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Making Waves, Practicing Wisdom

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on January 21st, 2008

Today is the publication date of Charlie Halpern's engaging memoir, Making Waves and Riding the Currents: Activism and the Practice of Wisdom. The book recounts Charlie's work as a pioneer of public-interest law, founder of several innovative organizations, head of a progressive philanthropic foundation, and student of Buddhist spirituality.

In addition to all that, Charlie has over the past several years lent his considerable legal talents and political wisdom to the issues raised by the new human biotechnologies. He was a key participant in opposition mounted by CGS and other public-interest groups to the 2004 ballot measure that established the California stem cell agency, and in subsequent efforts to bring some modicum of oversight and accountability to the program. Charlie testified about its flaws to the California legislature, was quoted in dozens of media accounts in national and state newspapers, and submitted numerous letters and petitions to the agency's governing board, including one in February 2005 with Former US Secretary of Health Philip Lee. Many of his letters are included in a compilation of documents on the CGS website.

Making Waves, which features forewords by Robert Reich and the Dalai Lama, includes an eloquent call for bringing "wisdom of a high order" to the urgent new challenges involving science, religion, justice and the human future:

We are at a point where no humans have ever been before, capable of taking over the evolution of the human species, designing the traits of babies, and altering the genetic package that children carry forward into life…If ever there has been a cluster of issues that demands the highest level of attention and care - wisdom of a high order - this is it. Instead, it is being treated like a political football, with Republicans playing to the fundamentalists and many Democrats mindlessly championing the unfettered discretion of scientists to do whatever experiments interest them, regardless of their social consequences.

The recent spate of books demonizing all religions, in the name of science and reason, seem to be calculated to heighten polarization and decrease the likelihood that wisdom will enter the discussion. It would be a tragedy if the voices of wisdom aren't heard on these matters.

What to Expect in ’08: The Business of Baby-Making

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on January 21st, 2008

What next for the notoriously under-regulated and highly lucrative assisted reproduction industry? Some developments to look for:

  • Sex selection. U.S. fertility clinics will step up their promotion of pre-pregnancy sex selection, and the Genetics & IVF Institute will request and receive FDA pre-market approval for the sperm-sorting method known as MicroSort. In India, civil society efforts to get enforcement of laws against sex selection will start to make headway, but skewed sex ratios in some regions there - and in a number of other Asian countries - will get even worse.
  • Surrogacy. Look for more coverage of the growing rent-a-womb business, in venues from women's lifestyle magazines to business journals to anti-globalization websites. "Medical tourism" companies will cash in on the attention, arranging growing numbers of outsourced pregnancies that offer affluent couples cut-rate surrogacy arrangements with a next-to-zero chance that the woman from a rural village who carries and births "their" baby will change her mind about handing it over. In the U.S., heart-breaking dramas will continue to surface as wildly inconsistent state surrogacy laws foster "regulation shopping" by brokers.
  • Egg freezing. Dozens more fertility clinics will launch online advertising about "exciting new developments" in egg freezing techniques. But they will downplay the risks of egg extraction, the problems of egg thawing (the American Society for Reproductive Medicine estimates a 2-4% chance of a live birth for every thawed egg), safety concerns about any children eventually born, and the appalling lack of data about all of these.
Looking for hopeful signs? Check out these three recent and upcoming sources of careful thinking about assisted reproduction:
  • Future Choices: Assisted Reproductive Technologies and the Law by Jessica Arons of the Center for American Progress

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

What to Expect in ’08: Stem Cell Research

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on January 19th, 2008

Prognostication is a risky endeavor, but we can't resist. It's already mid-January, and time to the ball rolling with a few general predictions about the world of stem cell research in 2008:

  • Major developments in the isolation of potent stem cell lines without the destruction of embryos will continue, particularly using cell reprogramming. That method will receive federal funding, but ACT's single cell biopsy will not, based on religious objection that it harms embryos.
  • A bill to expand federal funding for stem cell research will again pass both houses of Congress. It will be modified, compared to the previous two attempts, in some manner in order to attract more votes. But there will still not be enough to override the president's veto. Stem cell research will not be a significant issue in either the presidential or Congressional elections.
  • Despite the recent creation of human clonal embryos, 2008 will not see further major developments in cloning-based stem cell research. By the end of the year, there will be growing sentiment that it is technically inferior to cell reprogramming techniques, and not worth the difficulties of procuring fresh women's eggs.
  • The California stem cell research agency will receive a burst of positive publicity around the large facility grants and its new president, Alan Trounson. But by year's end, tensions between Trounson and board chairman Robert Klein will surface. Missteps and minor scandals will continue. The Legislature will consider a bill to reform the beleaguered agency. Calls for major house-cleaning and Klein to step down will grow louder, adding to those from CGS, the Sacramento Bee, and the Los Angeles Times.
  • No more states will set aside earmarked funds for embryonic stem cell research.
  • Geron will not begin its long-awaited clinical trial for potential embryonic stem cell therapies.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Transhumanists as Nihilists

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on January 16th, 2008

Yesterday, the World Transhumanist Association released its third survey [PDF] of its members. Some of the results are predictable: The respondents were 90% male, for example. (Fortunately, no questions were asked about Star Trek.) But the results of two questions surprised me with what amounts to, at the very least, an acknowledgment of the limitations of the organization's philosophy. Almost a third of the respondents predict "that emerging technologies will cause an abrupt, cataclysmic, worldwide social change by 2040" (emphasis mine). Thus a large minority seems  to be happy to promote technologies and policies that they think will lead to dramatic, widespread, and negative results.

Similarly, only 46% agree that "believe humans and posthumans will be able to coexist in one society and polity," implying that a majority foresee that the path they advocate will lead to significant social conflict among the enhanced and "naturals." Sounds like the prediction by George Annas at the 2001 World Conference against Racism. Annas asserted that such strife would lead to "genetic genocide":
This is because, given the history of humankind, it is extremely unlikely that we [the "naturals"] will see the posthumans as equal in rights and dignity to us, or that they will see us as equals. Instead, it is most likely either that we will see them as a threat to us, and thus seek to imprison or simply kill them before they kill us. Alternatively, the posthuman will come to see us (the garden variety human) as an inferior subspecies without human rights to be enslaved or slaughtered preemptively.

It is unclear to what extent the transhumanist survey respondents fully thought through the implications of the answer to their question. Yet one need not be radically dystopian to see that once one segment of society believes it is biologically superior to the rest, then trouble if not violence is a likely consequence.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

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