Thursday, July 27, 2006

Dr. Death

On, the daily news line-up featured a column entitled "Doctors Kept Asking to 'Let' My Father Die: Wall Street Journalist." The article is a summary of a column that appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Friday, July 21, 2006 - "How Faith Saved the Athiest: Why did the doctors stop asking me to pull the plug?" The WSJ column, written by Pamela Winnick, describes her father's time in the hospital due to a blood clot. During this time in the hospital, she was repeatedly asked to "pull the plug" on her father or let him "die with dignity." She devised the ruse to tell the staff that her family and her father were Orthodox Jews. Once this was known, the hospital staff avoided further death with "dignity" talk.
Though my father was born to an Orthodox Jewish family, he is an avowed atheist who long ago had rejected his parents' ways. As I sat in the ICU, blips on the various screens the only proof that my father was alive, the irony struck me: My father, who had long ago rejected Orthodox Judaism, was now under its protection.

As though to confirm this, there came a series of miracles. Just a week after he was rushed to ICU, my father was pronounced well enough to be moved out of the unit into North Shore's long-term respiratory care unit. A day later he was off the respirator, able to breathe on his own. He still mostly slept, but then he began to awaken for minutes at a time, at first groggy, but soon he was as alert (and funny) as ever. A day later, we walked in to find him sitting upright in a chair, reading the New York Times.
Soon thereafter, her father was able to leave the hospital - alive and well.
On Father's Day, we packed my father's hospital room: his wife, daughters, grandchildren, each of us regaling him with our successes large and small. "Life's not so bad, after all," the atheist said. I wanted to go back to ICU, find Dr. Death, drag her to my father's room and say: "This is the life you wanted to end."
(Note: I thought it is worth mentioning that one sad thing about Minnick's column is her rant against "conservative" Christians, but regardless of that fact, the account of her father's treatment is still valid and compelling.)

The news article does a nice job using Minnick's column to describe the situation we find ourselves in, that is, a medical profession that seems eager to end life as soon as possible. As Mr. Vanderheyden notes in the Lifesite article:
Ever increasing reports of incidents of this sort points towards a frightful widening acceptance and often even imposition of euthanasia for the sick and the elderly. The medical community appears the most insistent on this while conveying an attitude that it is far less trouble and less expensive for them to simply cease treatment for those they deem are close to death or even just incurable. It is becoming common in Western hospitals that the elderly are passively and sometimes actively euthanized without their or their family's consent. Last month reported on a prominant British medical ethicist who stated that it is time to "regulate" the already existing practice of "involuntary euthanasia," often referred to in legal systems as "murder."

A joint statement by a group of doctors and lawyers on euthanasia and physician assisted suicide (PAS) published on in October of last year warned that "If euthanasia became legalized, the decision whether to terminate or preserve a patient's life or to assist with PAS will rest with the medical profession. To legalize euthanasia and PAS would dramatically increase the power doctors have over their patients and severely decrease patient autonomy."
Who know's how scary things will be in the coming years when a medical emergency arises and you have to use hospital emergency facilities. Will Dr. Death be there waiting to "pull the plug" on you or your loved one? I don't mean to end on such a frightening note, but we have to understand the realities of the medical profession and how these "strangers" at our bedside may soon be calling all the shots when it comes to matters of life and death, whether in the name of let him "die with dignity" or "you are using up valuable resources or space" or "you cost too much" or you are an "inconveience."

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Genetic Outlaws

Browsing around the internet on a break from my thesis research, I found an interesting article in Business Week entitled "Confessions of a 'Genetic Outlaw'" which concerns genetic screening. Here is the opening paragraph of the article to get your attention:
From time to time, we are all confronted with the disconnect between how we see ourselves and how others see us. I've always seen myself as a responsible, law-abiding citizen. I recycle, I vote, I don't drive a Hummer. But I've come to realize that many in the scientific and medical community view me as grossly irresponsible. Indeed, in the words of Bob Edwards, the scientist who facilitated the birth of England's first test-tube baby, I am a "sinner." A recent book even branded me a "genetic outlaw." My transgression? I am one of the dwindling number of women who receive a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome and choose not to terminate our pregnancies.
It certainly is a good article to read. If I have some time later, I will write some comments.

UPDATE: The article's main thrust concerns the place of disabled individuals (with Down syndrome, etc) in a technologically-advanced culture, whose medicinal practices seek to "alleviate potential suffering and protect the quality of the lives they are bringing into the world." What kind of message are we sending in our attempts to eliminate "unfit" embryos from being born into the world through the usage of genetic screening? The author of the article, Elizabeth Schiltz, does not suggest we abandon the usage of genetic testing but rather wants our attention to focus on what we do with the knowledge we gain from such testing. In a beautiful summation to the story, Schiltz concludes:
I would not want scientists to stop delving into the mysteries and wonders of the human genome. I am glad that I knew my son had Down syndrome before he was born. If one of these scientists found a "cure" for my son's Down syndrome, I almost certainly would give it to him. But I will admit that I would pause beforehand. I would think hard about this real-life conversation between a teenager with Down syndrome and her mother. The daughter asked her mother whether she would still have Down syndrome when the two were together in heaven someday. The mother, taken by surprise, responded that she thought probably not. To which her daughter responded, "But how will you know who I am, then?" And I would also think hard about whether the world would really be a better place without my son's soft, gentle, deep, almond-shaped eyes.
The alleviation of "suffering" in regards to individuals with Down syndrom reminds me of a poignant passage from Stanley Hauerwas' essay, "Suffering the Retarded":
The challenge of learning to know, to be with, and care for the retarded is nothing less than learning to know, be with, and love God. God’s face is the face of the retarded; God’s body is the body of the retarded; God’s being is that of the retarded. For the God we Christians must learn to worship is not a god of self-sufficient power, a god who in self-possession needs no one.... God is not separated from himself or us by his suffering; rather, his suffering makes it possible for him to share our life and for us to share his.
Since I am in the middle of my thesis research, I hesitate to continue further with more comments, but maybe down the road I will take up this issue again.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Periodic Continence and NFP

I saw an article mentioned on the Insight Scoop which is a blog for Ignatius Press authors and staff. The article "NFP: A Defense and an Explanation" by Mr. Thoams Storck appeared in the Homiletics and Pastoral Review July 2006 issue. The article takes aim at the issue of whether serious reasons are needed to use Natural Family Planning (NFP) or similar methods in order to space children or delay pregnancies.

I do not take issue with Mr. Storck's presentation of NFP and whether the Magisterium offers some teaching regarding NFP. My criticism as I continued to think about it concerns much more with Mr. Storck's presumption that when the Church has talked about using methods to regulate the birth of children, it speaks of NFP. Indeed the praise that Mr. Storck lavishes on NFP from magisterial documents appears to be praise for the practice of periodic continence. Certainly, NFP contains periodic continence but I think its emphasis is a bit different than taking up periodic continence. Below, I have copied what I wrote as a comment on the Insight Scoop blog. I may add or change elements to make things more clear but I think the points I make in this long comment are valid and worth pondering.

I do want to make one comment regarding my first main point in this comment below. I think I may have over-stated the case in the manner that I do. I do not think Mr. Storck gives a particular impression of NFP. Rather I think I take a more general impression I get from those think that NFP means having conjugal intercourse during infertile times to avoid a possible pregnancy. I do apologize for this over-statement and I believe the point remains valid to some extent because of the impression that NFP generally has.

--------------(Start of Comment)--------------
Thanks for the link to that interesting article. Just from my two readings of it, I wish that Mr. Storck had made one important observation concerning NFP, a better reading of Familiaris Consortio and the Catechism as well as a better understanding regarding the ends of marriage.

The article, I think, leaves a wrong impression about the method of NFP in one respect and that is where an observation about NFP is necessary. NFP is not just about having conjugal intercourse during infertile periods, it is also about restricting sexual activity to such times. This really leads to where the Church praises about the use of infertile times. The couple learns to share in the virtue of continence in which they offer up and sacrifice conjugal relations for the good of the family, health of the spouses, or whatever is the just reason for the use of NFP. Periodic continence is thus a praiseworthy element of NFP (as we shall see in Familiaris Consortio and in the Catehcism, even Pius XII's Address to Midwives which Mr. Storck quotes, has a section entitled 'the Heroism of Continence'). It takes a mastery of the self on the part of both spouses to offer up this sacrifice.

And this observation leads me into my criticism of his reading of Familiaris Consortio in which he misses John Paul II's account of following the natural cycle of the woman's body. Mr. Storck seems to glide right past the part concerning "self-control" which he quotes in his article. It is not so much the ability to have conjugal intercourse within infertile times that builds up the marriage, but rather the ascetical practice of not having conjugal intercourse that provides a growing intimacy which deepens the bonds of marriage and love. You can practice periodic continence without resorting to NFP. Indeed, periodic continence is an important theme in this regard as you see in paragraph 33 of Familiaris Consortio:
But the necessary conditions also include knowledge of the bodily aspect and the body's rhythms of fertility. Accordingly, every effort must be made to render such knowledge accessible to all married people and also to young adults before marriage, through clear, timely and serious instruction and education given by married couples, doctors and experts. Knowledge must then lead to education in self control: hence the absolute necessity for the virtue of chastity and for permanent education in it. In the Christian view, chastily by no means signifies rejection of human sexuality or lack of esteem for it: rather it signifies spiritual energy capable of defending love from the perils of selfishness and aggressiveness, and able to advance it towards its full realization.

With deeply wise and loving intuition, Paul VI was only voicing the experience of many married couples when he wrote in his Encyclical: "To dominate instinct by means of one's reason and free will undoubtedly requires ascetical practices, so that the affective manifestations of conjugal life may observe the correct order, in particular with regard to the observance of periodic continence. Yet this discipline which is proper to the purity of married couples, far from harming conjugal love, rather confers on it a higher human value. It demands continual effort, yet, thanks to its beneficent influence, husband and wife fully develop their personalities, being enriched with spiritual values. Such discipline bestows upon family life fruits of serenity and peace, and facilitates the solution of other problems; it favors attention for one's partner, helps both parties to drive out selfishness, the enemy of true love, and deepens their sense of responsibility. By its means, parents acquire the capacity of having a deeper and more efficacious influence in the education of their offspring.
So it is not so much NFP that is praiseworthy itself but rather the emphasis is on the periodic continence that is a part of NFP. The Catechsim continues this point with paragraph 2370: "Periodic continence, that is, the methods of birth regulation based on self-observation and the use of infertile periods, is in conformity with the objective criteria of morality. These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favor the education of an authentic freedom." So the use of infertile periods really speaks to the practice of continence which is a part of NFP but not all of NFP.

Next, Mr. Storck continually refers to the procreation and education of children as being the primary end of marriage; thus he relegates the mutual love between the spouses as a "secondary end." Since the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church has abandoned the usage of primary and secondary ends. To reference them otherwise is a mistatement of the Church's official teaching. Gaudium et spes paragraph 50 does not make reference to the primary/secondary distinction. It makes the two ends on a more even level. The Catechism of the Catholic Church does not make reference to this primary/secondary distinction.

Lastly, I want to end with a beautiful section from Pius XII Address to Midwives. It speaks of periodic continence and its possibility within marriage because I feel that is where the Church's praise really lies:
"God does not oblige anyone to do what is impossible. But God obliges husband and wife to abstinence if their union cannot be completed according to the laws of nature. Therefore in this case abstinence is possible." To confirm this argument, there can be brought forward the doctrine of the Council of Trent, which, in the chapter on the observance necessary and possible of referring to a passage of St. Augustine, teaches: "God does not command the impossible but while He commands, He warns you to do what you can and to ask for the grace for what you cannot do and He helps you so that you may be able".
I hope I have been clear. I have re-written this several times and made dozens of corrections and deletions. I hope my comments are not out of place. I hope they clarify things instead.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Does the New York Times need a name change?

I came across this story on, which is an excellent site to find news as well as good conservative analysis of current political events and news topics. The article, I found, is entitled "The New Gay Times" written by Brent Bozell III, the founder and president of the Media Research Center. The article details the New York Times and its involvement with the promotion of homosexuality not only through its biased news articles but also through sponsorship of events such as the Gay Games and talks/lectures about "gay" issues. As Bozell notes:
Just a few weeks ago, a "Times Talks" panel on the 25th anniversary of the first article on AIDS in The New York Times included radical activist Larry Kramer, who distributed his wild remarks in advance, claiming, among other things, that "the gay population of the world has been, and continues to be, targeted for extinction." His written remarks also called for "Nuremberg trials," to hold not only the late Ronald Reagan, but also the owners and editors of -- how's this for gratitude? -- The New York Times accountable, like Nazi war criminals, for the AIDS holocaust.

That's just crazy. But by placing its famous name squarely on the side of the gay left, The New York Times is sending a message to America's solid majority against putting thousands of years of tradition through the shredder. It says: You're all intolerant bigots on the wrong side of history, and you will be defeated, even if we have to make utter asses of ourselves in the process.
You have to read the whole piece and see the journalism practiced by the NYTimes.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Future of Stem Cell Research

In today's Washington Post, in an article entitled "Stem Cells Without Moral Corruption," (free registration may be required to access the article) Robert P. George and Eric Cohen do an excellent job of pointing out the errors in the attitudes of many scientists in the quest for "progress" with stem cell research and cloning. This "progress" does nothing more than use and discard human life - in the form of human embryos.

George and Cohen point to the infamous Hwang Woo Suk, a lead research from South Korea, who in 2004 and 2005 triumped his achievements in cloning human embryos and stem cell lines from cloned embroyos. But hi
s work was determined to be fabricated. "Apparently, no cloned embryos were ever produced; no embryonic stem cells were ever created." In addition to the fabrication of data, Hwang "used eggs procured from junior researchers in his own lab - a violation of the Helsinki Declaration that governs medical research - and then lied to cover it up. His partner, Roh Sung II, paid 'volunteers' for additional eggs and forced them to lie about it on their consent forms." Hwang and his partner exploited women in their desire to acheive cloned embryos. These women "undergo a risky and unpleasant procedure - first, ovarian hyperstimulation, and then the insertion of a needle into their ovaries to procure the wanted oocytes - with no medical benefit to themselves." This type of exploitation and coverup
would never happen in America, researchers assure us. But as time goes on ... some will call the ethical limits into question: Why not pay women for their eggs? Why not induce poor women to profit by risking their health? Of course, no responsible doctor coudl advise his patient to undergo such a procedure. But perhaps we will simply "update" basic medical ethics as well, and decide that the "good of mankind" trumps the good of individual patients.
George and Cohen do not like the slippery slope of "progress" for the "good of mankind":
We have seen where this amoral logic leads us -- to shameful abuses of research subjects, which surely no one wants to repeat. But we have also seen, in the stem cell debate, how moral lines erode quickly -- from using only "spare" embryos left over in fertility clinics to creating human embryos solely for research to creating (or trying to create) cloned embryos solely for research. What will be next? Probably proposals for "fetal farming" -- the gestation of human embryos to later developmental stages, when potentially more useful stabilized stem cells can be obtained and organ primordia can be "harvested."
George and Cohen then argue that two pieces of legislation currently in the Senate would help protect the dignity of human life by prohibiting fetal farming and "one that would fund alternative methods of producing genetically controlled, pluripotent stem cells -- just the kind of stem cells we would get from cloning, but without the embryo destruction."

George and Cohen draw two final points: one about the cloning scandal and the other about the future of cloning research.
In the end, the lesson of the cloning scandal is not simply that specific research guidelines were violated; it is that human cloning, even for research, is so morally problematic that its practitioners will always be covering their tracks, especially as they try to meet the false expectations of miraculous progress that they have helped create.... But because cloning is so morally problematic, we need to find another way forward.

Instead of engaging in fraud and coverup, or conducting experiments that violate the moral principles of many citizens, we should look to scientific creativity for an answer. Since the cloning fraud, many scientists -- such as Markus Grompe at Oregon Health & Science University and Rudolf Jaenisch at MIT -- have been doing just that. And others, such as Kevin Eggan at Harvard, may have found a technique, called "cell fusion," that would create new, versatile, genetically controlled stem cell lines by fusing existing stem cells and ordinary DNA. Scientists in Japan just announced that they may have found a way to do this without even needing an existing stem cell line.

In other words: all the benefits of research cloning without the ethical problems. Looking ahead, it is becoming increasingly likely that reprogramming adult cells to pluripotency, rather than destroying human embryos, will be the future of regenerative medicine. It offers both a more efficient and far more ethical way forward.
This article provides some good reflections about the state of stem cell research and and the lessons that should be learned from the cloning scandals. Ultimately, the only true advances in science are those based upon the dignity of man and the respect for human life. Without these two fundamental truths, progress will be nothing more than the destruction of the weak and innocent in the name of the advancement of the "good of mankind." Science and medicine has seemed too eager to abuse those who are weak or disabled for the good of all, but we should take time to respect and defend those who are innocent and weak and give them the proper dignity that is due to them as human persons.