believe it or not. It hardly conduces to my own eternal welfare, not to mention his, to wish him dead and to kill him in the midst of his committing a mortal sin and under circumstances in which I might also be meeting God.

With the death penalty, the death of the criminal is expressly desired and accomplished cooly, after a long deliberation, and not in the heat of an immediate and serious conflict. This at least affords the criminal a chance to repent and reconcile to God before he dies. But that same time also demonstrates to civil authorities that the criminal can be removed from civilized society without killing him.

Also, I wonder where the virtues of forgiveness and mercy come into play with the death penalty. Can a grieving father forgive the loss of his beloved child through a brutal and heinous murder? I do not know. Is the death penalty consistent with such forgiveness? Can a society forgive? I do not know these things. But it seems to me that forgiveness is a trait of civilized people more than is vengeance. Mercy is higher and a greater act of power than is justice without mercy.

Jesus said of mercy, The measure with which you measure shall be measured out to you. Forgive, so that  you may be forgiven. I hope if I ever am unfortunate enough to sit face to face with my daughter's killer, I would be to him like I would want God to be with me. All of our sins are guilty of the death of Jesus. It is Jesus's suffering by which those same sins are forgiven. What a mystery. If my pious daughter is with God, and I suffer on earth, could not the sins against her and me somehow turn into the salvation of her killer? What harm and what good would come of trying? Of course, being merciful and forgiving does not necessarily mean not using the death penalty. But it leans in that direction.

All this is easy to say.

And I am convinced that civil authorities need to have the death penalty available to them. It's a matter of use.

But "pro-life" reflects an attitude toward its use that I think is rather different than Richard Land's take on the matter.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Obesity Cause and Effect

Here we go again, using brain research to suggest people act according to how the brain functions and not the other way around. The data -- or at least a presentation of the data in an article at FoxNews.com -- is suggesting that obese people are obese, and thin people aren't, because of the way their brain works. I would look at these data and say that obese people (absent organic causes of obesity such as a thyroid disorder) are in the habit of not balancing their activity and intake of foods, or they are in the habit of eating foods that incline to obesity, and thin people in another habit -- and their brain activity reflects their habits.

In other words, it is not as though people are hard-wired from birth to be either slim or obese. Obese people are not predestined or even at a disadvantage because of their brains to obesity. Their habits might be causing their difficulties and also causing the associated brain activity. Change the habits and the brain activity changes along with it.

The study in question is not the best. It is tiny and therefore the results are subject to scrutiny until a larger study with better statistical power comes along to verify it. Also, it would be nice to see the same kind of study to include people who have lost a significant amount of weight and have succeeded in keeping it off. In fact, it would be really cool to track a cohort of obese subjects through weight loss, say, monthly, for a year or two. I would love to see how the initial brain activity patterns change over time and if there is any pattern among those who keep the weight off and those who gain it back.

It seems to me that there are foods -- foods with sugars and especially high fructose corn syrup -- that make it hard to lose weight and keep it off. The offending stuff lurks in so-called healthy foods such as Gatorade energy/fitness drinks, health/energy bars, and that sort of thing. It's all over the place. If you are of a good weight and highly active, such things might be fine for you, when you are in the midst of a vigorous, extended activity. But for people to be sitting in their offices at work quaffing an energy drink to have energy for their computer work I believe is physically destructive.

At any rate, weight loss is difficult and the reasons for the difficulty are complex. It's not an easy task. If you are struggling with weight, you have my admiration in your struggle. Keep at it. You can do it.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Margaret Sanger Gets Her Wish With Abortion

Lifesite news has a story about an engaging project by Chiaroscuro showing the abortion rate in New York City by zip code. In some neighborhoods, 70% of pregnancies are ending in abortion. Sad.

But what will make Margaret Sanger happy is that the highest rates of abortion are in predominately black neighborhoods. Sanger was a racist and a eugenicist who didn't like poor black people and other minorities. She founded Planned Parenthood, not to defend the right of women to get abortions, but to defend the right of physicians to perform them on "undesirables."

Planned Parenthood is not about serving the poor, it is about eliminating them and making money along the way. I hope leaders among the African-American community take note. They are being exploited. Sixty percent of black babies are being aborted. That is the future of your community. Annihilation.

Hispanics have the next highest rate of abortion at over 40%. Sanger is happy about that because most of the Hispanics are Catholic, so she gets to kill two birds with one stone. Hispanics out there -- seriously, rediscover your Catholicity and get back on track with marriage and your strong sense of family, and stop letting Planned Parenthood make you pay to have them ruin your future.

You think the men are the problem? They quite possibly are. But let me tell you something: If the women band together, and they live by traditional moral values (such as "waiting until marriage" and "marriage is forever" and "children are a blessing") the men will fall in line. Believe me. It may take a while, but if you band together and take the high road, the men will follow. I know, it's no excuse for the men to behave the way they do. They should find it in themselves to be honorable and decent and caring and committed. It's true. Wake up men! But is so easy to be otherwise when the women let them get away with having their fun and running from responsibility.

Maybe the women like it this way too, I don't know. They don't get tied down to a guy who might turn out to be a loser. They can shop around. Have some fun. But what does it get them? The pleasure of forking over hard-earned money to Margaret Sanger's buddies?

Anyway, the data were interesting, if depressing.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Neuroscience and Free Will

Here's an interesting article on neuroscience trying to prove that human beings do not have free will. These researchers asked people to choose between clicking a button with their left forefinger and clicking another button with their right forefinger. Test subjects shown a rapid, random sequence of letters, with the choice of whether to click up to them. They were asked to note when and what letter was showing when they clicked, that is, when they were aware of having made a choice. They were also placed in an MRI to monitor brain activity during the process.

Results show, they claim, that the decision was predictably preceded by a particular pattern of brain activity, in some cases as much as seven full seconds ahead of the choice. Based on the brain activity, researchers could predict the subsequent choice with 60% accuracy--better than chance, but not very accurate.

Now, this particular article leaves me asking some questions. For instance, what exactly is the working definition of being aware of having made a choice? Is it the moment of actually pressing a button? Can't someone make a choice before externalizing it?

Also, the researchers seem to believe that the choice is between two alternatives, clicking the right or left buttons. But I see a total of at least 5 options at work, maybe more. The two the researchers proposed, plus the option to not click either button, and to hold off clicking the right, and to hold off clicking the left.

I personally believe the choice is far more complex even than 5. What about the "next-I'll-choose-left-but-wait-awhile-and-then-CLICK-oh-I-meant-to-click-my-other-left" choice? Or the "change-my-mind-in-the-middle-of-deciding" choice? I could imagine myself as a test subject thinking, "OK, next I'll click the right button.... Now!--NO WAIT--OK, NOW!... alright next let's see... I'll click left NOW, ok, that's done.... what shall I click next? I know, I'll click the left button every time I see an M, and the right one when I see an A.... now I'll play air guitar for a while and be sort of random...." I suppose some people might be more straightforward, but even the straightforward and diligent persons will be thinking about what they're doing.

But at any rate, the choice to click would likely be made well ahead of actually clicking. In many cases, the act of clicking may not even be a real choice, but a kind of reflex response to the pre-made choice, so the test may not be testing free will at all. Free will isn't really about choosing which unimportant button to click. Because the choice doesn't really matter, neither does it matter if it's free or reflex.

St. Thomas Aquinas locates free will in the deliberation in selecting a means to a particular end, since we are always inclined to some good in the end we seek. Also, all ends are means to further ends, except the Final End, which ought to be God. Therefore, a proximate end, insofar as it is also a means to a more remote end, is also an object of deliberation.

Because all ends are also means, they become ethical or moral by virtue of the more remote ends to which they are ordered, and of course whether or not they are ordered to a suitable final end. If "I" am my own final end (or riches or fame or power or pleasure, which conduce to "me" being the final end anyway), that would cast a shadow over the morality of all of my choices.

At any rate, free will is in the choice of a means. "When" to click a button is only part of the deliberation. "Which" and "whether" and "if so, under what circumstances" are also part of the reasoning process going into the actual decision to click.

This neuroscience study does not seem properly designed to test all that. And even if it were, it would only show brain function, not freedom or lack thereof. That brain function could still be an instrumental rather than pure efficient cause, and thus evidence of the intellectual soul using the brain to deliberate ahead of the act of clicking a button.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Myth of the Slippery Slope

This is an idea I intend to elaborate upon in time. People concerned for the authentic human good (and I believe myself to be one of them) see things as being on a slippery slope. First, abortion becomes legal at a time when most people considered it an abhorrent crime. Then, people begin accepting it. Then, it becomes a right. Then, we start killing off our old and infirm. And then what? Where does it end? We're going down a slippery slope.

There is a certain validity to that notion. But it is ultimately a matter of perspective.

If you want society to head toward a eugenic weeding out of the poor, sick, and useless, and have had a hard time in the last century or so garnering public support, you start slow. You get people used to an idea. You push it a little farther. Then a little more. Soon, you'll have everyone clamoring for what you want to achieve.

But, I think the whole eugenic thing is also only part of the puzzle, and although its proponents think about improving the human race in some way, I think there's an ancient mastermind behind it who just want us to get used to killing "the unfit," and the definition of "unfit" will eventually refer to the class of naysayers who stand in the way of Progress. Ultimately, it's about killing off the human race altogether, or warping it beyond recognition and replacing it with something else, something not essentially ordered to God but to some other thing. In the lore of Middle Earth, the Orcs began as Elves, and were twisted and manipulated into evil creatures.

So I think the slippery slope is a myth. For those who support things like euthanasia and abortion and all manner of death technologies, it is not a slippery slope at all, but a well mapped expedition. The so-called "safeguards" to prevent things slipping further are just lip service to lull naysayers into complacency. We call it a slippery slope, but they sit back and say, "Everything's going according to plan."

More on this when I can.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Information Superhighway Is Officialy Bumper-to-Bumper with Rusty Old Heaps

I am trying to find out some of the back-story to the encyclical Arcanum, published in 1880 by Leo XIII, responding to ongoing usurpation of the rights of the Church by secular powers regarding marriage. There are some things I know. For instance, Victor Emmanuel had recently unified Italy, conquering all the papal states on the peninsula except for the Vatican, which was pretty much defenseless when he stopped. Darwin, Marx, and Nietzsche were all in vogue, and Freud was waiting in the wings. Divorce laws were being liberalized.

But what was Pope Leo actually responding to? What specific events, what particular changes in civil law in what years, what exactly was the secular state doing? So I did what anyone living 130 years after Arcanum was issued, I googled it.

The results fall into just a few categories:
  • The actual text of the encyclical, either on the website itself, or linked to it residence on newadvent.org or the Vatican website (speaks only generally)
  • The text of the Catholic Encyclopedia (1917 edition) entry on the encyclical (not helpful to me)
  • Line-items on "this day in history"
  • Various other posts, entries, etc., linking to one or more of the above
  • References to some video game or something by the same name
If what I'm looking for is out there, then that information is stuck hours from its destination (namely, me) in traffic. Useless, relentless traffic. Anyone who's been on the Garden State Parkway northbound on a Sunday evening knows what I mean. Or what I'm looking for doesn't actually exist on the web. I cannot believe that no one on Planet Earth has written and posted an academically reasonable few paragraphs about what was going on to inspire Pope Leo to issue Arcanum. Even the Wikipedia entries on divorce (which includes a terribly thin section on its history) and Arcanum offer nothing of utility.

So, I gotta search another way. I'll try "19th-century secularism" or something. But then I'll have weed through the junk of that google search instead.

Or I'll just have to fake it in the project I'm working on for which I need this information. I just hope my dissertation director lets it slide.

Update:  The refined search led me to a large book on Scribd that fits the bill!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Obsoleter and Obsoleter: Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Researchers are getting the idea that if they want to make marketable and thus profitable medical therapies based on stem cells, then they ought to focus on sources other than embryos.

This article profiles several biotech companies using a person's own fat cells as a source for adult stem cells. These cells are then coaxed (in the lab) into differentiating into other kinds of cells, as needed, for whatever regenerative medicine the person needs. Researchers who really want to get results rather than just suck up to the government for grant money are flocking away from embryonic cells not only as being ethically bankrupt, but therapeutically bankrupt, too. Eventually, that line of research will become economically bankrupt.

I'm unemployed right now, so I'm not investing any money any time soon. I wish I could, because I'd put a little money into these companies. And I wish I could get a commission for recommending them. And these companies are in addition to NeoStem, which the Vatican has invested with, as I noted in another post.

Embryonic stem cell research has no ethical foundation whatsoever. None. If you disagree, let's talk about it.