Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Here are the facts: stem-cell research is one of the most promising developments in the last century of medicine. It could offer therapeutic breakthroughs for every disease of injury process that human beings suffer -- for the simple reason that embryonic stem cells can become any tissue in the human body. This research may also be essential for our understanding of cancer, along with a wide variety of developmental disorders. Given these facts, it is almost impossible to exaggerate the promise of stem-cell research. It is true, of course, that research on embryonic stem cells entails the destruction of three-day-old human embryos. This is what worries you.
Let us look at the details. A three-day-old human embryo is a collection of 150 cells called a blastocyst. There are, for the sake of comparison, more than 100,000 cells in the brain of a fly. The human embryos that are destroyed in stem-cell research do not have brains, or even neurons. Consequently, there is no reason to believe they can suffer their destruction in any way at all. It is worth remembering, in this context, that when a person's brain has died, we currently deem it acceptable to harvest his organs (provided he has donated them for this purpose) and bury him in the ground. If it is acceptable to treat a person whose brain has died as something less than a human being, it should be acceptable to treat a blastocyst as such. If you are concerned about suffering in this universe, killing a fly should present you with greater moral difficulties than killing a human blastocyst.
Perhaps you think that the crucial difference between a fly and a human blastocyst is to be found in the latter's potential to become a fully developed human being. But almost every cell in your body is a potential human being, given our recent advances in genetic engineering. Every time you scratch your nose, you have committed a Holocaust of potential human beings. This is a fact. The argument from a cell's potential gets you absolutely nowhere.
But let us assume, for the moment, that every three-day-old human embryo has a soul worthy of our moral concern. Embryos at this stage occasionally split, becoming separate people (identical twins). Is this a case of one soul splitting into two? Two embryos sometimes fuse into a single individual, called a chimera. You or someone you know may have developed in this way. No doubt theologians are struggling even now to determine what becomes of the extra human soul in such a case.
Isn't it time we admitted that this arithmetic of souls does not make any sense? The naive idea of souls in a Petri dish is intellectually indefensible. It is also morally indefensible, given that it now stands in the way of some of the most promising research in the history of medicine. Your beliefs about the human soul are, at this very moment, prolonging the scarcely endurable misery of tens of millions of human beings.
You believe that "life starts at the moment of conception." You believe that there are souls in each of these blastocysts and that the interests of one soul -- the soul of a little girl with burns over 75 percent of her body, say -- cannot trump the interests of another soul, even if that soul happens to live inside a Petri dish. Given the accommodations we have made to faith-based irrationality in our public discourse, it is often suggested, even by advocates of stem-cell research, that your position on this matter has some degree of moral legitimacy. It does not. Your resistance to embryonic stem-cell research is, at best, uninformed. There is, in fact, no moral reason for our federal government's unwillingness to fund this work. We should throw immense resources into stem-cell research, and we should do so immediately. Because of what Christians like yourself believe about souls, we are not doing this. In fact, several states have made such work illegal. If one experiments on a blastocyst in South Dakota, for instance, one risks spending years in prison.
The moral truth here is obvious: anyone who feels that the interests of a blastocyst just might supersede the interests of a child with a spinal cord injury has had his moral sense blinded by religious metaphysics. The link between religion and "morality" -- so regularly proclaimed and so seldom demonstrated -- is fully belied here, as it is wherever religious dogma supersedes moral reasoning and genuine compassion.
My mother's mother will be 92 in August. She's relatively healthy, and despite the occasional setback, she could easily live for years and years. Also, her mind is completely lost to Alzheimer's disease.
Every few weeks, my mother visits her at her nursing home on Long Island. To reach her room, she walks through hallways where moans and yelps echo from slack mouths. Men and women stare from their beds and wheelchairs into space or the space that exists between their vacant eyes and a TV screen. An alarm device clips to their gowns and the bed boards or chairs so someone can come to prop them up if they slump forward.
My mom always brings a comb and scissors to trim Grandma's white hair. She powders her nose, tweezes her chin and blushes her cheeks. For a little while she looks a little more presentable.
But her eyes betray no fleeting thoughts of recognition. Her two daughters and four grandchildren register as little more than just some people — or maybe just colorful shapes and blurs that make noises.
My grandma from Queens made matzoh ball soup, rooted for the Mets and always made a fuss when my brother jokingly patted her perfectly coiffed hair. Now, she is fed, she is bathed, and she babbles. Her incoherent mumbling once included an occasional recognizable name or place or word. The last time I saw her, she spoke in spurts of half-words. Fractional thoughts that sounded alien, like those blurted by my 1-year-old niece. But instead of curiosity, they meander with a detached confusion.
I should visit her. I'm sure I will. Soon. I'm sure.
But though Eleanor Siegel lives, the woman I knew as my grandmother is long gone. I don't remember the last actual conversation we had — maybe six years ago. I know this is a sin.
Over the weekend, my girlfriend and I watched some old 8mm home movies that were transfered to video tape. In 1974, Eleanor doted over her newest grandchild, some puffy lump they called Ricky.
The video place had added Muzak versions of nostalgic standards, the kind of songs that sound like a Casio keyboard wrapped in a damp towel playing from the speaker inside an elevator stuck between 1961 and 1962. The random songs didn't always match the action on screen. "Strangers in the Night" or "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" might play over a birthday party or a trip to the zoo. I thought of my grandmother.
As video Ricky grew up and his parents insisted he be called Rick, I couldn't imagine what he imagined. I couldn't peer inside his developing head and remember what I had once remembered.
And I thought of Grandma Eleanor. Standing around in her green and white outfit, applauding Rick's clumsy steps or laughing as Grandpa Jack twirled inside a hula hoop. Where has she gone? What is left? Is it better to continue living while your memory, personality and ability to function slowly vanish or to retain complete mental acuity as your body slowly betrays you, breaking down until the end?
Of course, we can make no such choice.
Two of my grandparents died after strokes and heart attacks. Grandpa Jack shrunk, yellow and gray, as cancer dripped him dry.
My other grandma lives in a Long Island room, clutching a doll and surrounded by pictures of strangers. My mother wants me to see her this summer. She wants her to meet my girlfriend.
I wish she could.
Monday, June 18, 2007
Friday, June 15, 2007
Is this right? Should Tucan Sam be blamed for fat kids?
I tend to believe the free market and good parenting can coexist. Now, I've never had to endure a child's insistant whining about why he only eats healthy breakfasts and why he can't have Fruity Pebbles on occassion. I ate Apple Jacks for most of my childhood after mom caved in on her sporadic no-sugar policy. And I imagine it's hard to compete with advertising from these food companies that bombard kids during every TV show they watch.
But suing these companies for putting out a product is bullshit. They have a right to sell a product and a right to advertise it however they like without making false claims. It's not like placing a loaded gun in a child's hands. The parent still has to pull the trigger.
Monday, June 11, 2007
Sunday, June 10, 2007
Similarly, I can't tell you precisely what it's like to be Pharaoh, a single mother or a papier mache naked mole rat.
We are all trapped in our own bodies, limited to our own perspectives and defined by our own experiences.
So as the nation continues to grapple with gay marriage, why do so many heterosexual people assume they understand homosexuals?
I'm not gay. I knew this at least from when I was in the third grade and had a crush on the sixth grade girl who monitored our lunch table. (Sorry, Debbie Something. You missed your chance.)
I can't imagine being gay. I've had close, loving relationships with male friends that have lasted longer than any I've yet had with a woman. But I've never felt sexually attracted to them. Brad Pitt and George Clooney are good-looking men. But when I see their movies, I want their women, not their bodies.
I had a gay roomate once, and the worst thing I could say about him was that he couldn't pay his share of the rent. Which might just be more evidence for equal treatment: Gay people can be financially irresponsible, too!
So when opponents to gay marriage deride homosexuals for pursuing a degenerate lifestyle choice, I wonder: When and why did these critics choose to be heterosexual?
Ah, yes. The natural order of things requires a man mate with a woman to perpetuate humanity and all that stuff. But what is natural? Babies are born with Huntington's disease or cleft lips. Some have genetic conditions that prevent them from growing to average heights, speaking or surviving to their 10th birthdays.
In no way am I implying homosexuality is a birth defect. But so what if it is? Everything human is by definition natural. Does it make sense to deny someone his rights because of how he was born? Why is this any different from Jim Crow laws discriminating against blacks?
Nobody who has ever bothered to talk to a homosexual person would come away convinced they made a conscious choice to be gay. You are what you are. Just ask Ted Haggard. Or not, considering he still thinks he can be "cured." And I'm sure we all wish him the best of luck with that.
I don't know what it's like for gay folks to realize who they are. I imagine it's often difficult to contend with a judgmental society and the prospect of harassment and ridicule. But if it was anything like it was for me, I imagine it doesn't take long to realize who you find attractive.
The only rational reason for opposing gay marriage rights is if you still believe homosexuals have chosen their sexual orientation and you want to punish them for it.
You believe allowing homosexuals to marry will destroy an institution that already fails more than it succeeds in this country. You have no idea how much "traditional marriage" has changed (because the most traditional and widely practiced type of marriage in the world has been polygamy). You believe two committed, loving adults could not possibly provide a better home for children than single parents or a series of foster homes. You might even believe two committed, loving adults should not share the same employment, medical and inheritance rights of straight couples.
If you are a religious person against gay marriage, you believe God created a breed of people inferior to you and unworthy of equal rights, much less your love and compassion. You believe tolerance for people different from you should not be tolerated.
Come to think of it, if you believe all this nonesense, you might just be a kumquat. Juicy, right?
Saturday, June 09, 2007
Now, listen. Like everyone else I've had my share of fun at Paris Hilton's expense. She's an easy target who continues to make herself easier. And my schadenfreude meter almost burst yesterday reading the AP story about how she went back to jail crying and screaming for her mommy.
Thursday, June 07, 2007
Wednesday, June 06, 2007
Monday, June 04, 2007
Sunday, June 03, 2007
Well, it's June and I'm already looking forward to football season so I can watch a team that actually wins.
For those not following the train wreck that is the Chicago Cubs, let's review the recent highlights:
May 29, 2007: Catcher Michael Barrett gets picked off second base by the other team's catcher. Lou Piniella tempts fate, declares "That might be our worst game of the year."
June 1, 2007: Frustrated, Barrett and pitcher Carlos Zambrano slug it out. I don't mean that in the "useful for one's batting average" way. And that may not have even been the most pathetic play of the day.
June 2, 2007: Lou gets his first ejection of the season after having a meltdown over a call he knew was correct. Chicago Tribune writer Dave Van Dyck theorizes, "Maybe Lou Piniella has finally figured out the best way to avoid watching his baseball team—have the umpires throw him out of the game."
Also, Zambrano declares that "I think the only person who can control my emotions is God." Fans throw trash onto the field.
The Cubs are 22-31.
Bring it on, Jets.
Friday, June 01, 2007
Sometimes foresight can be 20/20.