Bioethical Debate

I enjoyed the article on the hazards of bioethics ("Warning: Bioethics May Be Hazardous to Your Health," August/September). As the chairperson of our local hospital's bioethics committee since its inception eight years ago, I have always regarded as my primary responsibility preventing judgmental intrusions on patient care. The most important job of a good bioethics committee is to provide a vehicle for communication-and certainly not to make health care decisions.

Dr. Matt Nesper
Sonora, CA

Ronald Bailey does a remarkably good job developing his case and is the epitome of logic and reason until he gets near the end of his article. Then the wheels get wobbly and threaten to come off. He states: "But a mind-set that involves constantly and anxiously scanning the horizons for problems greatly increases the chances that you will find them, even when they don't really exist." But they do exist, and Mr. Bailey has just finished describing some of them.

He adds: "Agencies like the NBAC [National Bioethics Advisory Commission] and ELSI [Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications program] focus on the problems a new technology might present, tending to overlook potential benefits." The reverse is true. Such agencies generally engage in hyperbole extolling the potential benefits of new technologies, always including a cure for cancer and degenerative central nervous system diseases.

Mr. Bailey delivers the coup de grace when he quotes UCLA's Gregory Stock: "Because there is a desire to get diversity on these commissions, you will always have a significant representation of those who are opposed to the technology. So when you reach a consensus within a community like the NBAC it will tend to be very biased towards being very cautious."

Dr. Stock and Mr. Bailey obviously are not familiar with the National Institutes of Health Embryo Experimentation Panel. It has received little or no attention from the media. There are several facts about this "expert" body, assembled by Dr. Harold Varmus, that are not well known, all of which are important in evaluating the panel's report.

First, among the 19 panelists, there was not one human embryologist. Second, among this group there was not one defender of the sanctity of human life.

When asked to explain this obvious bias, Chairman Steven Muller said, "There is presumably nobody on this panel who believes that there ought to be no federally funded human embryo research at all, because if that's what you believed, that would have been a good reason to say, 'No, I don't want to serve on such a panel.'…So I don't think we have to take a view into account that there should be no human embryo research, period." (NIH Human Embryo Research Panel proceedings transcript, February 3, 1994, pages 97-98). Stated another way, all panel members invited to serve were in favor of embryo research before they were summoned to service. In addition, between 1987 and 1993, 11 of the 19 panelists received NIH grants totaling more than $21,000. A conflict of interest is undeniable.

In addition, the Roman Catholic Church has a well-documented moral teaching that prohibits all embryo research except that which is directed to the treatment and benefit of the research subject. Ethicists would do well to study the church's documents as they attempt to make public policy in the interest of all persons, born and preborn. Until the entire medical ethics community brings God back into the equation, they are destined to fail.

Dr. William F. Colliton Jr.
Bethesda, MD

Ronald Bailey replies: First, Dr. Nesper, thank you for your kind comments, and keep up the good work.

Second, Dr. Colliton, I suspect you will be very displeased with my article in this issue. Government agencies do have a bias toward caution, and the recent report on stem cell research by the NBAC shows it. The NBAC timidly recommended that stem cells be derived only from embryos left over from in vitro fertilization attempts, though some researchers are interested in pushing ahead to create embryos through cloning because stem cells derived from them would be compatible with individual patients' immune systems. I am familiar with the Human Embryo Research Panel's work. The panel's recommendation that some limited federally funded research be permitted on human embryos was overridden by both Congress and President Clinton. You do have a point that the only "diversity" found on most federal panels is based on sex and race, not intellectual views. But this fact is a strong argument for the position that decisions about ethics and values are better left to individual citizens rather than to such panels. As for God, surely you will concede that people disagree, sometimes violently, over what exactly he thinks human beings should do.

More Hidden Taxes

Michael Lynch's article "Taken to the Cleaners" ("Citings," August/September) brings to mind my phone bill:

Bell Atlantic
Federal Subscriber Line Charge $9.57
Portability Surcharge .46
Automatic Savings Charges 1.26
911 Fee .60
Universal Service Fee .40
Gross Receipts Tax Surcharge .63
Federal and Maryland Taxes 1.70
Total: $14.62

Universal Connectivity Charge $.93
Carrier Line Charge .85
Federal Tax 1.25
Maryland Tax .79
Franchise Tax .03
Total: $3.85

These taxes and surcharges of $18.47 account for a whopping 60 percent of my charge for basic service of $30.89. Worse, there are items on the phone bill that purport to summarize taxes and surcharges, only to be followed by further taxes and surcharges not included in the summary. Multiply the $18.47 on my phone bill by the number of telephones in service, and ask where the money is actually spent.

Richard Lange
Rock Hall, MD

Suit Threatens Free Speech

As David Kopel points out in his article on Rice v. Paladin ("The Day They Came to Sue the Book," August/September), a civil case against a small press concerning a book which sold only 20,000 copies gravely threatens the First Amendment. It also has implications for pending lawsuits, such as the Louisiana case involving Oliver Stone's film Natural Born Killers.

As easy as it is to sneer at books like Paladin's Hit Man, and the sort of trashy TV movie scenario that inspired the case, it is just as easy to lose sight of what such wrongheaded judicial wrangles mean. Under the logic of Rice v. Paladin, anyone or anything that produces anything is fair game for short-term individual gain at the expense of everyone and everything else. The plaintiff, as in Rice, may get lucky and win a settlement. Or the judge, as in Hamilton v. Accu-Tek, may torture the law and the jury into an award. Or the money awarded, as in the tobacco suits, may never reach its "victims." But the precedents mount, and each following case rests on these absurdities.

Kopel's call for a harder look at reforms in this area should be given serious attention. As Virginia Postrel and Jesse Walker also inform us in the same issue, the piling on by congressional hearings, public hand-wringing, tort law run amok, and judicial activism is poised to leave more than just those on the bottom of the heap bereft of freedom-and more freedoms at risk than just the First Amendment.

Peggy Tartaro
Executive Editor
Women & Guns
Buffalo, NY

David Kopel's article aptly demonstrates his keen analytical abilities and thorough research. Based upon the reasoning used in Rice v. Paladin, a survivor of guerrilla warfare could sue Leon Uris for writing Trinity or Exodus because they extol the excitement and effectiveness of guerilla tactics against an established government with consequent loss of innocent lives. If one could obtain jurisdiction on the authors or editors of the Bible, I can only hazard a guess as to how many miscreants would attempt to justify their criminal behavior through their fractured readings of the Good Book.

The missing ingredient from these ridiculous decisions is the independent intervening cause that breaks the chain of circumstances leading from a book to action: the mind and judgment of the reader. The wisdom of the ages insists that responsibility for that judgment or lack thereof rests with the reader. Aside from the other dangers of censorship and thought control about which Kopel writes so well, the very essence of a civilized society, based upon the requirement that individuals are responsible for their own acts, is being desiccated by this sort of mindless pandering.

John L. Kane Jr.
Senior Judge
U.S. District Court
Denver, CO