Archive for July, 2001

Permit Federal Funding of Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Sunday, July 29th, 2001

Though perhaps difficult to answer, the question framing the abortion and embryonic stem cell research debates is easy to pose: At what point from conception on do we ascribe the status of “person” and hence recognize the rights of embryos and fetuses? Once this question is answered, conclusions about abortion and embryonic stem cell research follow like water off a ledge.For those who conclude that personhood occurs at conception, unless the mother’s life is at risk, the right to life trumps any right a woman has to make decisions about medical treatment. On the other hand, if embryos and fetuses are only human “tissue” and not persons, then there is no moral impediment to the removal and disposal of embryos and fetuses.

In contradiction to many Conservative friends, I have argued that personhood is associated with brain wave activity in the neocortical area of the brain where higher-level mental activities reside. Such activity does not occur until the second trimester. Hence, abortions in the first trimester ought to be permitted by legislative decision. The judicial fiat of Roe v. Wade was not the way to permit first trimester abortions, but that is another story.

In the second trimester and most certainly, the final trimester, termination of pregnancy should occur only in the case when the mother’s life is threatened. Even then, if a fetus can be delivered in a fashion that does not compromise the mother’s life, the baby should be delivered and provided the maximum opportunity to thrive.

Under this framework for ascribing personhood, embryonic stem cell research should not only be permitted, but also federally funded. Stem cells are not, nor are the embryos from which they are derived, persons. If such tissue provides fruitful avenues for important medical research, there is actually a positive ethical obligation to use such cells.

There are some in the pro-life movement, like Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, who are both against abortion and yet for embryonic stem cell research. Hatch, has argued that an embryo is not a person until it is implanted in a womb. Surely, that is a tortuous and contrived distinction brought upon by the understandable desire to make ethical room for potentially important medical advances from embryonic stem cell research. If he gave it more thought, Hatch would agree that if it were medically possible to bring an embryo to full term without ever being in womb, he would still ascribe personhood to a late term fetus. The physical position of an embryo or fetus with respect to the womb is irrelevant to personhood. To argue otherwise is to concede inadvertently a distinction crucial to abortion absolutists who would permit abortion at any point in pregnancy. It is illegal to suck the brains out of a late term fetus that is outside the womb, but permissible (and some abortion absolutists argue Constitutionally protected) to do so in a “partial birth” abortion.

Even if one allows for the ethical permissibility of embryonic stem cell research, human stem cells are not a commercial commodity that can be traded and marketed indiscriminately. Just as we do not permit marketing of kidneys, the disposition of stem cells should be regulated. Bill First, Republican Senator from Tennessee and the only doctor in the Senate has proposed a reasoned compromise to the stem cell research question. Though it is perhaps more restrictive than I would propose, President George Bush would still be wise to adopt First’s approach. Essentially, First would

  • Restrict research to stem cells from embryos slated for disposal and not created specifically for research.
  • Ban cloning.
  • Increase research in the use of adult stem cells. This research poses fewer ethical problems.
  • Establish an intensive oversight system.

This regime would allow federally-funded embryonic stem research to go forward as we struggle to understand the potentials and hazards of such research.

Diversity as a Core Requirement

Sunday, July 22nd, 2001

“Education is a weapon whose effect depends on who holds it in his hands and at whom it is aimed.” — Joseph Stalin, 1934.

Wit has it that good students drive out bad teaching. Bright and enthusiastic students, especially at the college level, will generally avoid mediocre teachers, pedestrian courses, and unserious notions. The principle that quality attracts quality and repels incompetence protects American post-secondary education from becoming totally awash in politically correct indoctrination.Ever creative universities and colleges have responded by buoying enrollment in “diversity” courses by requiring them for graduation. Diversity Digest happily reports that 63% of colleges and universities either require diversity courses or are considering the institution of such core requirements.

If diversity really referred to the diversity of ideas, the consideration of broad areas of intellectual thought and human experience, then such requirements would enrich the curriculum. The titles of such “diversity” courses might be: World History, Philosophy from Antiquity to the Present, or Comparative Religion. These courses would be broad in scope, introducing students to the incredible variety of accumulated human knowledge and wisdom. When the National Assessment of Education Progress reports that “Fewer than half the grade-12 students in the assessment were able to reach the Basic level [in US History]” much less the “Proficient” or “Advanced” levels, it is clear that time needs to be devoted to broadening rather than narrowing educational exposure.

Instead such “diversity” courses tend to focus on the usually narrow grievances of one group or another. For example, according to the University of Maryland Schedule of Classes for Fall 2001, courses that meet the diversity requirement, “focus primarily on…the history, status, treatment, or accomplishment of women or minority groups and subcultures…” While a few of these courses may be gems, it seems doubtful that anything but a single narrow perspective is considered. Rather than offering a mountain of jewels to students, the world is portrayed through but one facet of a single gem.

It would be humorous, if it were not so sad, that all courses of study feel the necessity to pay rhetorical homage to the diversity curriculum. In describing a course cluster of Calculus I and Introduction to C Programming, in the College of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Maryland, the college apparently felt compelled to begin the description with the sentence, ”The science and technology leaders of the future will include large numbers of traditionally underrepresented groups.” The statement may be true, but it hardly constitutes the reason to study Calculus I and C Programming.

It is not that many groups do not have legitimate grievances or do not offer unique, interesting or enlightening contributions. It is not that serious study of different cultures is not important or fruitful. Rather, it is that the focus on one or a few such groups as part of a “diverse” undergraduate curriculum cheats students out the breath of exposure we expect from a liberal (small L) education.

The majority of undergraduates do not go on to graduate school and many of those that do specialize so narrowly that it can be said that for many the majority of a lifetime of intellectual capital is amassed by the end of the undergraduate years. It is truly foolhardy to squander any of this time on any but the broadest and most intellectually serious courses of study.

The Dish

Sunday, July 15th, 2001

The 2000 movie The Dish tells the story of Parkes Observatory in Australia used during the Apollo 11 mission to receive television pictures as Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon and into history. High winds threatened the reception of the moon-walk video as the receiving dish was deployed beyond the wind stresses the dish was certified to take. The movie may have taken a few poetic liberties in the retelling of the story and a more complete history can be found at Parkes Observatory Web Site.

Nonetheless, the movie does capture the sense of the collective international endeavor of the moon trips. President Kennedy’s challenge to travel to the moon within a decade certainly began as a Cold War stunt, but rapidly grew out of its mercenary origins. By the time Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin walked on the moon, much of the world was intensely hopeful and interested in their progress. As for many other people, the small-town Australians living in the immediate vicinity of Parkes took a vicarious pleasure and pride in the historic role they were playing.

The story also stands as a contradiction to the intellectually-pure, hard-hearted, chest-beating Libertarian view-point. While it is clear that the free market is probably the most efficient expedient for allocating resources, it is not the only value to consider. Contributing to an enterprise larger in scope than immediate and personal self-interest can serve to the important purpose of cementing a community, a nation, and even the world.

For many of a certain age, the mission to the moon was a life-altering experience that permanently affected the way the world is viewed. For another generation, the Great Depression or World War II remains as the collective enterprise or experience that helps define a particular generational perspective.

Unfortunately, such times and moments cannot be easily contrived. Perhaps they cannot be deliberately contrived at all. Renewing a space program as ambitious for our time as the Apollo missions were for their time would probably prove too divisive as different groups vie for resources. Certainly a war or depression offers no pleasant prospect.

As this current generation idles in relative and desultory prosperity, one wonders what if any collective perspective will help define us.

Speak Out for Li Shaomin

Sunday, July 1st, 2001

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Speak Out for Li Shaomin July 1, 2001

Frank Monaldo

It was over ten years ago in 1989 when a valiant young man stood alone in front of a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square in an act of protest. The photograph of the incident has become an apt metaphor of the fundamental conflict in China: the intransigent independence of the individual resisting the crushing dominance of the state. Since that time, Chinese military power, influence, and economic strength have grown, but there has not been a commensurate improvement in political and personal freedom in China.

What made the protest at Tiananmen more poignant for Americans is that the Chinese protestors embraced American symbols as well as ideals in their protest. We have grown accustomed to American flags burned in anger usually by puppets of regimes or other groups run by thugs. The site of paper mache reproductions of the Statue of Liberty reminded Americans of the liberty they enjoy.

A short time after the protests at Tiananmen Square had been ruthlessly squashed, George Bush the elder sent high-level Administration officials to mend bridges with the Chinese government. Americans were rightly upset at this capitulation to Chinese tyranny.

Bush did not want Chinese repression to alter long-term trade and diplomatic relationships with the United States. Diplomacy can work in ways that are not readily apparent to those more concerned with principle than tact. If the private rapprochement had resulted in concessions by the Chinese government that loosened its grip over the private lives of the Chinese, we might be able to say that diplomacy succeeded. Success could justify private diplomacy.

However, rather than learning that internal repression has consequences, the Chinese government learned the virtue of patience. Let things settle down and in the long run the Americans will be so obsessed with the prospect of lucrative commerce that not only will there be no trade restrictions, but Americans will not even make serious vocal complaints. Indeed, if you are sufficiently persistent you might even be able to find an American politician for whom illegal campaign contributions can purchase acquiescence.

George W. Bush has in many ways learned from the mistakes of his father. Where his father was aloof, George W. is avuncular and gregarious. However, George W. has inherited much of his father’s foreign policy apparatus. Although that foreign policy team was successful in its prosecution of the Gulf War, they never found a permanent formula for dealing with China. George W. and may be fated to repeat the same mistakes with respect to China.

As this is written, an American EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft brought down by a hot dog Chinese fighter pilot over international waters, is still being held illegally by the Chinese government bent on extracting the maximum embarrassment. Even if you dismiss the aircraft incident as unfortunate and accidental that is only about a little bit of hardware, consider the plight of Li Shaomin. Li was born in China 45 years ago. Li’s father was a Communist Party member imprisoned for his support of protestors at Tiananmen Square. The elder Li was dismissed from the Party and for a time jailed. Cognizant of the restrictions imposed on Chinese citizens, Li Shaomin decided to become an American citizen in 1995. Li is a distinguished academic earning a Ph.D. from Princeton University and a faculty position at Hong Kong University.

The Chinese security apparatus detained Li while he visited a friend in the Chinese mainland. Despite official and unofficial inquiries, the Chinese government has refused to release Li or provide satisfactory information about this American citizen. The Chinese government has accused Li of espionage. Chinese due process allows him a lawyer, but Li has not been allowed to meet with his attorney.

It is the obligation of the State Department to protect Americans abroad and they do not appear to have done so in this case. Perhaps the State Department, in the words of David Tell of the Weekly Standard, is exercising “an expert enterprise so exquisitely subtle that untutored civilians are very often unable to distinguish it from simple appeasement of Beijing’s Communist rulers.”

Any administration has a positive obligation to speak publicly and forcibly on behalf of human rights around the world and certainly for Americans abroad. We do not even have to impose economic sanctions to make our voice heard. Forget about really painful potential reprisals like revocation of most favored nation status for China. This Administration has not even been willing to oppose the staging of the 2008 Olympics in China. The Chinese will inevitably try to exploit the sports event for its propaganda value in much the same way that Nazi Germany exploited the 1936 Olympics. Even a president as weak and ineffectual as Jimmy Carter was able to muster the courage to have the US boycott the Moscow Olympics. This Administration says it is neutral on the possibility of a Chinese Olympics. George W. must either speak out or provide clear evidence that behind the scenes exhortations are reaping unequivocal changes in Chinese behavior. As Dr. Laura would say, “Now go do the right thing.”