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Posts Tagged ‘medicine’

Life, Science and Politics

The Election is Almost Over

In the United States, we have a new president and the election is nearly complete. There are still three seats in question in the Senate. One will be settled by a special runoff election, and two will be settled (we hope) by a recount.

There were two issues in this election which were to be settled by voting on Civil Rights issues. My personal opinion is that referendum on Civil Rights issues should never be subject to vote as this is a circumvention of the idea of a Republic and opens the door to Tyranny of the Majority. I am referring to votes on the issues of gay rights and abortion.

Three states voted to suppress the rights of gays to marry. Two states’ elections were intended to stave off court rulings which may or may not appear before their courts. One state’s election was to overturn a state supreme court ruling that laws against gay marriage were unconstitutional. The resulting outcome of the election has sparked protest and outrage throughout the country, as those of us who think that the concept of marriage should not be a matter of choosing a religious viewpoint to make policy have stated so publicly and loudly. The voters of California, Florida and Arizona made a huge mistake. The voters of Arkansas, in denying the rights of gay adoptive parents and indeed of orphan children to be adopted, made a mean-spirited decision that has no place in a free society.

In South Dakota, the voters sensibly denied a referendum to make abortion illegal and set up a new challenge to Roe v Wade. In Colorado, the voters avoided a very stupid amendment to their constitution which would have afforded unborn children all of the Constitutional rights that adults share, potentially making all forms of abortion illegal. It would have opened up a whole new series of messes in law and medicine.

Over the last two weeks, I have been wondering how science should be used to help guide the ethics of public policy. The proposed Colorado Amendment is especially troubling because of the difficulty in defining when life itself begins in the womb.

The Catholic Church, and indeed many churches who focus on the ethics of abortion, teaches that “Life Begins at Conception.” And this is an obvious first step towards the life of a human, but as gynecologists understand there are many steps between conception and birth that can be naturally interfered with to prevent the outcome of a slap on the butt and a tearful wail.

Following conception, a fertilized egg must implant in the uterus in order to start the process of dividing cells to multiply and form a pharyngula stage embryo. While this process can happen in the fallopian tubes, such events are extremely dangerous to both the mother and the fetus. These “ectopic pregnancies” are deadly and can only be treated by ending the pregancy. The proposed amendment could have led to emergency room physicians who perform procedures to end such pregnancies being prosecuted for the murder of an unborn child. Would that be a positive benefit for society? No.

The Blind Watchmaker has not been kind to women regarding the birthing process. (Epicurus, anyone?) Surely, an Intelligent Designer could have done a much better job of creating such an important process for the beginning of life for an exalted and special species such as Man. While obstetrics have done wonders at saving the lives of thousand of women who would have otherwise died, at any stage of pregnancy the mother carries enormous risk to herself and to the developing fetus inside. Careful, scientifically-based treatments to save the life of the mother may often call for the end of life for the fetus and I don’t see how the government should be able to flatly say that any such treatments should be made illegal and subject to criminal prosecution.

The government of Afghanistan under the deposed Taliban ruled that women were not allowed to be doctors because of their religious belief that women are subservient to men and subject to male whims. Their religion also ruled that no man was to examine a women’s reproductive organs unless he was married to her, and so gynecological examinations were ruled to be illegal and along with that obstetrics were severely hampered as well. While they are temporarily (and I hope permanently) deposed, the resulting unnecessary deaths of women and fetuses was a tragic situation created by religion. While some of you may think that this is an example of reductio ad absurdum, the passage of the amendment in Colorado would have had the same sort of effect.

The impetus for the amendment was religious in nature, and clearly ignored the science of conception and pregnancy. It was driven by the efforts of a young woman who wanted to “protect babies.” I want to protect them, too, by making sure that obstetricians have all of the available tools and options to protect both the lives of the mothers and the fetuses. But doctors are all too aware that saving the lives of both the mother and the fetus is impossible and that the choice belongs to those involved and not the government; and certainly not a government restricted by the questionable ethics of a subset of the population that holds no quarter for abortion of any kind.

There are now cases of priests who have told their parishioners that if they voted for Barack Obama then they should perform an Act of Contrition prior to accepting the Eucharist. They have been told that voting for Obama was a sin because he is not an absolutist when it comes to abortion. For many atheists, this has led to a call for an investigation into the tax-exempt status of the parishes whose priests have made such pronouncements. Churches are not to preach on politics if they wish to remain tax-exempt.

For me, it raises a more disturbing question. Where were these same self-righteous clerics when George Bush was re-elected in 2004? By then, we all ready knew that the case for the War in Iraq was based on data that he knew were faulty and he pressed on anyway. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians have been killed (I am not arguing that Saddam Hussein should have been left to kill and torture his subjects. Please review nuance before making that accusation against me.) “Shock and Awe” was an indiscriminate bombing and shelling of targets and “collateral damage” included untold numbers of civilians.

Where was this demand for “respect for life” following the 2004 election? Tell me of a priest who admonished parishioners for choosing Bush over Kerry then. No, the focus even then was on Kerry’s public position that while he is opposed to abortion he would not in good conscience be able to impose his religious beliefs on those who don’t share them.

Too often, as a society, we look to religion for guidance on ethical issues. While this may often be appropriate as clergy usually must have some training on how to approach ethics, it is often very dangerous. I have written about the misguided policies of the Bush Administration’s policy on funding embryonic stem cell research, and the curious ethical position that disposal of frozen embryos is preferable to research which also destroys blastocysts.

The science is often ignored, and the Initiatives, both passed and defeated related to life issues, were based solely on a religious position. For me, as someone who values both women and fetuses, our policies should be more carefully targeted to reducing the frequency of unwanted pregnancies.

But then we get into the issue of contraception and factual sex education, to which the “pro-life” forces also raise strong religious objections.

To sum up, ethics are more sensibly guided by paying attention to science in these issues than to hard-line, Talibanic positions.

I invite any of my co-bloggers to address the issue of homosexuality and “lifestyle choice” related to science and religion.

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