William Saletan and the problem with absolutism in the abortion, IVF and stem cell debates

25 04 2011

By: Karen Frantz

A 2009 Gallup poll on opinions about the legality of abortion.

A 2009 Gallup poll on opinions about the legality of abortion.

In the debates about abortion, IVF and stem cell research, sometimes it can seem as though pro-choice and pro-life camps inhabit entirely different worlds. Although both sides frequently allude to ethics and morality to frame their arguments, they do so in very different ways and with very different conclusions. For example, the pro-life camp is often singularly focused on the moral weight of an embryo/fetus, whereas the pro-choice camp is often more focused on the moral weight of pregnant women and the individuals who could be helped by the potential medical advances brought about by stem cell research.

Despite these often absolutist positions, most people lie somewhere between the pro-life/pro-choice continuum. Yet, middle ground can often be hard to find in the debates, which is evinced by the way we discuss people’s positions on the spectrum: you’re either pro-life or you’re pro-choice, but we don’t have a word to describe people who don’t properly fit into either camp. And this is too bad – partially because advances in technology are making the traditional framing of the debate increasingly troublesome.

For example, earlier I blogged about the issue of sex-selective abortions and how the ability to determine the sex of a fetus early on in a pregnancy may make such abortions take place more often. Although the traditional pro-choice position would hold that a woman should morally be able to make an unimpeded choice about whether or not to continue a pregnancy, it doesn’t say much about the choice – whether impeded or not – to terminate a pregnancy when the fetus is not the right gender. Therefore, it is possible for a person to be adamantly in favor of giving women the legal right to terminate a pregnancy, but still be morally conflicted about sex-selective abortion.

This is why I think William Saletan brings much-needed nuance to the debates.  Saletan writes about science and technology for Slate magazine, and his column Human Nature often explores how the absolutist frames used by the pro-choice and pro-life camps can occlude the murky moral realities surrounding abortion, IVF and stem cell research.

For example, in a 2009 column, he writes about how technology is changing the terms of the debate:

The reason I keep you posted on developments in IVF, surrogates, and embryo screening is that they’re transforming the debate. They’re changing the conditions on which our moral positions rely. Were you pro-choice because the embryo was in a woman? Now we have embryos in dishes. Did you support embryo screening for fatal diseases? Now we’re talking about screening embryos for eye color. Does the value of an embryo depend on what its mother thinks? Now we have embryos with two mothers: a genetic one and a gestational one. Should they at least consult each other?

You know how science fiction often forces society to reevaluate previously held beliefs? Well, this is pretty similar, except without the fiction part.

I suspect that as such technology advances, it will force the pro-choice and pro-life camps to reevaluate their traditional framing devises surrounding the debate and arrive closer to the middle ground that most people occupy. And that middle ground is that embryos are not quite people — yet not quite not people, either — and thus we need a different way of assessing their moral weight. We need new frames.

This new middle way may mean that the pro-choice movement yields ground on which types of abortions are legally acceptable and the pro-life movement yields ground on sex education and contraception. But ultimately if absolutism yields to nuance on this very contentious and important issue, that can only seem a step in the right direction.


International Funding and the Legalities of Stem Cell Research

22 04 2011

By: Natalie Shuster

Human embryonic stem cell colony phase

Human embryonic stem cell colony phase

In the United States the funding and promotion of stem cell research from embryonic stem cells is a deeply rooted topic of debate within U.S.legislation. At a federal level, scientists can’t use government money to create new embryonic stem cell lines. All publicly funded work is confined to the 61 stem cell lines already in existence in 2001, when the ban on deriving new lines was implemented.

In July 2006 President Bush vetoed a Bill lifting that ban, based on his opposition to the use of public funds for projects involving the destruction of human embryos – the first time in his presidency he had refused to sign into law a Bill approved by Congress. Individual states have the authority to pass laws to permit human embryonic stem cell research using state funds. Several states have changed their legislation accordingly, including Connecticut, Massachusetts, California, and Illinois. This has enabled the establishment of California’s $3 billion Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

While stem cell research has fallen from prominence in recent years, within the political arena, the issue of funding is still pertinent to scientists across the nation. Interestingly enough, when viewing funding and legislative issues in other countries throughout the world, there are vast differences in both the acceptance of stem cell research and the resources allocated for said research.

When viewing the European Union (EU), made-up of 27 member states, there are various differences regarding hES1 (human Embryonic Stem cells) cell research. As of 2007, 10 states had no legislation on hES1 cell research, 11 states allowed for the procurement of hES1 cells from super-numary embryos by law, and 3 states allow for the creation of human embryos for procurement of hES1 cells by law. Countries like Belgium, Sweden, and the UK, allow for the procurement of human embryonic stem cells from surplus IVF embryos and, in particular circumstances (e.g. to study a particular serious disease), the creation of human embryos for the procurement of human embryonic stem cells. At the other end of the spectrum,Germany andItaly prohibit the procurement of human embryonic stem cells from human embryos, whileAustria,Bulgaria,Cyprus,Ireland,Lithuania,Luxembourg,Malta,Poland,Romania andSlovakia have no specific legislation at all in this area.

According to an analysis on laws affecting stem cell research,Singapore has “the most aggressive country in the world in its efforts to become a leader in human embryonic stem cell (HESC) research.” The legal regime inSingapore is highly supportive of matters related to HESC research, such as the availability and harvesting of embryonic stem cell sources.South Korea has also emerged at the forefront of international stem cell research through considerable government funding. Other Pacific Rim countries, such asAustralia andJapan, more legal components associated with HESC research, which translates into “considerably less scientific and economic development with respect to HESC research within the borders of these countries.”

While some countries rely on government funding and others on private donors there are vast differences among not only funding practices, but also the legalities associated with embryonic stem cell research throughout the world. Political turmoil and lack of regulation has proved advantageous for advancing stem cell technology and research within many countries. However, with minimal oversight comes an increase in controversy and the need to assess differing global values and perspectives. It is important that policy makers find the balance between adhering to cultural beliefs, morals and values, while being sure not to limit the availability of resources and scopes of research, to the point where science in the field cannot advance. As stated in the Journal of BioLaw and Business “those countries that have taken the biggest political and economic risks will reap the largest rewards.”


Conceiving of Conception

20 04 2011

By: Karen Frantz

An eight-cell embryo

An eight-cell embryo

One point of conflict between pro-life and pro-choice communities is the issue of personhood. At what point does (or should) life have the same moral and legal weight as any of the rest of us?

The answer may vary dramatically from person to person because how to see the issue is largely dependent on an individual’s values, religion, personal experience, community’s values, and other factors. Therefore, answers may range from personhood starting at the moment of conception, to the moment of birth, to even a time after that.

A particularly problematic belief in exclusive terms of public policy is that personhood starts at the moment of conception. This belief – usually based on religious values — has prompted many states, including Montana, Georgia, and Mississippi, to introduce legislation that would designate the start of personhood at the moment of conception. If enacted, such a law would not only have implications for abortion, but may have additional far-reaching – and likely unintended — consequences as well.

To understand why requires some understanding of conception and how it is different from pregnancy. Conception is the point at which a sperm fertilizes an egg. However, conception is not the same thing as pregnancy, which begins once the embryo implants in the uterine wall, usually a week later.

It is important to note that it’s common for embryos to never implant, and for a variety of reasons. For example, hormonal birth control and the morning after pill can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting. Moreover, natural malformations in the embryo — and even too much caffeine or alcohol — can do the same thing. Some estimates put the number of embryos that never implant and are simply flushed out of the woman’s system at 60 to 80 percent.

Thus, the simple occurrence of conception does not automatically mean a pregnancy will result – nor does it mean it’s even particularly likely a pregnancy will result.

If personhood is legally set at the moment of conception, logically that would mean not only could abortion would be outlawed, but also could anything that could result in the failure for a fertilized egg to implant. I’m certain that there are a number of people would wouldn’t mind seeing birth control outlawed – the Catholic Church has wrestled with this issue for quite some time. However, I imagine the numbers are far less for those that think sexually active women, including those trying to get pregnant, should be legally forbidden coffee.

But how best to convince people who may have deeply held moral or religious beliefs personhood starts at conception against such personhood initiatives?

I first learned of the likelihood of failure of a fertilized egg from implanting from a 2004 article in the libertarian magazine, Reason. The article, written by Ronald Bailey (full disclosure: Bailey is a family friend), is focused on the implications for stem cell research and poses an interesting thought experiment:

A fire breaks out in a fertility clinic and you have a choice: You can save a three-year-old child or a Petri dish containing 10 seven-day old embryos. Which do you choose to rescue?

He then goes on to make a compelling argument against equating an embryo with a fully formed adult – one that is particularly interesting because it takes on the religious argument for personhood on its own terms.

Stepping onto dangerous theological ground, it seems that if human embryos consisting of one hundred cells or less are the moral equivalents of a normal adult, then religious believers must accept that such embryos share all of the attributes of a human being, including the possession of an immortal soul. So even if we generously exclude all of the naturally conceived abnormal embryos—presuming, for the sake of theological argument, that imperfections in their gene expression have somehow blocked the installation of a soul—that would still mean that perhaps 40 percent of all the residents of Heaven were never born, never developed brains, and never had thoughts, emotions, experiences, hopes, dreams, or desires.

As Professor Nisbet has taught us this semester, you are very unlikely to challenge firmly held beliefs by reciting the contradicting science alone. You additionally need to foster trust, understand the morals and values that drive belief, and be able to actually find the proper avenues of communication (i.e. it will be easier to have your message actually be seen by conservative television viewers on Fox News than it will be on MSNBC).

I’m not certain that Bailey is likely to convince those who support personhood initiatives based on religious values that he’s right. On the one hand, Reason magazine may have the trust needed to attract a number of conservative readers due to its outlook on business and free markets. But on the other hand, with a more progressive outlook on social issues, it may not attract the social conservatives that hold the beliefs he’s trying to challenge.

However, his is a far different argument from what most pro-choice or pro-stem cell research organizations have used, which tend to focus exclusively on women’s reproductive rights or the moral imperative to look for cures for debilitating illness. Although those frames may go to some lengths to attract those on the fence, I do think Bailey starts in a better place, which is to engage believers on their turf, using their own frames.

In other words, this is one issue area where preaching to the choir is in your advantage.


States Battle over Abortion

12 04 2011

By: Madeline Priest

Defend Life sign. Photo by Brian Keaney

Photo by Brian Keaney

Looking back at the abortion debate in the United States ten years ago, the majority of arguments were over Roe v. Wade and whether it should be overturned or not.  Debate was largely focused on legislation at the federal level.  In the last couple years, abortion has not only come to the forefront of American political discourse and debate, but it has done so largely on the state level, where much anti-abortion legislation has been passed, and quickly.  The question is why this shift from national to state has occurred, and what it means for the future of both the abortion debate, and whether it will end up fueling a more national, federal debate.

In 2010 and thus far in 2011, strict abortion laws have been passed in multiple states, mostly involving the viewing of sonograms and mandatory counseling of women before undergoing abortion procedures.  What is particularly interesting about the abortion debate shifting to the state level is how effective anti-abortion proponents have been.  The president of the Center of Reproductive Rights, Nancy Northrup, described the amount of anti-abortion legislation passed recently as “an avalanche.”  This flurry of anti-abortion legislation at the state level makes sense when one considers the statistic that 90 percent of pro-life legislation happens and is most successful at the state level, with other states often adopting the same legislation.   In regards to bills proposed concerning ultrasounds, there were 30 new bills debated this year in 17 states, an astonishingly high number.

This barrage of legislation concerning ultrasounds fits into the larger reframing of the abortion debate.  Pro-life proponents have shifted to the argument that concern is more focused on making sure women are fully informed before they choose to undergo an abortion or not (it is argued that women should have to see an ultrasound in order to be more informed and aware that they have that viewing option).  This is a departure from the popular argument from pro-lifers that they are protecting unborn children by stopping abortions from being performed.  There is speculation that this push for anti-abortion legislation at the state level will lead to an eventual reigniting of the showdown over Roe v. Wade, and the resurgence of abortion as a wedge issue in the upcoming 2012 elections.

With the abortion debate heating up on the state level, and as a result receiving increased media coverage, there is reason to believe that abortion will play a role in the 2012 elections, and that politicians will have to highlight the issue more than in previous elections.  It is speculated that all politicians on the state level will have to take a stronger stance on the issue of abortion, from gubernatorial to state legislature candidates.  This could lead to a potentially nasty debate on all levels of the political system, and could act as a major wedge issue in the upcoming elections.  While pro-life Republicans have been successful at passing legislation to restrict the accessibility of abortion on the state level, this may cause their party problems.  In swing states and districts where moderates swung Republican in the last election, these same voters may be pushed back to voting for the Democratic candidate due to their stance on abortion.  Now that abortion is being brought to the forefront of political debate, a politician’s stance relating to the issue will be under much more scrutiny than it was last election, and the potential to alienate voters will be heightened.  There is also speculation by some that just as abortion has come to the spotlight on the state level recently; it will swing back to the national level soon enough.

The battle over abortion has certainly heated up, and has received much greater media and political coverage than in recent years.  It seems as though this shift from the national to the state level is due to the fact that more restrictive legislation can get passed on the state level and pro-life advocates recognize this fact.  It will be interesting to see the future of this debate, and the implications it has for politicians, upcoming elections, and future legislation.


Who is Timothy J. Atchison?

12 04 2011

By: Natalie Shuster

Last week Timothy’s name swept headlines nationwide as information about this University of South Alabama’s nursing student, was released. Timothy, also known as T.J. was the first patient to receive a drug made from embryonic stem cells, after a car crash lead to a devastating spinal chord injury.

After remaining anonymous for six months, Timothy’s name was finally released to the public, leading to internet rumors and a whirlwind of media coverage. This stem cell injection was one of the first carefully deigned attempts to study the impacts of embryonic stem cell therapies within humans. If it is shown to have positive effects, the results of this study could have very strong implications for further funding and policy making around stem cell research.

According to Timothy and researchers at Geron and the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, it is too soon for scientists to know whether the injected cells are able to help repair damage after a spinal cord injury such as the one suffered in Timothy’s car crash.

Timothy is not unique in his plight. In America today, there are over 250,000 people living with spinal chord injuries. There is currently no cure for either of the two spinal cord injury classifications. Thus, the results of this experiment could be an important step towards finding one.

Embryonic stem cell research has been a highly debated topic over the past few decades. Reaching media salience during the Bush administration, the issue has fallen to the wayside since the Obama/McCain elections in 2008. Proponents of stem cell research have historically argued that increased research and the use of embryonic stem cells have the potential to replace damaged cells and cure diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cancer, heart disease, arthritis, burns, or spinal cord problems like Timothy’s.  This communications frame of social progress and development is one often used by stem cell research supporters. It emphasizes our civic duty to support scientific inquiries that can eradicate diseases and positions the use of stem cells as a public health issue.

Conversely, opponents to stem cell research and the use of embryonic injections similar to those used on Timothy, would argue a morality component and the ethical concerns behind the use of embryonic stem cells. They would frame a debate against the use of this injection as the “destruction of life, of God’s creation” and the “equivalent to murder.” Right to life blogs have positioned Timothy’s treatment as an “ethically and medically dubious experiment using embryonic stem cells.”

Regardless, of one’s political and religious affiliation, all members of both political parties as well as those who citizens for and against embryonic stem cell use, will be actively watching the development and results of this experiment.


What is the ban on abortions based on ethnicity or gender really about?

2 04 2011

By Karen Frantz

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer

This week Arizona became the first state to outlaw abortions based on ethnicity or gender, and supporters and opponents of the ban are wrestling to control the frame of the debate. Is this ban about discrimination? Or is it about abortion? Whichever side sets the frame will likely have a marked influence on overall support for the ban.

The legislation, which was signed into law by Gov. Jan Brewer this week, makes it a felony to knowingly terminate a pregnancy that was sought because of the race or sex of the fetus. Violators could face multiple years in prison, but the law only targets the doctors that perform abortions, not the women who seek them. It would not require patients to disclose why they are seeking an abortion.

Cynically speaking, the legislation could be a smart wedge-issue for social conservatives to use against progressives. The majority of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in certain circumstances or in all cases, according to polls. But certainly there are the many exceptions, and abortions based on race and gender are likely two of them. For example, a 2006 Zogby poll found that 86 percent of Americans thought sex-selective abortions should be illegal.

Part of the reason there is less support for such abortions may be that it invokes in people not just a simple heuristic of abortion and whether it is acceptable or not, but also discrimination and whether it is acceptable or not. Therefore, those progressive individuals who view abortion as acceptable (within the frames of privacy and civil rights, as opposed to the opposing frame of religious morality) but view discrimination as unacceptable may experience some cognitive dissonance when confronted with the ban. Thus, they may choose to view the ban in terms of one heuristic over the other in an attempt to resolve that tension. The task then for conservatives is to persuade people to view the ban in terms of discrimination instead of abortion, hypothetically resulting in increased support.

It does seem that many proponents are mainly framing the ban accordingly, presumably hoping to sway some progressives to their side. For example, Rep. Steve Montenegro, R-Litchfield Park, who authored the legislation, said he introduced the bill to “take a stand against bigotry and prejudice.” Notably lacking from Montenegro, who is an evangelical pastor, were the common conservative arguments against abortion. In fact, he told Reuters that the ban was not about the legality of abortion itself, but instead was only meant to address sex and race discrimination.

However, many organizations that oppose the ban, such as Planned Parenthood, are framing it in terms of abortion rights. For example, Planned Parenthood spokeswoman Cynde Cerf said the bill was “nothing more than a way to further vilify women who seek abortion care in Arizona.” Another Planned Parenthood officer, Bryan Howard, also invoked the common pro-choice message that the decision to have an abortion is a private decision between a woman and her physician, partner and family.

Moreover, Planned Parenthood is not only invoking the abortion rights frame, but is also casting doubt on the appropriateness of the discrimination frame. “We don’t have evidence of these kinds of motives in the state,” said Howard, referring to the incidence of abortions sought due to race or gender.

Here is where Planned Parenthood has the facts on its side – in fact, there is little evidence that such abortions are a widespread problem in the United States, and certainly sex-selective abortions in particular occur here far less often than in countries like China. Although such facts are unlikely to persuade social conservatives that the ban is unneeded, they may be enough to persuade progressives to see the ban in terms of the abortion rights frame instead of the discrimination frame.

However, this may be an issue to watch, as there is evidence that the incidence of sex-selective abortions, although currently negligible, is creeping upwards among particular populations. For example, a 2008 article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science found that in the U.S. there was some evidence of a skewed male to female ratio, favoring males, among the non-firstborn children of Chinese, Korean and Asian Indian parents. (In those populations, if the first child was a girl, the ratio of boy to girl for the second child was 1.17 to 1. And if the first two children were girls, the ratio of boy to girl for the third child was 1.5 to 1.)

Given that more sophisticated technology has made it far easier to determine the gender of a fetus early on in a pregnancy — at a time when abortions are more likely to occur, and are becoming less invasive for the mother and are less expensive — sex-selective abortions may become a more pressing issue than it was in the past. Thus progressives may find themselves needing to develop a new heuristic for such abortions, rather than relying on traditional abortion rights frames.


The State of the Science in the Media: Stem Cell Research, Public Opinion and Politics

31 03 2011

By: Sarah Sonies

Michael J. Fox in a campaign ad for a pro-stem cell research candidate.

A few years ago, stem cell research was a hot-button issue in the media—especially if we take a look back at the 2004 presidential election. The issue of stem cell research was hotly contested with much of the mainstream news media covering the political debate and discussion of the pros and cons of stem cell research.

The controversy over funding for stem-cell research was part of nation coverage of elections, with even celebrities like actor Michael J. Fox getting personally by endorsing candidates who were pro-stem cell research.

The coverage of the issue undeniably peaked in 2004, even transcending traditional political party lines. The late President Ronald Reagan’s son, Ron Reagan, also garnered a lot of media coverage when he spoke at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston advocating for stem cell research funding. One of the reasons Reagan spoke is because his father suffered from Alzheimer’s, which is a disease that, according to the MSNBC article, would be amenable by stem cell research.

However, it cannot be disputed that stem-cell research is rarely discussed in the high-profile way now that it was almost seven years ago.

So—what happened? Meaning, where is the media coverage of stem-cell research now? Surely, it is still an important issue but why is no one talking about it? The coverage and discussion of the issue has been sadly limited since September when the National Institute of Health was granted permission to resume funding for stem cell research by a judge in the United States Court of Appeals from the District of Columbia.

The ruling was in response to a U.S. judge blocking President Barack Obama’s executive order expanding stem cell research on Aug. 23. The granting of the appeal on Obama’s executive order was surely a notable victory for NIH, but since the appeal was granted the media coverage of this issue has been disappointedly sparse.

This issue could be related to a lack of public understanding about the information available about stem cell research. According to a 2010 Virginia Commonwealth University Life Science survey about public opinion and science, 44 percent of Americans are unclear about the differences in stem cells.

Low rates of media coverage and public understanding could be due to the political framing of the issue. Nisbet, who has been covering stem cell research since 2001, discusses the politicization of stem cell research on his blog, The Age of Engagement, in the wake of the late August decision.

Nisbet’s blog states that the politicization of the stem cell debate has just driven a wedge between political parties and individuals.

Nisbet writes:

“This hope for cures and economic growth was often taken too far by many advocates, most notably John Edwards, who in 2004 infamously declared that if John Kerry were elected, Christopher Reeve would be able to walk again.  The Wedge strategy also had a notable influence on public opinion. …  Democrats and Republicans began to appear right around 2004 when Dems turned to stem cell research in their campaigning.”

The observations Nisbet makes on his blog certainly ring true –the more politicized the issue of stem-cell research becomes, the more it confuses the public as they feel as if they should pick a side on an issue they are only vaguely informed about.

When only the controversies of this issue are covered, it really does not facilitate an increase in public awareness, unfortunately leaving the public often caught in the middle of a media storm that just covers the issue in the frame of a heated debate.