Monday, March 9, 2009

Embryo case study: ethics decision process

Here is more about moral ethics, using the embryonic stem cell research controversy as the case study. In other words, I am going to give you some general moral and ethics guidance, and you can see how to apply that moral guidance to the specific example of embryonic stem cell research.

The first point that I want to make, stated as a principle that everyone should strive to follow, is this: When alternative actions are available, always start first with the most morally and ethically conservative position, and if that is not successful, move step by step toward the more questionable, also known as the “slippery slope.”

If I had a sketch pad capability here I’d draw a picture that on the left side has the label “Most morally conservative and highly ethical option.” On the right side I’d label the diagram “Totally slippery slope that could lead into very unmoral and unethical options.” I’d actually draw what looks like that wintry icy slippery slope where at the bottom are outlines of rocks that represent decisions and options of potential moral and ethic breakdown.

So then in the middle of the picture you can draw some columns, unlabeled and empty, just like a blank spreadsheet, and they represent the possible actions that are increasingly morally and ethically questionable, those options you have not yet identified or if you have, you have not yet pursued.

Let’s use a mundane example of how to use this chart. Suppose you wish to obtain a house in which to live. Your first choice ought to be the highly ethical and moral option, the far left column, of purchasing or building a house. Your first choice is the most moral and ethical purchase of a house at a good price with all legal and ethical requirements totally fulfilled. That should, obviously, be your first thought of action. However, suppose you totally lack any morality or ethics and still need a house? This would be the extreme right hand column. You might get a gun, kill the occupants of the house that you want, and move into their house. That is the opposite extreme of the highest morality and ethics, which is to purchase a house using good and fair bargaining and honest merchandising and legal safeguards. The opposite of that is to covet someone else’s house, kill them, and take their house.

In business most normal people of course start with the highly moral and routine transaction of seeking a house that one can legally and fairly purchase. However, in this society, increasingly people have some twists to the most ethical option, which are some of those blank columns in the middle. For example you could collude with the real estate agent to cheat the home seller of some of their home’s value. That would be a column that is nearer to the ethical best of honest bargaining and purchase, but has inched toward the slippery slope. People today are, sadly and incorrectly, much more comfortable with such options that are not of the totally correct, but are one or two steps toward the slippery slope. Another example is to obtain a house that you could not afford in return for doing something legally or morally questionable, such as you receive the house at a reduced cost because you engaged in something like industrial espionage for someone. That’s another step toward the slippery slope. Yet another example of stepping toward the slippery slope is to jack up house prices, or, conversely, trash a neighborhood so that you behind the scenes manipulate the desirability of the community within which the house you want resides.

In the “old days” of classic capitalism no one would have even thought of those options. People built houses and people bought as much house as they wanted and could afford, and that was that. But in these wily and “make a killing” and “get the most for yourself” modern mindsets, far more people think that shady steps that are toward but not totally on the slippery slope are morally and ethically “fair game.” They think these are options that the “free market” ethos endorses as being acceptable in ethics.

So that is an example that is easy to understand of how to understand where one individually is, or where society is, for any given issue on the total ethics/morality-to-total slippery slope of moral/ethic breakdown continuum of options.

Now, let’s use this chart as an example regarding embryonic stem cell research. But before diving into it, let’s look at the decision that is one step in front of the one now being discussed. At some point when it was discovered that infertile women could receive implanted embryos, one did not start with the most conservative position. The most conservative position would have been to create two and only two embryos and implant both of them. If both became viable the lady had twins. If one failed the other would develop and the lady would have a child. If both embryos failed it is like a miscarriage where for some reason birth circumstances just were not naturally correct. That is what should have been the standard procedure and there should not have been “bank vaults” of numerous embryos which are planted and “culled” like weeds in a field. Thus one would not have the embryos lying around frozen “which are just going to get thrown away anyways” in the first place if the most highly moral and ethic standard was followed in the first place. People did not think through the entire ethics and morality of the scientific gift of embryo creation and implant in the first place, which is to stick to the natural model in the first place. The natural model is one embryo and, often two, as is common when a woman has twins. Embryonic creation and implantation should have stuck to that model.

This is why the Catholic Church opposes these procedures because they perceive, correctly, that it leaped in one bound from a loving and desirable fixing of a medical condition (infertility) to factory line manufacturing of throw away embryos. If people had gone for the most conservative moral and ethical implementation, as I describe here, in the first place, the Church would have been much more able to tolerate the medical goodness of what is being attempted. However, in one leap embryonic development and implanting left the natural model and made embryos throw away commodities. That was a grave moral and ethical lapse, and put everyone squarely into the slippery slope of sin.

So that is an example of how individuals and society ought to be able to start with the most conservative moral and ethic position and thus prevent further disastrous ethics down the line. If ethics were followed in the first place we’d not have those “poor embryos that are just going to remain frozen or tossed out anyways, so let’s conduct experiments on them” argument.

Likewise, when researching any illness or infirmity one should always start with the most conservative moral and ethical options and as they either result in steps toward a cure, or do not pan out, then cautiously step one increment at a time toward the “right” side of the chart. We have lost years of research on NON-embryonic stem cell research (much of which, doctors attest, look more promising in results today than do the embryonic sources) because people decided to dive into the middle, even the total slippery slope side, before fully exploring the first and ultimately, most likely, productive research options. There should have been massive funding of adult stem cell and non-embryonic (such as umbilical cord) research for the past several decades rather than the immediate embrace of the embryonic route. The terrible irony is that if the more moral and ethical choice were made from the start and vigorously funded, Michael J. Fox and other celebrity sufferers and advocates of progress toward cures might actually have been seeing some progress in those cures today.

People might respond to me, “Well, we should try all options at the same time.” Be real, please. You know that funding is fought over and scarce and not all options can be funded, especially as this balloon economy is imploding. An abundance of funding should have been poured for the past twenty years or more into the most conservative ethic and moral options, research into non-embryonic stem cell and other sources of cures, rather than starving what ultimately will probably be the most successful route, discovered only after so much of the country, including Nancy Reagan, can only think of the most morally questionable route to help the suffering and think that this is the highest ethics.

So modern people have, without their own conscious realization, settled their ethical and moral “homes” dangerously far into the slippery slope and don’t even realize that there is a scientifically valid approach that starts with the most moral and ethical scientific options first. Not to be too extreme, but it is like, well, “I need that house more than you, and I have a good reason, so I’ll just shoot you and take the house.” It no longer occurs to people, in the stem cell debate, to start with the ethical and moral equivalent of what should be the norm, which is to start with the most conservative scientific research position, to look at adult supplied research solutions, such as using the adults own stem cells, or from umbilical cords, skin cells, placentas, whatever. But no, everyone is immediately assuming that the only “cure” must come from embryos being experimented upon, researched and destroyed. I cannot understand how people cannot see this. Well, this is why I have explained using the “chart” approach how to better understand how it is that we are in this sorrowful position. I believe that if people had funded non-embryonic research from the very beginning fully and most vigorously that we’d have today the beginning of some of those much craved breakthroughs today. Instead people are actually cheering doing more embryonic “work” instead of realizing they’ve not funded the most likely cure routes at all. Who are REALLY the “compassionate” ones? If I had had it my way we’d have breakthroughs without using embryos by now. I don’t blame President Obama because the people just will not see until they fully crash on the rocks on the slippery slope, and when they look up from the crash, find there’s no cure that way either.

And by the way, here is my last thought about the “we are going to throw the embryos out anyway so let’s use them.” Not too long ago animal shelters sold or gave abandoned pets to medical researchers. "After all, the dogs or cats were going to be euthanized anyway, so let’s give them to laboratories for humanitarian research.” Pets were even stolen out of yards by people who sold them to animal laboratories, so great was the demand for dogs and cats to experiment on until they died. It was one of the great scandals of the 1970’s and an area of early activism. Pounds stopped, due to public outrage, giving abandoned pets “that are just going to be destroyed anyway” to laboratories to use them in experimentation. Using today’s logic, I guess we should have kept giving abandoned animals to research laboratories to experiment upon rather than stop that practice. So, sure, “Got embryos ‘anyway?’ Let’s experiment on them rather than ‘just’ destroy them.” When one has residents of a concentration camp anyway, and they are going to die anyway, why not do some good ‘humanitarian’ experimenting? That is the slippery slope of that thinking, and those of us old enough to remember the fight against using abandoned animals for laboratory experimentation, “since they are just going to die anyway” remember a higher ethical and moral society when people, repulsed, said “No,” even though those abandoned animals were “just destroyed.” Or, rather than waste those abandoned animal carcasses, why not skin "Fido" and "Kitty" and let the pounds sell euthanized dog and cat fur in order to raise money? That is the mindset of not wanting to just "throw out" embryos without "putting them to good use." Can you not see how repulsive the slippery slope is? I hope that you young people in particularly understand your ethical options more as I described the abandoned animal experimentation battle that took place before your time.