ethics

Making a biological child for gay couples

“Is there a way to have two people of the same sex have a kid who is biologically related to both? (Either gay or lesbian couples)”

Short answer: Yes! But it’s complicated.

Long-ish answer: Creating a child from same-sex parents isn’t as easy as just combining the DNA from two eggs or two sperm. The main problem is genetic imprinting, where gene expression is modified epigenetically. That just means the actual sequence isn’t changed, but something else is edited, like adding methyl groups or modifying histones (the proteins that help wind up DNA).

And depending on if you’re a mother or a father, you genetically imprint your gametes differently. And since you generally need one functioning copy of these select genes, it doesn’t help to have two female or two male versions where they’re both turned on or off (too much or too little can both be harmful).

While that seems impossible to overcome, science is pretty impressive. Researchers have already overcome this in mice, where two egg cells were used to produce fatherless mice. So yes, it has been done in another animal!

However, who knows when or if we’ll ever see it in humans. There are always ethical concerns when you’re dealing with human subjects, and it’s hard to predict if offspring would be completely healthy using this method. I think you’d have a hard time getting this past a review board since it’s not a necessary medical procedure – same-sex couples don’t need biologically related children, even if it would be nice. But, you never know.

Why I would be executed in Iran

If I lived in Iran, I would be executed pretty quickly. Some of the things I’ve done that are death-worthy (especially the first one):

  • Enmity against God, corruption on earth, apostasy, heresy and blasphemy
  • A third conviction of drinking alcohol
  • Homosexuality
  • Distribution of obscene/pornographic audio-visual materials

You can also be executed for:

  • Adultery
  • Public order crimes (stop those protests!)
  • Drug possession

Why do I bring this up? Iran Solidarity, headed by the wonderful atheist activist Maryam Namazie, is protesting the execution of political prisoners in Iran.

We have all been in love, spoken our minds, joined protests, political groups and campaigns, poked fun at that which is taboo and taken a stand for what we believe in.

The only difference is – depending on where we were born – some of us don’t live to talk about it.

As you may have already heard, on 9 May 2010 four young men and one woman were executed by the Islamic Republic of Iran after being falsely accused, tortured, and charged with ‘enmity against God’ in sham trials. The executions were carried out in secret and without the knowledge of their families or lawyers. Farzad Kamangar (35 year old teacher and trade unionist), Ali Heydarian, Farhad Vakili, Shirin AlamHouli (28 years old) and Mehdi Eslamian never even got to call their families to say goodbye.

Tragically, these executions are not new. The Islamic Republic of Iran is one of the execution capitals of the world and is the only state that continues to execute minors.

From 13 May onwards join me in protest against the 9 May execution of the five political prisoners in any way you can. Protests have already been taking place in Iran and at Iranian embassies in various cities worldwide, including a successful general strike in Iranian Kurdistan on 13 May. You can join rallies taking place in your city; pass this information on; ask your friends to support the action; write letters of protest; write to the media; raise the issue at events you organise or attend and at your places of work, school and in your neighbourhoods; do acts of solidarity anywhere you can; volunteer; lend your expertise to make publicity materials, translate, fundraise… Demand the expulsion of the regime from its seat in the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women, from the International Labour Organisation and other bodies. Demand that its embassies and consulates be shut down. And call for an end to the death penalty in Iran and everywhere.

Boobquake was a lighthearted event, but there is serious turmoil going on in Iran. You can support the cause and find more information by joining the Facebook page here.

Raised without sexual guilt?

Hey everyone. I’m joining the formspring.me bandwagon, as it’s a good source for blog fodder. Basically you can go here to ask me anonymous (or not anonymous) questions on anything you’d like. I won’t promise to answer everything, but I’ll try. Ones that I really like will become an official blog post, like the one below.

I grew up fundamentalist. I’m also naturally pervy. I lived with a lot of guilt and shame, especially regarding masturbation. What’s it like not to have to live with that? Did you have any guilt at all about your normal sexual leanings?

While I grew up in a fairly secular environment, I wouldn’t say my upbringing was completely guilt-free. My parents actually never had “The Talk” with me, and sexuality was just a very awkward subject. Most “sexual morals” that I learned from them came in the form of rants about other people. My dad was a special education teacher at a city school, and stories about students who ruined their life by getting pregnant were all too common. I remember sitting at the dinner table while he told us how one of his freshman girls was pregnant with her second child, and how she could never come to school because she was so busy taking care of the first. It was never explicitly said, but the message was “Don’t fuck up your life by getting pregnant.”

And to be honest, that’s still a mantra I hold today. I never really felt guilty about sexual things I did, even when I was fooling around back in high school. I never went all the way – but not because I wanted to wait until marriage, or so that I could claim to be a “technical virgin” – I just logically knew I wasn’t ready to deal with the consequences. So I just stuck to watching the videos on websites like https://www.hdpornvideo.xxx/ and masturbating. This was a good way for me to acclimatise to my body and find out what exactly I liked and didn’t like. So many people lose their virginity when they don’t know this about themselves yet. And of course, nothing was stopping me from buying myself some dildos to do the job. The way I saw it, once I was 18 and away at college, I’d be able to buy birth control. And if that failed, I’d be able to get an abortion without requiring parental permission or something. Really, I just put off sex until I knew it could be my little secret.

I used to think you should only have sex with people you really love, but now I realized that’s just what society was telling me I should think. I’m personally not into random hookups with strangers, but I have no problem with casual sex or friends with benefits. As long as everyone involved is on the same page and no one gets hurt, I see no problem with it.

I kind of feel bad for people who were raised in anti-sex environments. Trained guilt is insanely hard to get rid of. I really can’t fathom how people feel guilty about masturbation, or sex before marriage, or multiple partners, or same sex fantasies, even when they can rationally tell themselves it’s okay. Being sexual is a part of being human, and there’s nothing wrong with it, at all. People should be able to have the sexual experiences they desire without having to feel guilty about it. Now, I’ve even seen a lot of shame around going to strip clubs or searching for ‘strippers near me‘, but just know that it’s not bad to indulge in such things occasionally. You can just let go of your inhibitions and have fun for a night, you know. Everyone has urges, and as long as boundaries aren’t crossed, exploring your sexuality and desires should be okay and not something to feel guilty about! It really just sort of sucks. Of course, when things like this get out of hand, such as when you need to learn how to stop masturbation addiction, it is a different matter, but if you are not overdoing it, why constantly feel guilty about something you enjoy? Sometimes I’ll feel a momentary twinge of guilt knowing the majority of society thinks I’m some naughty slut – but you know what? I enjoy getting some, and they can all fuck off.

And that’s really how I deal with any guilt. If I’m not hurting myself or anyone else, then my sexual acts and fantasies are none of your goddamned business. Well, I’ll talk about it if you’re actually pro-sex – but if your goal is to judge me and make me feel bad about myself, then you’re wasting your time.

Abortion & the value of human life

Abortion has been on my mind a lot recently. Not for personal reasons. We’ve been discussing it in my biomedical ethics class, though I’ve unfortunately missed a lot of the discussion because of my grad school visits. On top of that, Angie the Anti-Theist, a blogger I follow, has been generating a media storm because of her decision to live-tweet her abortion. I fully support what she is doing – it’s sad that talking about a legal medical procedure results in shock, hate mail, and death threats.

It probably does not surprise most of you that I am extremely pro-choice. The odd thing, though, is I don’t talk about it a lot. I’m always wary of getting into abortion debates, because I feel like it’s one of those topics that’s a lose-lose situation. No one is going to change their minds, and I’ll just get cranky at the particularly stupid comments. But I also know how important it is to speak up about how I feel:

Even if you could convince me that biological human life begins at conception, I would still be pro-choice.

Emotional arguments about beating hearts and fingers and brainwaves don’t affect me at all. Abortion is unfortunate, but when it is the lesser of two evils, it should be an option. The whole “when does life begin” debate is totally irrelevant to me. And why do I say that?

Because I don’t think we can honestly say all human life is of equal value.

I’d love to be a perfect liberal and say that all human life has infinite value and can never be compared or weighed, but I’d be lying to myself. I’d wager that none of us treat all human beings as having equal value when it really comes down to it. For example, think of this thought experiment:

You have the choice of killing one person or killing five people. They are equivalent in every way (job, age, personality, number of family of friends, etc). Do you kill one person or five? Most of us would say to kill the one. While killing anyone is unfortunate, in this case it is best to minimize the amount of total harm done.

But let’s change it up a bit. What if the one person was a loved one – one of your parents, one of your siblings, your spouse, or your best friend. Would you still kill that one person to save the other five? Most people would not. This illustrates that there is something more to our decision making process than all humans having equal value.

Maybe that’s a bit subjective because of our biology – through evolution we’ve slowly adapted to favor kin over non-kin. And since I don’t believe we should simply be the product of our biology, let’s use a more telling thought experiment: how we treat age. If there was a burning building and you could only save one person, do you save the 25 year old or the 80 year old? Most people say they would save the 25 year old, with their reasoning being that the 80 year old has had time to live a long, fulfilling life.

Replace that with an fetus and a 25 year old.

If we’re using a simple metric of “total years lived,” you could argue the fetus would win – the 25 year old already has lived 25 years, after all. But is number of years lived the only thing we use to assign value to human life? Again, I’d argue no. If there was a burning building and you have to save one of two people of equal age, who would you save: An elementary school teacher or a brain-dead person? A charity worker or a sex offender? A cancer researcher or a grocery bagger? The President or a unemployed alcoholic?

We feel bad about making judgement calls about people’s worth, but it’s something we do. That grocery bagger could be a great human being – but all things being equal, we see the cancer researcher as contributing more to society. Likewise, there are other negative traits we see as detracting. These traits all have fairly subjective value – what’s worse, a sex-offender or an unemployed alcoholic? – but most of us still make these judgements. I’m not at all advocating eugenics or the widespread purging of unemployed alcoholics – I’m just trying to make a point that unless your answer to those questions is “I’d flip a coin,” then you don’t view all human life as having equal value.

So back to abortion.

To me, a fetus is on the bottom of the totem pole. A fetus does not feel emotional pain, does not have conscious thoughts, and does not have dreams to be a big shot football player some day. It does not have friends or families that it has made intimate connections with. It does not have career or life goals. It does not fear death because it does not have the mental capacity to understand what death is. It does not have a fated trajectory in life (you can’t argue that this was the person who would go on to cure cancer). And in the case of a woman seeking abortion, it will not be missed by loved ones because it is not even wanted to begin with.

And to me, these are the things that make us human and give us worth. Not heartbeats or brainwaves or unique genetic composition. If a woman decides that continuing a pregnancy will severely detrimentally affect her life, she has every right to have an abortion. She has all of these attributes, and her quality of life far outweighs the existence of insentient cells.

Yes, quality of life, not just her life itself. To me, the value of an unwanted fetus is low enough to not outweigh quality decisions. An unwanted pregnancy going to make you have to drop out of school? Quit your job? Be depressed and stressed? Feel free to choose an abortion.

Obviously not everyone is going to agree with me. There are women out there who can see four cell zygotes as God-sent little babies. And to those women I say: Great! That’s why I’m pro-choice. If you don’t see unwanted fetuses as parasitic clumps of cells, then don’t get an abortion. But this is one of the few areas that I will concede that philosophy does trump biology – that DNA and physiology alone cannot answer this ethical issue.

Note: There are many points about abortion that I have not addressed in this post, and they will likely come up in the comments. I will probably cover them in the future.

Morality: Philosophy vs Biology

This semester I’m taking an introductory course through the Philosophy department called Biomedical ethics. After four classes, I’m convinced I’m insane for taking this class “for fun.” So far we’ve just been learning about ethics in general, and my brain is already melting. Somehow my mind manages to agree and disagree with about every topic we’re presented, no matter how contradictory they are. I admit I’m totally unfamiliar with philosophy, but right now it just seems like a whole lot of bullshit that grad students pull out of their ass while at the pub.

I’m fine on understanding sound and valid arguments – those are based on logic, which I understand – but my mind explodes when we start talking about various moral theories. I think my problem is that I view things as a scientist and a biologist, and I have a really hard time getting into the mindset of a philosopher.

For example, our professor has spent the last two classes talking about how moral subjectivism (moral statements are true and false, but their truth is determined by the attitudes and beliefs of society and culture) and emotivism (moral statements are neither true nor false) are piles of crap. I don’t know if this is the common opinion of the philosophical community, but it doesn’t sit well with me.

As an atheist, I don’t think moral codes were carved into stone or written in a book. Rather, evolutionary biology and instincts explain most of our moral behavior (I recommend Marc Hauser’s book Moral Minds). We automatically and rapidly come up with moral decisions based on instincts and emotions, and then after the fact we come up with reasoning to support our opinion. So are we really all just emotivists, but trick ourselves into thinking we’re being rational?

I also don’t understand how you can prove something to be morally right or wrong without invoking evolved behavior/emotion/instinct. Let’s say my professor is right and moral subjectivism and emotivism are totally and utterly wrong, and we’re just little logical machines. Whether you subscribe to consequentialist or deontological moral theories (or other ones, I have no idea what I’m talking about), it still doesn’t seem right to me. Let me play the annoying child for a bit:

Philosopher: Stabbing a child in the face is morally wrong.
Me: Why?
Philosopher: Because it lowers the happiness of others/causes harm to others, and that is morally wrong.
Me: Why?
Philosopher: Because that’s the moral theory we’re using.
Me: Why?
Philosopher: *fails Jen*

Alright, yes, I think stabbing a child in the face is morally wrong. And if you asked me to outline the certain moral “rules” I follow, they would generally be to reduce harm to others. But why should that be my rule? Why do we label reducing harm as good? The way this class is teaching it, it seems like right and wrong are some sort of voodoo mysterious universal constants that simply are.

But the way I see it, morality evolved. We want to reduce harm to others because we evolved in a group situation, and the only way we could survive is if we stopped killing our family and tribe members long enough for us to all cooperate. If we evolved in a more independent environment, we may have a totally different moral system. Maybe the moral rule that would have evolved would have been caring only about your own children, and killing other children would be seen as a moral act.

Of course, maybe I’m totally wrong. I’m not familiar with philosophy, and it’s quite possible that I’m over thinking it by wondering where morals even came from to begin with. But that seems like a really important point to me. If instinct decides what’s morally right and wrong, what value do all of these various theories have? They’re not merely trying to predict what humans do do, because we don’t always act morally – they’re trying to say what we should do. I have a hard time accepting that my professor 100% rejects emotivism when everything seems to start there, and then get tweaked by a cognitive theory.

Aannddd I’ve gotten to the point where I think I’m self contradictory and my brain has oozed onto the floor. I really don’t know what I’m talking about and none of this stuff makes sense to me. As this is an atheist blog, I have a good feeling that I have a fair number of philosophers (amateur or otherwise) in my readership. Maybe you all can help explain this to me, because I’m not even making sense to myself.

Word evolution and the problem with “atheist”

The meaning of some words change over time. It’s a common trait of the English language, but can have some potentially negative effects when the words are associated with controversial topics. Most people nowadays consider “idiot” to mean “stupid” or “foolish” and have completely forgotten it once referred to people with actual mental disabilities. The real trouble is when you’re stuck in the middle of a word’s evolution, and you see generational differences. Hearing “that’s so gay” makes me cringe, but many young people don’t bat an eye because they sincerely don’t intend it to be derogatory – it’s just the meaning of the word to them and has nothing to do with ill will towards homosexuals.

I’m sure people write whole dissertations on this topic, but I’m going to focus on one word with particular interest to me and my readers: atheist.

I think we’re seeing the meaning of “atheist” slowly change because of the new vocal atheist movement. Some of you may be thinking, “How can the meaning of “atheist” change? It’s simple!” Hang in there for a minute and let me try to explain, first looking at the typical dictionary definition you’ll get for “atheist.”

From Merriam Webster’s Dictionary:

atheist (n): one who believes that there is no deity

Look okay? It seems to get the key point correct – no deity – but the wording is different than what the majority of modern atheists would use. Here’s how I would define atheist:

atheist (n): one who lacks a belief in a deity or deities

I think there are two key differences between the definition atheists give for themselves, and the definition others give for us:

  1. Some of you may think this is just semantics, but I think there really is a difference between “active belief that something does not exist” and “an absence of belief in the existence of something.” The former requires some sort of proof to validate it, and it is practically impossible to prove a negative. The latter, however, is a completely reasonable view and in line with scientific thinking – it is the null hypothesis, that we will assume the simplest thing (nothing existing) until given evidence that falsifies that. (Nearly) everyone uses this sort of thinking when it comes to unicorns, fairies, and the boogieman under the bed.
  2. The original definition only includes “deity,” which is very monotheism-centric. Atheists do not believe in any deities, not just the one (probably the Judeo-Christian God) that the dictionary assumes we’re talking about (I mean, obviously all those other silly ones don’t exist, right?)

Maybe these things aren’t really a change in meaning, but rather an illustration of the past biases of dictionary creators (and the populous they’re drawing their definitions from). The majority of American-English speakers are theists, so it makes sense that we’d see these artifacts in official definitions.

Being able to define ourselves is great, but the problem comes when we keep changing how we use the word atheist. Often times I see it expanded to be:

atheist (n): one who lacks a belief in a deity or deities and the supernatural

This is different from the original meaning, but most atheists don’t have too big of a problem with it because they also don’t believe in the supernatural. However, there are atheists out there who believe in ghosts, astrology, Qi, and other woo-filled superstitions that aren’t supreme beings. Does that mean they’re not atheists? No. It just means the the majority of atheists, or at least the vocal ones leading the “New Atheist” movement, tightly associate skepticism and atheism.

If we stopped right there at “not believing in any supernatural BS,” we’d probably be okay. But atheists have recently developed a very bad habit – they use “atheist” interchangeably with “secular humanist.” These are the tenets of secular humanism, stolen from Wikipedia:

  • Need to test beliefs – A conviction that dogmas, ideologies and traditions, whether religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested by each individual and not simply accepted on faith.
  • Reason, evidence, scientific method – A commitment to the use of critical reason, factual evidence and scientific methods of inquiry, rather than faith, in seeking solutions to human problems and answers to important human questions.
  • Fulfillment, growth, creativity – A primary concern with fulfillment, growth and creativity for both the individual and humankind in general.
  • Search for truth – A constant search for objective truth, with the understanding that new knowledge and experience constantly alter our imperfect perception of it.
  • This life – A concern for this life and a commitment to making it meaningful through better understanding of ourselves, our history, our intellectual and artistic achievements, and the outlooks of those who differ from us.
  • Ethics – A search for viable individual, social and political principles of ethical conduct, judging them on their ability to enhance human well-being and individual responsibility.
  • Building a better world – A conviction that with reason, an open exchange of ideas, good will, and tolerance, progress can be made in building a better world for ourselves and our children.

Atheists are constantly promoting these tenets under the guise of atheism rather than secular humanism – probably because most atheists are also secular humanists, and the term “secular humanist” would likely generate even more confusion than “atheist” to a layperson. When have you heard an atheist activist simply say “I don’t believe in God” and then leave it at that? They wouldn’t be an activist then. We talk about how religious and supernatural thinking effects politics, we promote science, we debate ethics, and we contemplate the existence of God in a search for truth. Dawkins does it, Hitchens does it, Myers does it, piddly random bloggers like me do it…it’s more common than not.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is our answer to the “Atheism is a religion!” trope. No, I do not think atheism (or secular humanism for that matter) is a religion. There is no dogma, no churches, no rituals, no scripture, no official leaders. Even though we have books and public figures, we often disagree and still think for ourselves. We’re a diverse group, and our most common answer to the “Atheism is a religion!” assertion is usually something like “Atheism is merely the lack of belief in god(s). That is the only commonality we have.”

But is it? I think the meaning of atheism is starting to change to encompass the tenets of secular humanism. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this other than the fact that we’re going to confuse the hell out of many theists and maybe come off as disingenuous. They can easily shoot back with “Nothing in common? But you just went on about how atheists have these certain ethics!”

I think the best thing we can do is be careful in our wording. When you’re talking about a trait other than a lack of belief, qualify it by saying that “most” or “many” atheists feel that way, but that there is no dogma about it. Mention that “many” atheists are also secular humanists before diving into the tenets. Or at the very least, admit that the word “atheist” is slowly changing into something more complex and human – that we’re finally defining ourselves by our positive qualities rather than what we don’t believe in.

Maybe this really isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things. But I know I’m excited that the atheist movement is something more than a lack of belief, and I’d really like to be able to properly define it to an outsider.

Need a new year’s resolution? Support Foundation Beyond Belief

I know I don’t have to explain why volunteering and charity are important and worthwhile. But if you need a little extra motivation to help others, consider Foundation Beyond Belief, a “a non-profit charitable and educational foundation created (1) to focus, encourage and demonstrate the generosity and compassion of atheists and humanists, and (2) to provide a comprehensive education and support program for nontheistic parents.” If you’re sick and tired of hearing people claim that atheists don’t volunteer or care about others, here’s your chance to show them wrong.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-8uhWVgJVqs&hl=en_US&fs=1&]

One life or one hundred thousand?

I just finished watching House, and boy was that ending a doozy. I’ll leave out any details/spoilers for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, so don’t worry. The entire episode was very morally gray, which is both thought provoking and discomforting. It makes you think, “What would I do?” and when you don’t know, you get uneasy.

I’ll present this dilemma since it’s a common thought experiment, not exclusive to House.

As a doctor, you have the ability to end the life of one ill horrible man, an act which will most likely save the lives of a hundred thousand innocent people. If you let the man live, these people will probably die because of his actions. You will most likely not be caught for killing this man, but it’s always a possibility. However, it is your duty as a doctor to save lives. What do you do?

Would your actions be different if you were 100% sure it would save lives, or 100% sure you wouldn’t get caught?

I won’t tell you what happened on House, but beware: read the comments at your own risks. Comments are allowed to contain spoilers about the episode. I’m also not sure what I would do. I may have to stew over it for a while, then I’ll add my thoughts to the comments.