Thursday, August 24, 2006

Abortion and Constitutional Interpretation

Methods of interpreting the Constitution are high on my list of intriguing topics for discussion. Applying such methods to central controversial issues of current law is not just intriguing, but important. Such a discussion is currently happening on the Volokh Conspiracy blog. If you're interested in those topics, I strongly recommend that you read the post, and at least skim through the comments. Then, join in the discussion over there, or post a comment here. I'd love to discuss...


The Murky Moral Waters of Embryonic Science

There has been a burst of news relating to embryonic science in the last two days, raising some very interesting (and difficult) moral questions.

First, there was the report in the journal Nature that a group of scientists had found a way to generate new embryonic stem cell lines for research without harming the embryo in the process. The procedure used is similar to what is currently performed in fertility clinics to screen pre-implanted embryos for genetic defects.

Then today, the Plan B contraceptive debate hit the front burners again, as the FDA approved it for over-the-counter use in America. Many are up in arms, saying that President Bush has gone against his pro-life principles by approving the use of an abortion drug. Others are up in arms (or have been), saying that the delay in approval was an example of religious conviction overriding science.

Is the Plan B contraceptive an abortifacient? Specifically, does it inhibit implantation of a fertilized embryo? We had a discussion closely related to this previously on this blog, comparing breastfeeding with other forms of contraception such as the pill, arguing that both had the possibility of inhibiting implantation and therefore being abortifacient. I also came across (via RedBlueChristian) a seemingly well-researched opinion on the Ales Rarus blog, arguing that there is no solid evidence that either breastfeeding or Plan B inhibits implantation at all (the post is in two parts, and due to bizarre web formatting, you'll want to read the printable versions of the posts here and here).

I confess that I'm confused. The citations on the Ales Rarus blog sound very convincing... but are they comprehensive? According to the Washington Post article, "Some research suggests Plan B also may keep a fertilized egg from attaching to the womb". What research is that? Does anyone know? The quote on Ales Rarus from Joe DeCook (VP of American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists) seems to suggest that there is no such research: "The post-fertilization effect was purely a speculation that became truth by repetition". Also, as cited on Ales Rarus, the results of the testing in Chile that showed that "when [Plan B] was given [to monkeys] after mating—at a time when fertilization was believed to have occurred (on the basis of previous monitoring)—the pregnancy rates observed were identical in cycles treated with levonorgestrel or with a placebo". In other words, if ovulation had already occurred, Plan B had no effect in that study on the fertilized embryo.

So what are the studies that show that Plan B does affect implantation, or that it has any effect on a fertilized embryo? Are there any such studies? Or are people opposed to Plan B simply because it might affect embryos, even if there's no evidence to show that it does?

This focus on preserving embryonic life also is central to the importance of new process developed to extract embryonic stem cell lines for research without harming the embryo itself. It's fascinating, and could be significant... but I have one pressing question.

14 embryos were used by the research firm that developed the method. Those 14 embryos each had a single cell extracted, and were then still healthy and able to develop. What happened to those 14 embryos? I can easily guess... they were probably treated like countless other results of IVF procedures, and destroyed.

If we, as a society, are OK with intentionally destroying embryos that are "left over" from IVF... then why exactly again are we so concerned about not using those embryos for research? There is a large sector of our society that is opposed to embryonic stem cell research (somewhere between 40% and 50%, I think, from most polls I've seen). There is nothing near that type of movement in opposition to IVF, with consequent embryo destruction.

So how is it that such a significant percentage of the American population is OK with destroying embryos intentionally for convenience, but is not OK with destroying embryos intentionally for research purposes? This, for me, is a conundrum.

Personally, I have significant concerns about IVF in general, though I can see its value in very limited circumstances, and carried out in very specific ways. We've had discussions on that topic on this blog in the past, here and here.

These topics bring up so many potential interesting questions, I won't even try to suggest a subset of them here. :)


Friday, August 18, 2006

An Unusual Diagnosis

I've heard a good number of diagnoses about the (purported?) failure of American foreign policy in the last few years. Most have centered around an image of President Bush as (a) a do-it-alone gun-slingin' cowboy, (b) a "God tells me what to do and I do it" arrogant exclusivist, or (c) an idiot who can't always tell his right shoe from his left, and probably is just a puppet of corporate entites pulling the strings. One or more of those themes is generally central in the critiques I've seen of the Bush administration's foreign policy.

But, this one's different.

According to Gerard Baker, writing in the London Times, the problems with the Bush administration's foreign policy have come from a lack of "resolute leadership". Bush has waffled too much, caved in to pressure too much, been too inconsistent.

What do you think? Is Baker on to something?

As one of his supporting points, Baker suggests that one of the main results of our Middle East policy of the last few years has been the elevation of Iran's importance. "The despised regime in Tehran has emerged as the true hegemonic power in the region, leeching on the battered bodies politic of Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, elevating its brand of Shia fundamentalism into position as the dominant force in the Islamic world and continuing on its path towards nuclear status." If that is true, that would certainly be the opposite of the direction we wanted to go. Our aim must be the marginalization and weakening of Iran. Have we made Iran more influential in the Middle East? If so, what could we have done differently to prevent that from happening?


Monday, August 07, 2006

Moral Madness

Last week in the National Review Online, Victor Davis Hanson wrote an article titled The Brink of Madness -- A familiar place. (Thanks to Douglas Groothius for pointing me to the article.) Hanson suggests that the state of moral judgment in the Western world today regarding Islamic terrorism is much the same as the situation before WWII toward Germany. His thoughts raised some pointed questions in my mind.

Hanson states his thesis this way;

Our present generation too is on the brink of moral insanity. That has never
been more evident than in the last three weeks, as the West has proven utterly
unable to distinguish between an attacked democracy that seeks to strike back at
terrorist combatants, and terrorist aggressors who seek to kill civilians.

He points out that the methods of the Hezbollah and Iraqi insurgents both are to use civilians (and the UN and, I might add, Muslim shrines) as shields to either (a) protect them from more civilized societies that would prefer not to kill civilians (or freedom fighters or holy shrines of anyone's religion); or (b) allow them to claim moral superiority (or at least ambiguity) if they are attacked and the innocent shields they are hiding behind are damaged.

Hanson highlights the general difference between the Islamic terrorists and the Israeli and Western forces by an observation. European cartoonists, he says, are afraid to display Islam disparagingly, but "they now portray the Jews as Nazis, secure that no offended Israeli terrorist might chop off their heads."

He builds up to this statement: "the amoral Westerner cannot exercise moral judgment because he no longer has any."

In his summary, Hanson makes some other claims of causes of our "moral insanity", particularly in the Middle East.

He argues that the West is a "corrupt world" that, among other things, "is largely anti-Semitic" and "finds psychic enjoyment in seeing successful Western societies under duress".

Is the West largely anti-Semitic? I don't see evidence of this in the people that surround me, but that is admittedly a very small slice of "the West". I don't see it in the public statements of political leaders or influential people. I'm sure anti-Semitism exists... but is it fair to characterize the world as "largely" anti-Semitic?

Does the West in general find "psychic enjoyment" in the demise of its own success? This I can believe more readily, and I found Hanson's way of putting it quite insightful. It explains for me what has been one of the great conundrums of the age... the same people who fight hardest against conservative values in Christianity, fight nearly as hard to empower (or at least enable) the far-more-strident and violent conservativism of Islamic fundamentalism. As quick as they are to make claims of fundamentalism and theocracy and ignorance and ignominy toward Christians in the West, they are just as quick to contest such claims made toward Islamic radicals. Possibly Hanson's suggestion of a deep desire to see successful Western society come on hard times has some merit.

Thoughts, either on the points I brought out or other things that Hanson has to say?