Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Don't get me wrong -- ethics is hard work

Now that the Terri Schiavo circus has packed up the elephants and headed out of town, we do need to have a serious, public discussion about end of life and beginning of life ethics. Not that there is any real hope of that happening.

The new British Medical Journal (link is a PDF) brings two items of news from across the pond that we here in the colonies might want to think about.

The British Law Lords (equivalent to our Supreme Court) have ruled that British law does not forbid parents from intentionally selecting embryos that are a tissue type match for existing children who require a tissue donation, in other words the creation of so-called "savior siblings." (That's "saviour" in the UK, but I prefer to conserve my "u"s if at all possible.) Actually it's a bit more complicated than that because UK law has established a Human Embryology and Fertilization Authority that actually regulates such practices, however the authority has evidently approved it in the case at issue.

There has been at least one such case in the U.S. already, which received fairly limited attention. This strikes me as odd because the cult of life folks ought to be absolutely appalled. These couples are perfectly capable of reproducing without use of in vitro fertilization. They deliberately create multiple embryos, have them tested for compatibilty with the sick sibling, implant the one that matches and destroy the rest.

Those of us who do not believe that embryos are "human life" or have the moral status of human beings nevertheless have other grounds for being disturbed by this practice, in particular the question of whether the baby so created is truly a wanted child and what it might mean for the child, the family and the rest of us if we sanction bringing children into the world for the purpose of donating their bone marrow to someone else.

The second case is from the Netherlands, where physician assisted suicide and euthanasia are legal under strict conditions. A Dutch physician provided the means for suicide to a man diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, who was in the early stages and far from terminally ill, but who did not want to endure the later stages of the disease and repeatedly asked for help to commit suicide. The committee that oversees assisted suicide ruled that the patient was indeed "suffering unbearably," presumably just from the prospect of advanced dementia, and was competent to choose, therefore the assisted suicide was permissible. Note that if this patient waited until his dementia was more advanced, he would have become technically incompetent to choose, and the option would not have been available to him.

This is also troubling to me, on various grounds, although I support the general right for people to choose the time and manner of their passing, and it is possible that in the same circumstances, I personally might have the same wish as this patient.

What do others think about these cases?

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