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My 2008 Predictions in Bioethics: A Mixed Record

Original Article

This has been a very bad year in bioethics, much worse than I imagined only one year ago when I made my annual predictions for the coming year. Still, my record as a prognosticator isn’t bad. Here’s how I did:

I was wrong when I predicted that assisted suicide would not pass in Washington State: The most important event in bioethics for 2008 was passage by Washington voters of I-1000 legalizing physician-assisted suicide. I saw the initiative coming, calling it “an almost sure thing” to make the ballot. I got that part right. But as to the key question, I wrote: “Will it pass? My head tells me that it will: The media is biased; [Former Washington Governor and I-1000 sponsor Booth] Gardner has deep pockets; and, as always, the polls look bad. But my heart tells me that it will fail…The initiative will lose in a very close vote.” Not only was my head right, but it did much better than my worst fears, cruising to an easy 58-42 win.

I was right that assisted suicide would not be passed legislatively : I predicted that despite concerted attempts to pass assisted suicide legislation in several states, none would pass. Bingo. However, Luxembourg is on the verge of legalizing euthanasia. But that won’t happen until next year.

I was right that Futile Care Theory would not advance : One of the big bioethical controversies to come is the claim by many bioethicists that bioethics committees should be able to unilaterally withhold wanted life-sustaining treatment based on “quality of life” judgments. It is explicitly legal in Texas, but as far as I know the futile care agenda did not advance in 2008.

I was mostly right about the year in embryonic stem cell and human cloning research: I made several predictions about the embryonic stem cell and cloning debates, which at the time were expected to be a huge controversy in the presidential campaign. That didn’t happen because of the big induced pluripotent stem cell breakthrough. In any event, here is what I got right:

  • Research into human iPSCs will advance toward overcoming the need to use viruses in the cell reprogramming : In mice, IPSCs have been created without using viruses at all.
  • No laws will be passed to permit egg buying for biotechnological research : Agitation has continued to permit egg buying and selling, but so far, no dice for Big Biotech. However, the UK demonstrated why it is called Brave New Britain by permitting modest financial incentives, such as a discount on IVF procedures.
  • The Bush ESCR funding restrictions will not be overturned : This seems obvious now, but at the time Congress was threatening to pass bills with a veto-proof majority. Thanks (in part) to the IPSC breakthrough, it didn’t happen.
  • There will be no changes in the law about human cloning: Bingo. However, in Brave New Britain authorities permitted biotechnologists to make human/animal hybrid cloned embryos for use in therapeutic cloning research.

Here is where I was wrong: I predicted that “the first human cloned embryonic stem cell line would be created,” because scientists want more than mere embryonic stem cells from human cloning. They tried but the task is apparently very difficult. While there were reports of cloned embryos being created, apparently no cloned embryonic stem cell lines were created – although it was done successfully in monkeys for the first time.

I also missed the extent to which human exceptionalism would be undermined : Last year saw the enactment or near-enactment of some of the most radical proposals in history, which I never imagined would come to pass.

  1. Spain’s Parliament cleared away all procedural impediments to passing the Great Ape Project into law that will create a “community of equals” among human beings, chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, and bonobos in that country.
  2. Switzerland established the intrinsic dignity of individual plants . According to a Swiss Bioethics Commission, it is immoral to “decapitate” wild flowers.
  3. Ecuador granted “rights” to “nature” that are coequal with those of human beings.

The import of this trend cannot be overstated. We are being led by radical environmentalists and anti human exceptionalists toward an international public policy that will sacrifice human welfare and prosperity “for the animals,” or “to save the planet.”

All in all, I was pretty prescient about 2008. Alas, my crystal ball tells me that next year will be an even more difficult time for the equality/sanctity of human life in bioethics and society’s support for human exceptionalism. I’ll tell you what is likely to happen in 2009 regarding these matters in an upcoming CBC report.