Friday, February 04, 2005

And this ... this is the best that you can do ? You're NASA ...

[Title taken from the funniest bit of dialogue in "Armageddon"]

One area that I've been meaning to read a bit about so I can form my own opinion is bioethics, which deals with questions like "Should we be allowed to create embryonic stem cells for research ?", "Is it ever acceptable to clone a human being ?" etc. The problem with all the books I've found so far is that they seem to fall into two camps: one camp's attitude is basically "If somebody wants to graft a man's head onto a lion's body and give him the wings of a condor, why not ? Biotechnology will free us from all our limitations !" whereas the other side seems to think medical knowledge should have stopped at penicillin. There's very little middle ground, which is where I think I fall.

In any case, this article by the director of Penn's Center for Bioethics, no less, seems like a good showcase for the weakness of some of the arguments used in these debates. It centers on the recent case of the 66-year old Romanian woman who had a child and argues that that's too old to have a child. His argument, stripped down to its essentials, is: her baby was born prematurely via a C-section, it had a stillborn twin, she lost one fetus early on in her pregnancy, and [the capstone of the argument] when her child is in high school, she'll be 80. Hence, she should not have had a baby. That's a pretty weak chain of reasoning to base his conclusion on, given that all the issues he listed can and do happen regardless of the mother's age. And saying "She'll be 80 when her child is in high school and hence this should end the argument" isn't even an argument, but just falls into the "some random guy's opinion" category.

So while I agree with him that I feel like 66 is too old to have a child, I can't really subscribe to his chain of reasoning for why that's the case. And while I don't necessarily have a much better argument, I would think the director of a well-known bioethics center, who has presumably thought about this sort of stuff a lot, should be able to do better, especially in a public forum. If this level of debate persists, we're going to have a hard time making any progress on the knotty issues that biotechnology brings up.


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